"My Negro Problem-and Ours" at 50
This year marks the 50th anniversary of possibly the most controversial but certainly the most notorious piece ever published in COMMENTARY from that day to this. Its title was “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” and it was written by me. Over the years I have often been asked what impelled (or as it was sometimes put, “possessed”) me to write such a thing when I must have known that (in the words used by a critic when it first came out) “there was something in it to offend everyone.” Yes, of course, I would usually answer, I did know that many readers, both white and black, would be outraged. But contrary to a widely held suspicion that this was precisely my purpose in writing it, I had no conscious desire “to offend everyone.” Nor did I enjoy having provoked so much anger (though I very much enjoyed being applauded by those who admired the essay for one reason or another). In any case, the truth is that both the idea and the instigation came not from me but from James Baldwin. And thereby hangs a tale.
In those days, in common with just about everyone else in the literary world, I considered Baldwin one of the best writers of any kind in America, and among black writers Ralph Ellison’s only rival for the crown. As a novelist, he had produced nothing to compare with Ellison’s Invisible Man, but his essays were much better than Ellison’s, and there was no more elegant prose stylist then writing in any genre in English. Nor was there anyone, white or black, who had cast more light on the complexities of the relations between the races—a subject about which passions ran even higher than they do today and that were about to be further exacerbated by the rise of the Black Muslims.
This movement, whose leading spokesman was the incendiary Malcolm X, totally rejected the idea held by the dominant civil-rights movement that the solution to what everyone then called the Negro Problem1 lay in the “integration” of the two races. The goal of the integrationists, both white and black, was a society in which the two races would live and work and rub shoulders together, and the way to get there was through a gradual dismantling of the discriminatory barriers that were forcibly keeping them apart and denying blacks an equal chance in the “pursuit of happiness.” But the Black Muslims had no wish to associate with whites on any terms whatsoever. What they wanted was to have as little to do with them as possible. Indeed, they did not flinch from (literally) denouncing the whole white race as a creature of the devil.
To the surprise and consternation of the devout liberals who led and supported the civil-rights establishment, the Black Muslims seemed to be gaining influence within the black community. This was due in no small part to the brilliant oratorical skills of Malcolm X, but the main cause was that many blacks were beginning to feel that progress toward integration was too slow and that in the end whites would never stop resisting it.
As for me, I was then on the left and still about five years away from “breaking ranks” with my erstwhile political friends. I was also at the beginning of my fourth year as the editor of COMMENTARY, where a number of Baldwin’s most powerful essays, later collected in Notes of a Native Son, had first appeared. This was before my time, but having traveled for ages in the same literary circle and attended all the same parties, we had come to know each other, and—because I liked him for the work he had done, and he liked me because I admired him as a writer—we had become fairly friendly. Inevitably, then, when it struck me that an important article was clamoring to be written that would explain why the Black Muslims were becoming more and more influential and how this wholly unanticipated development might play itself out, I simultaneously decided that no one could do the job as well as, let alone better than, Jimmy Baldwin. As a passionate antagonist of separationism, he would undoubtedly hold out against the pernicious ideology of the Black Muslims, but as an imaginative observer with a wonderfully perceptive eye and a pen to match, he could also be relied on to understand and elucidate the growing appeal of Malcolm’s message.
The minute I proposed it to him, Baldwin immediately saw the possibilities of such an article and he accepted the assignment with alacrity and enthusiasm, promising moreover to deliver the manuscript in just a few weeks. But a few weeks came and went and then another few weeks, and still no manuscript. When I finally reached him after a string of unanswered calls, he nervously confessed that he had finished the piece but that his agent had sent it to the New Yorker.
Now, selling an article proposed and commissioned by one magazine to another was so egregious a breach of trust and common practice that it could not be justified, at least not in my eyes, even by the fact that the New Yorker could pay him about 10 times as much as COMMENTARY could have done. And to deepen my chagrin at having been robbed of a major editorial coup, it (deservedly) created one of the great journalistic sensations in living memory when it came out under the title “Letter from a Region in My Mind”—and then in book form as The Fire Next Time.
