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How to be White

All of my regular readers, assuming I have any, should know that I am a fan of what gets called Old Time Radio. I’ve written about Gunsmoke before, and I think old mass media provides an interesting window into how the world was once viewed — a kind excavation of popular culture and where it intersects, assuming it does, with elite opinion.

By far my favorite show is Ft. Laramie, the story of a group of U.S. cavalry soldiers stationed in Wyoming in the 1870s starring Raymond Burr as Capt. Lee Quince. Forty-one episodes were produced and aired between January and October of 1956, and it’s just about as good as episodic radio ever got. The acting is solid (many of the radio voices who appeared in Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel also make appearances in Ft. Laramie), the writing is good, and most importantly, the characters are complex and the endings are frequently morally ambiguous (for 1950s radio).

You can download the entire series here. Do so. It’s worth the effort.

As with Gunsmoke, Ft. Laramie shares a particular sensibility — it’s liberal, in that it understands the struggles of the Arapaho and Cheyenne, and even empathizes with them. And it believes in benevolent authority.

In one articular episode, “Hattie Pelfrey,” the character of Quince has been wounded while some portion of company is on patrol. He has sent his badly outnumbered soldiers back to the fort, while he and one other solider find a safe place to hide so the captain, who has been shot at least once in the leg, can recover from his wounds.

Quince and Private Harrison are riding their horses looking for shelter — an abandoned cabin, a clump of tress, anything — where Quince can get of his horse and rest.

Harrison: You can’t go on just water, captain.
Quince: It’ll help. We can water the horses too.
Harrison: Not much sunlight left. I hope we find a settler where we could bed down for the night.
Quince: This is Arapaho country, Harrison, they routed out most of the settlers.
Harrison: They sure got a way of acting like they own the place, don’t they? Running off white men.
Quince: They were here first, I guess they’ve got a funny idea that makes this their land.
Harrison: If we’d of had the whole company back there we’d of run through ‘em for sure. Showed ‘em whose land it is!
Quince: It would take an awful good company. Those were dog soldiers leading that raid.
Harrison: Dog soldiers?
Quince: Toughest fighters in the tribes. Handpicked for their daring. Ho-te-min-taneo.
Harrison: How’s that, sir?
Quince: That’s the Cheyenne name for dog soldiers. But most Plains Indians have a select band like ‘em, Sioux and Arapaho.
Harrison: Oh. Guess we were smart to take cover in that canyon, captain.
Quince: I guess we were.

And later that episode they take refuge with Hattie Pelfrey, a woman in her 60s who has lived in this cabin since the 1830s, and she’s stripped Quince and Harrison of just about everything they own in order to let them stay in her cabin. Quince and Harrison heard some Arapaho coming, and snuck outside to see what had become of their horses.

Pelfrey: You just about as foolish as can be, ain’t ya, crawling around in the brush out there. What’s the idee?
Quince: Fresh air, Hattie.
Pelfrey: Got no guns, no food, there’s Arapaho all around. You don’t think too good of your hides, do you?
Quince: Where’s the horses, Hattie?
Pelfrey: Your color’s coming back some.
Harrison: You heard the captain! What about the horses?
Pelfrey: They come pretty high in these parts, young’un. I could get me a passel of things, trading horses.
Quince: You’re real friendly with the Arapaho, Hattie.
Pelfrey: They treat me good. Course, they know Mr. Pelfrey and me come peaceable to their country, not to run ‘em off what rightfully is their land.
Harrison: You never seen ‘em at the killing? White women, babies, no matter to them!
Pelfrey: You ever ask yourself who started it all? I seen it happen, the whites and their guns moving in. It wasn’t pretty work they did. Women, children too.
Quince: They, they let you live here? Hmph. There’s got to be a reason.
Pelfrey: He come like you, full of shot, ailing. White men’s doing. Mr. Pelfrey and me, we took ‘em in, tended him. He was a young chief then, but Standing Bear never forgot, not in all these years. He’s as near to a relation as I got.
Quince: You’re from another age, Hattie, you and Standing Bear.

At one point, as Pelfrey is busy looting Quince and Harrison of their weapons, money, and anything else of value they may have (including Harrison’s ring, which Pelfrey calls “a bit of pretty”), extending a hospitality conditioned entirely on the two soldiers’ ability to pay, Harrison yells at her:

“What kind of white woman are you?”

In these three characters — the Arapaho themselves are merely bit players whose language we hear mumbled, or in incoherent war cries and gun fire — we have three fascinating examples of what it means to be white in America.

Harrison is by far the clearest example. He is the Jacksonian white man. Everyone who is not white is a foreigner to him, not a member of the tribe. In Harrison’s whiteness there is an automatic solidarity, and he cannot understand Pelfrey and the fact she lives at peace amidst a foreign people, an enemy people. Because the land has been claimed by white men and they have exercised white sovereignty — title deeds and annexation backed by law — the Arapaho become interlopers and foreigners on their own land.

Their crime, to Harrison, is acting like white men — like this land is theirs, and they have a right to live on it and an obligation to fight for it. The Arapaho can only be met with violence because they are in the way, because they live and breathe and resist.

