Chicago Jewish Forum Review
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D Fall 1965
48 THE CHICAGO JEWISH FORUM
Who Speaks for the Negro? by Robert Penn Warren. Random House, 454 pages. $5.95.
The unfortunate title of this excellent book is an obstacle to be gotten over as quickly as possible. The distinguished man of letters who wrote “Who Speaks for the
(Handwritten notes in italics)
Negro?” knows better than most that the question is unanswerable and that “the Negro” is a thoroughly ambiguous term. The question invites patently unsound, simple answers, such as “I do” or “he doesn’t.” We do not need to read the book to find out that there are many, widely varied Negroes, speaking in voices also widely varied.
Various voices are heard, at length and verbatim, between the covers of Warren’s most useful book. He has taken himself and his tape recorder to Negroes in the news, from Martin Luther King to Adam Clayton Powell, and to a sampling of Negroes not in the news. He has asked them leading questions, and recorded their answers.
To make this book, Warren has selected excerpts and written summaries and sketches of the people interviewed. The three long chapters are “A Mississippi Journal,” unified by place; “The Big Brass,” the top organization Negroes in the civil rights movement; and “Leadership from the Periphery,” dealing with Negroes whose eminence is not rooted in leadership roles in the movement. There is a briefer chapter on “The Young” – too young to have made national reputations yet. “The Cleft Stick” opens the volume; it deals with two men, the lawyer for CORE in New Orleans and the president of a Louisiana Negro college. “Conversation Piece” closes the book, as Warren leaves his interviews and writes in his own person.
The greatest value of this book consists of the introductions, in depth, to a series of significant Negroes, by most readers of the book probably little known as individuals and only slightly understood, even if the names are familiar. This is a book to extend both knowledge and understanding. It is a book, also, to destroy many a firmly held notion, if only by some miracle those who without justification think they understand Negro spokesmen could be induced to read it.
These Negroes are significant men. They have been born into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with prejudice, and in their different ways have stared down prejudice. Many of them, a devout person would say, have been and are under divine guidance. Interviews with them illuminate both the timely and the timeless.
Warren’s own last word is that everyone’s self-interest requires justice for all, including Negroes. It is a secular word, unsentimental and rather uninspiring. But it is true, and its general acceptance is conceivable and would be enough to put the United States far ahead of where it is now. His book should do much to encourage that acceptance, and the progress that would result from it. And if one wants fellowship with someone more congenial to him than Warren, one can find it (whoever one is) with some other person whose voice is heard from the pages of this important book.
ALFRED C. AMESCollapse