The poet Kenneth Rexroth had recently coined the term “Crow-Jimism” to describe the tendency of white liberals to make special allowances for blacks who were guilty of any sort of offense, up to and including violent crimes. This was exactly how most of my friends and colleagues responded on hearing what Baldwin had done, but I was having none of it. Consequently when, at his request, I agreed to meet him for a drink “to talk this thing over,” I let him have it with both barrels even after the minimal contrition he now showed. His refusal to justify himself was all very well, I told him, but it did not make what he had done any less dishonest and dishonorable, especially coming from someone who went around preaching the virtue of “paying one’s dues.” The truth was that the only reason he had dared to behave so abominably was that, thanks to the white liberal guilt he himself had often written about with the authority of a frequent beneficiary, he could count on getting away with it. But he was very much mistaken if he thought that I felt even the slightest degree of guilt toward him or toward Negroes in general. How could I, when I had grown up in a slum neighborhood where it was the Negro kids who persecuted us whites and not the other way around?
I then proceeded to tell him a few stories about my childhood encounters with black thugs of my own age and about the resentment and bitterness and even hatred with which this experience had left me. It had also left me, I said, with an irritable attitude toward all the sentimental nonsense that was being propagated about integration by whites who knew nothing about blacks and by blacks who imagined that all their problems would be solved by living next door to whites. The trouble went deeper than the integrationists seemed to understand; there was something almost psychotic in the relation of whites to blacks in America, resembling in its imperviousness to rational analysis or political action the feeling of Christian Europe toward the Jews. You yourself, I went on, have told us that all blacks hate whites, and I am here to tell you that all whites are twisted and sick in their feelings about blacks. This was where the Black Muslims, for all the craziness of their “white devil” theology, had a point. But if they were right that integration was not the answer, they were dead wrong to place their faith in separation. In fact, the ideal conclusion to the whole sorry story would be the opposite extreme: the wholesale merger of the two races through miscegenation.
As I talked, Baldwin’s normally bulging eyes bulged and blazed even more fiercely than usual. “You ought,” he whispered as though participating in a conspiracy, “to write all that down.” It was important, more important than I realized, for such things to be said; and they had to be said in public. Thus it was that Baldwin repaid me for giving him the idea and the incentive for The Fire Next Time with the idea and the encouragement for “My Negro Problem—and Ours.”2
Relatively speaking—since the circulation of the New Yorker was about 20 times greater than COMMENTARY’s—the sensation “My Negro Problem—and Ours” caused upon its publication in February 1963 was, in its own league, almost as great as the one that had greeted Baldwin’s piece. Rarely in the history of COMMENTARY had there appeared an article that drew more than a few letters. Even for controversial articles, 10 was a lot and 20 extraordinary. “My Negro Problem—and Ours” drew more than 300, and it also elicited dozens of pieces in newspapers and other magazines.
All this comment did indeed bear out the critic who would later say that there was something in the essay to offend everyone. Integrationists were beside themselves over my dismissal of their ideas as naive and even deluded. Separationists—including, along with the Black Muslims, various other groups waiting in the wings such as the ultra-left Black Panthers who would in the near future coalesce into the Black Power movement—were outraged by the slighting references to the history and culture of their people I made in the course of arguing for the desirability of miscegenation. Nor were black nationalists alone in feeling this way. Ralph Ellison, as fervent an enemy of separatism as could be found, lashed into me in private for my blindness to the central place that black culture held in American culture at large. And finally, many of my fellow Jews were horrified when, piling injury to them on top of this insult to blacks, I said that if the survival of the Jewish people, who carried so rich a culture with them, might not have been worth the suffering it entailed, how much less would it matter if the blacks, who had nothing to lose but their “stigma,” were to disappear through miscegenation.
Still, not everyone was offended. To be sure, hardly anyone agreed with my endorsement of the hope Baldwin had held out in The Fire Next Time that “color as a fact of consciousness” could some day be made to disappear in America and my own addendum that wholesale miscegenation was the only way to banish it. Nevertheless, while taking issue with me over miscegenation, a fair number of the 300 letters we received and even a few of the pieces in other periodicals commended the essay for its “intellectual integrity” in refusing to back away from the logical conclusion of the analysis, however shocking or distasteful it might be. But the majority of those who admired the essay mainly focused on its “honesty” in confessing to feelings that they themselves also unhappily harbored and that they could now begin to confront and try to overcome. Most also commended me for my “courage” in exposing myself so nakedly to attack. And what was most gratifying of all (as any writer will understand), more than a few letters hailed the essay as an exceptionally powerful and eloquent piece of writing
This, then, is how things stood in 1963, and since then “My Negro Problem—and Ours” has been cited and reprinted more times than I can count. I like to think that what accounts for this continuing interest is its literary qualities. But my guess is that another factor was at work that had far more to do than prose style with keeping it alive for half a century. For as the years went on, a curious reversal occurred, as a result of which this essay that originally had something in it to offend everyone turned into a piece that now had something in it to please, if not everyone, then a growing number of both blacks and whites.