Pelfrey’s crime is a failure to act like a white woman, to show solidarity.

Pelfrey shows us another way to be white. Pelfrey basically defected, and sees little of value in being white. Quince is right, she’s the product of another age, when this land — Wyoming — wasn’t occupied by an army, when the United States and the Cheyenne or the Kiowa or the Arapaho were at war. She knows the Arapaho as kin, and is known as kin. She has surrendered her whiteness, at least as much as she can, and did so under conditions in which she could.

She was a minority, she knew that, and adapted as needed.

Ft. Laramie and Gunsmoke are full of characters like Harrison, and they usually cause trouble. If they are underlings, they usually need to be taught. If they are a little higher up the chain of command, their orders or actions always need to be creatively and subtly disobeyed or circumvented in order to keep the peace or do what is right.

And both shows are full of the likes of Pelfrey as well. Scouts, hunters, trappers, traders, men (and the occasional woman) who arrived out west long before anything resembling civilization and its order came. They adapted themselves to the order they found, and ended up being peripherally useful by the time the 1870s rolled around by being able negotiate the space between the defeated and dying order of the natives and the inrushing order of white men.

But the most interesting form of whiteness on display here is Quince’s. He is an example of a midcentury liberal. He is basically a New Deal program manager in the guise of post-Civil War cavalry officer. (U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon is essentially the same character.)

Quince understands exactly why the Arapaho and the Cheyenne fight. He respects them. He sympathizes with them. If the tables were turned, and his civilization was in the throws of utter defeat, conquest, subjugation, and dispossession, he would likely fight back as desperately as he could. He is a keen observer, he’s learned something of their language, their movements, their societies ands cultures, and he’s built relationships of trust of with leaders among the Arapaho and Cheyenne.

The captain wants what is best for the natives, a fair deal for them, and there are episodes in which he fights hard for rations or hunting privileges or decent treatment for those who remain on their treaty lands. He argues stridently with racist officers that the Arapaho are human beings worthy of dignity and resect. But Quince also clearly believes that if the Native Americans are to have a future, it will only be within and as part of the order Quince represents. Quince is deeply committed to the order he has come to enforce. Whose uniform he wears. He never challenges that order. He may challenge particularly awful colonels, with their bigoted and brutal approach to dealing with the Native Americans, but he never challenges the fact the Army is there in the first place.

Quince follows orders, he fights, and in the end, he knows which side he is on. He may sympathize with the Arapaho and Cheyenne, but Quince also knows that as long as they fight, they are also an enemy. He is not afraid to use what he learned against the Native Americans. He is a U.S. Army soldier, a white man, and he will fight, defeat, and subjugate his enemy. Quince, as a character, appreciates the tragic in this situation — perhaps it should be another way, brave men and innocent women and children die needlessly and pointlessly on both sides, but he understands that it is what it is, and there is no transcending the situation.

This appreciation of the tragic uses of power, of one’s place in a struggle one didn’t start and won’t finish, is very midcentury. Quince is, in some ways, as much a victim of the impersonal forces of history as the Arapaho. He exercises the power he has effectively, efficiently, with restraint, with reason, and with as much mercy as he can.

He reminds me a lot of my Grandpa Featherstone. Charles T. Featherstone ran education programs for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for roughly 20 years, from 1948 to 1970, when he retired. He understood and appreciated the miserable situation of Native Americans — “With the exception of the Alaskans, they were at war with the United States, and we conquered them, and it’s that simple,” he said once — and even sympathized with it. At the tail end of his career, he got to know of a number of the leaders of the American Indian Movement, and had a great deal of respect for them and even sympathy for their cause and demands.

But Grandpa couldn’t extricate himself from the very order he had come of age in. From its inevitability. There was no alternative to the American order he represented. His anger at the young men and women of AIM was at their desire to fight against the system, rather than within it. In grandpa’s mind, there was no point to that. You might as well fight the wind or struggle against the rain. Grandpa told me that the Indian tribes were sovereign, but when I pressed him, he couldn’t tell me what that sovereignty actually meant.

It was, of course, easy to be liberal in the 1950s when the “threat” of the Arapaho and the Cheyenne had receded to distant memory, when they were a fully dispossessed and subjugated people whose lives were, at best, a matter of guilty curiosity or administrative responsibility. It takes a confident people to produce a class of Quinces. And we are not so confident anymore.

When I became Muslim, I opted for something more like the Pelfrey approach to whiteness. I surrendered what I could in order to belong to and learn from a people among whom I was a clear minority. And for this, I earned a condemnation from my grandfather — I had betrayed my heritage, my race. We never spoke after that, so wounded and angered was I by his words.

But it’s hard to create a nation of Pelfreys. In fact, I suspect it is impossible. And the era of Quince is passing, if it hasn’t already. Ours is world with little appreciation for the tragic, or moral ambiguity, and uncertain exactly what kind of order it wants.

Harrison, however, will always be in fashion.

Published inAmerican EmpirePolitical economy

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