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Faces of Change
WHO SPEAKS FOR THE NEGRO? By Robert Penn Warren. 454 pages. Random House. $5.95.
This is an important, touching and disappointing book. Poet-novelist-critic Robert Penn Warren traveled through his native South, as well as the North, armed with a tape recorder, his poet’s sensitivity, his novelist’s eye for detail and his critic’s sense of logic and order.
The importance of the book lies in its portrait gallery of leaders of the civil-rights movement. Her are the careful, pragmatic, bourgeois administrators like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, James Farmer of CORE, Whitney Young Jr. of the Urban League; the charismatic, inward-looking, Martin Luther King Jr. and his associates; veteran grass-roots captains like druggist Aaron Henry of Mississippi and lawyer Lolis Elie of Louisiana; the master political helmsman Adam Clayton Powell; the conceptually uncertain but decisively active young radicals like Robert Moses and James Forman of SNCC; and the Savonarola and Psalmist of civil-rights scripture, * James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.
But it is Warren’s own pervasive presence that makes the book both touching and disappointing. For the book is, in good part, a plotting of Warren’s own inner progress from well-intentioned, paternal Southern conservative to his current position of troubled moderate whose basic attitude is still paternalistic, but whose ideological children have all grown up and left home. All the topsy-turvy pathos of the Southern myth is in Warren’s memory of how, as a boy, when he first heard about a lynching, “I knew in shame and inferiority, that I wouldn’t ever be man enough to do that.”
But there is present pathos in the feeling that Warren is inspecting the Negro leaders for rectitude, soundness and sincerity. Indeed, it is the more conservative leaders that Warren feels most comfortable with. He quotes, with tacit approval, Roy Wilkins’ comment on the Negro: “I think he’s a liberal only on the face question. I mean, I think he is a conservative economically.
Against this confident, middle-of-the
Newsweek, June 7, 1965
* Picture of Robert Penn Warren inserted into article – wording underneath picture reads – Warren Troubled progress
road attitude, Warren sees the younger Negro leaders as troubled, agonized, uncertain—even somewhat neurotic. Robert Moses, who has an “aimless abstract handshake,” sounds like a new Hamlet: “The country has such tremendous problems—I mean every time you try and get a breakthrough in, say, the Negro problem, you run into a deeper, tremendous problem that the whole country has to face. Jobs … education … automation … armament. I get lost.”
Ellison: Warren is sharp and keen on Malcolm X (“He is, like all men of power, a flirt; he flirts with destiny”) and James Baldwin (“the choked cry of rage, of self-pity struggling … to become pity”). But Ellison is his man, Ellison who sees the positive side of the Negro tragedy, who says, “Negroes have achieved a very rich humanity despite these restrictive conditions.” Although he is a poet, an artist, Warren shies away from the apocalyptic view, even the tragic view, of the race crisis.
At one point Warren confesses to “a cold flash of rage” at the “moral condescension” to him of one of the Negro leaders. “The Negro Movement,” he says, “is fueled by a sense of moral superiority.” But he himself can say, with some condescension, that “the Negro leadership has given the public little reason to be appalled.” Still, in the end, the importance of this investigation is its powerful, plodding documentation of the inevitability of profound change by one of the most discerning minds of Southern culture.
In many ways the most impressive figure in his gallery is that of the Rev. Joe Carter of Louisiana, who looks like “a black Robert Frost,” and who tried to register because he heard on television that “the gov’mint say for us to vote.” Carter is turned back, balked, stripped, jailed. The cuffs close over one wrist, and “when I heard the handcuff lock, I just laid the other one back there.” At that moment, Carter symbolizes present tragedy and future victory, for he finally does register. He becomes the Negro, of whom Warren says: “He is … the ‘existentialist’ American … His role is to dramatize the most inward revelation of that culture.”