This something was the idea that all whites hated blacks.3 Of course, that was not exactly what I had said. My own words were that all whites were “twisted and sick” in their feelings toward blacks. But to many readers, it turned out, this formulation was indistinguishable from the charge that all whites, very much including the liberals among them who had been lifelong participants in the black struggle for equal rights, were incorrigibly racist in their heart of hearts. (As I write, an op-ed piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the New York Times has just leveled this very accusation at all “the good people” living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the very heartland of American liberalism.) And just as I had invoked the authority of Baldwin in saying that all blacks hated whites, “My Negro Problem—and Ours” was made to serve as definitive evidence of the universally reciprocal feeling among whites. The reason it was made to do so, of course, was that this interpretation lent itself perfectly to the view that the “Negro problem”—the only Negro problem—was external oppression, and that nothing blacks themselves did or failed to do made, or could ever make, more than a trivial difference.
It pains me to think that “My Negro Problem—and Ours” may have played a part, however small, in this kind of thing. For the almost complete abdication of black responsibility and the commensurately total dependence on government engendered by so obsessive and exclusive a fixation on white racism as the root of all racial evils has been nothing short of calamitous. It has spawned attitudes and policies that have undermined the very habits and behaviors that are essential to the achievement of independence and self-respect, and it has thereby helped consign three generations of black kids to the underclass while contributing to the immiseration of countless black lives.
It has also had the indirect consequence of fostering thuggery and aggression. In 1963, the stories I told about my own childhood experience of such thuggery and aggression were very shocking to most white liberals. In their eyes, blacks were all long-suffering and noble victims of the kind who had become familiar through the struggles of the civil-rights movement in the South—the “heroic period” of the movement, as one of its most heroic leaders, Bayard Rustin, called it. Although none of my white critics denied the truthfulness of the stories I told, they themselves could hardly imagine being afraid of blacks when their first-hand acquaintance with them was limited to nannies and cleaning women.
Today, it is still other blacks who are most often the victims of black crime, but black-on-white violence is much more common than it was in 1963, so that many whites could now top my stories with worse. And yet even today, few of them would be willing to speak truthfully in public about their entirely rational fear of black violence and black crime. Doing so remains dangerous to one’s reputation: To borrow the phrase I once appropriated from D.H. Lawrence in talking about ambition, white fear of blacks has become a “dirty little secret” of our political culture. And since a dirty little secret breeds hypocrisy and cant in those who harbor it, I suppose it can still be said that most whites are twisted and sick in their feelings about blacks, albeit in a very different sense from the way they were in 1963.
It therefore seems to me that the narrative section of “My Negro Problem—and Ours” is perhaps as resonant today as it was then. I cannot, however, say the same for other parts of the essay.
Obviously I was right in predicting that integration as it was naively envisaged in those days would never, if ever, come about. Yet I have to admit that some of the goals of integrationism have been achieved. For example, a larger proportion of the black community is economically better off than was the case in 1963, and blacks have acquired much more political power than they had then. But at the same time relations between the races have deteriorated. Gone on the whole are the interracial friendships and the interracial political alliances that were quite common 50 years ago. In their place we have the nearly impassable gulfs of suspicion and hostility that are epitomized by the typical college dining hall of today where black students insist on sitting at tables of their own and whites are happy to accept this segregated arrangement or feel hurt at being repulsed.
Ironies abound here. For one thing, this development represented the cooptation of an integrationist goal by the black-nationalist ideal. By this I mean that the process of reverse discrimination euphemistically known as affirmative action, whose intention was to further the integrationist vision of a society in which blacks would mingle on equal terms with whites, ended up serving the separationist purposes of the Black Power movement (not to mention how it also ended up aping the segregationist practices in the South that the civil-rights movement had fought so hard to abolish).
Because I failed to anticipate such developments, I found in 1963 no path to the elimination of “color as a fact of consciousness” except the wholesale merging of the two races. I knew of course, as Baldwin did too, that there was an even smaller chance of this coming to pass in the foreseeable future than the much less ambitious goals of the integrationists. But because my objective in writing the essay was to speak the truth as I saw it and to go where it took me no matter what the consequences, it would have been a cowardly betrayal to shrink from the conclusion to which my analysis inexorably led.
