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The Question Is Not Answered
WHO SPEAKS FOR THE NEGRO?, by Robert Penn Warren. New York: Random House, 1965. xi, 454 pp. $5.95.
Robert Penn Warren, ex-Southerner, novelist, literary critic, and one-time apologist for segregation writes here about the civil rights movement. Such a combination of author and subject should, one imagines, produce a perceptive and exciting volume. But it doesn’t.
One’s reaction to this book will depend upon how much one knows about the subject. For readers of the Saturday Evening Post, Time, even the New Yorker, it will make fascinating reading—reading apparently jammed with insights and trenchant analysis. But for knowledgeable readers it will
seem a poorly organized, impressionist rehash of what we already know. I found it boring.
Verisimilitude is sought through lengthy descriptions of physiognomy that reveal, in the outcome, extraordinarily little about the persons involved, and by writing that consists chiefly of long excerpts from taped interviews. “Depth” is obtained, generalizations suggested, by asking different respondents the same set of questions, and by a pseudo-“stream-of-consciousness” technique in which Warren constantly interrupts his accounts of interviews to say that while a particular person was talking to him it reminded him of what another respondent had said. The result is repetitive and distracting.
The book makes clear that no one person or organization can speak for all the Negroes but that underneath the variety of viewpoints there is a unity of goals. Neither these facts nor the particulars of the wide range of views among civil rights leaders, will be news to readers of DISSENT, though they may be to the businessmen and politicians who are bewildered and dismayed by their discovery that neither the Urban League nor the NAACP can speak for all Negroes in their communities.
Not only is there nothing new in this book, but what is said is not especially profound; and it is not always even correct. One can overlook such errors as the remarks that Du Bois died in Nigeria, but one cannot overlook the superficial coupling of him with emigrationists like Garvey. One can overlook the fact that Aaron Henry is listed in the index as “Reverend,” but in a book that aims to give incisive character analysis it is harder to overlook the author having missed the extraordinary phenomenon of the Clarksdale, Miss., pharmacist living relaxed in the midst of constant threats to his life and property. Of course, this sort of superficiality is to be expected, given Warren’s limited knowledge of the movement and his journalistic approach (which is not to say that there aren’t a handful of reporters who every month give more perceptive analyses of the civil rights movement than Warren has done anywhere in this book). What people told him for the tape recorder was, as Warren himself notes, not necessarily their real thinking, but what they wanted the public to hear. In at least two cases the respondents clearly succeeded in deceiving Warren as to what they really believed. In other cases Warren’s questions succeeded only in eliciting the most obvious ideas. For example, the probing quality of Bayard Rustin’s mind is altogether missing from Warren’s account.
Who Speaks for the Negro?is the title Warren gives his book. But in spite of the massive quotations from numerous interviews, one receives the impression that the whole business is really a platform from which Warren himself can speak. In the final chapter, instead of pulling together and analyzing his data, the author attempts to interpret the civil rights movement to whites, and to advise them as to how they should regard it. Warren’s views—especially on the question of the white man’s guilt—are of interest in themselves, bearing as Warren does the burden of his own past defense of segregation. But Warren’s personal opinions do not help answer the question posed by the title of his book.
The trouble I suppose, is that Warren is simply not addressing himself to people knowledgable about civil rights. Yet even for them there are a few passages of high value—the illuminating interview with Ralph Ellison; the forthright remarks of Kenneth Clark (Though some of the best ones are from the manuscript of Clark’s Dark Ghetto); and especially the gem of an interview with which the book opens. Because Rev. Joe Carter of West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, lacked the sophistication of the more experienced leaders, Warren obtained from him a genuine account of what it was like to attempt to register in the rural counties of the Deep South.
The real significance of this book, lies not in its analysis of Negro thinking and leadership but as a reflection of the advance that Warren and other sensitive men of southern background have made in liberating themselves from what C. Vann Woodward has called “The Burden of Southern History.”
(Handwritten note underlined and in italics)Collapse