Yet if I did the right thing from the perspective of intellectual coherence and literary fitness, I was wrong to think that miscegenation could ever result in the elimination of color-consciousness. I had already been half convinced of this in 1963 by an angry Ralph Ellison, who stopped me in my tracks, again in private, with the biting observation that, far from making us color-blind, racial intermarriage would only succeed in producing more babies who would be considered black. But what settled the matter once and for all for me was what has happened since the election to the presidency of a pure product of miscegenation. For the ascension of Barack Obama from out of nowhere to the White House has if anything heightened the American consciousness of color. Worse yet, instead of putting an end to the compulsive insistence on the racism of American society, it has given this obsession a new lease on life. Thus, any and every criticism of Obama’s policies is now ascribed to racist motivations, and any and every little incident involving the mistreatment—or the alleged mistreatment—of a black is seized upon and blown up into another proof that racism remains rampant, if largely hidden, in American society. So far has this libel traveled that no less mainstream a personage than the editor of the New York Times Book Review has recently disgraced himself with a long article arguing that the ideology of the entire conservative movement is a covert species of racism, and that this ideology has now infected the Republican Party and sickened it unto death. In this intellectually and morally perverted reading, the party of Abraham Lincoln is magically metamorphosed into the party of John C. Calhoun, his greatest political enemy.
I now think that Ellison was also right to excoriate me for my dismissive attitude toward black culture, and that my Jewish critics were right to take offense at my questioning whether the survival of the Jewish people was worth the suffering it entailed (though at the time, the proximity to the Holocaust made it very hard for me to keep this question out of my mind and to refrain from raising it in print).
On the other hand, though I think what I said about white racism in 1963 was right, the contention that nothing has changed since then seems to me almost demented. Surely the election of Barack Obama proves beyond any reasonable doubt that there is infinitely less anti-black bigotry than there was in 1963, when such a thing was simply unthinkable.
No, the problem today is not white racism. Today the root cause of all the ills that plague the black community is the astounding proportion of black babies born out of wedlock who grow up without fathers, and who are doomed to do badly in school, to get into trouble on the streets, and to wind up in jail. Efforts have been made to blame even this tragic state of affairs on white racism, but they all founder on the simple fact that in 1963, when white racism was by any measure far more pervasive than it is today, only about 23 percent of births among black women were illegitimate, whereas the number is now fast approaching 75 percent.
Which points to yet another of the ironies abounding in this unhappy story. For if there is white racism at work here, it is precisely the perverse liberal variety that lies in the contemporary multiculturalist mutation of such “Crow-Jimist” efforts. A perfect recent example is the Planned Parenthood attack on the campaign launched by New York City to discourage unmarried teenage girls from having babies. Since most of these girls are black, Planned Parenthood felt obliged to denounce the “stigmatizing” assumption that there was something wrong with what they were doing.
Given all these disagreements with my younger self, why have I permitted “My Negro Problem—and Ours” to be reprinted so many times without revision? The answer is that I have always been proud of it for the boldness it exhibited in grappling with what was then, and still is, the most difficult subject for any American to discuss without hiding behind the usual clichés and pieties and without taking refuge in cant.
But to be as recklessly candid about this question as I was about race in the essay itself, I also have to admit that looking at it through the eyes of the literary critic I used to be, I cannot help seeing it as a fully realized piece of writing. It is in the nature of such a work that it achieves an existence independent of its author, and so it is with “My Negro Problem—and Ours.” Almost from the day it was published, I have felt that it no longer belonged to me and that I had no right to tamper with it, let alone to kill it off. All the more is this the case now that it has survived to the ripe old age of 50.
1 In 1963 “Negro” was still in wide use (and so was the term “Negro Problem”), but “black” was on the point of replacing it, and its use would soon become mandatory. In what follows, I have therefore confined my own use of “Negro” to the title of my essay and adopted “black” everywhere else. As for today’s “African American,” I ruled it out because it would seem entirely out of place in a discussion of race in 1963.
2 More detailed accounts of this episode can be found in two of my books, Making It and Breaking Ranks.
3 Some of what follows is adapted from a postscript I wrote in 1993 to a reprint of “My Negro Problem—and Ours” in an anthology entitled Blacks and Jews, edited by Paul Berman.