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The Black Jews of Harlem: Negro Nationalism and the Dilemmas of Negro Leadership, by Howard Brotz

Negro Independence

The Black Jews of Harlem: Negro Nationalism and the Dilemmas of Negro Leadership.
by Howard Brotz.
Free Press. 144 pp. $4.50.

It is unfortunate that Howard Brotz decided to give his book so limited a title as The Black Jews of Harlem. Half of it is indeed about this strange sect—less strange now, to be sure, than when he first studied it more than ten years ago, for we have since learned a great deal about the Black Muslims, and the doctrines of the two groups are amazingly similar. As Mr. Brotz's subtitle suggests, however, the second half of the book deals with matters of much greater significance—the problem of Negro leadership, the Negro situation in America, and the role that Negro nationalism may play in its alleviation. In my opinion, this section constitutes the single most important intellectual contribution to the understanding of the Negro revolution that has yet been written. For me it had an impact equal to that of Stanley Elkins's Slavery or C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow: I felt that I had understood something new. None of the other recent works I have seen on the subject—whether of rhetoric or journalism or scholarship—has convinced me that it was outlining a path which might lead to a better interracial future. Mr. Brotz has.

Mr. Brotz tells us—as a prelude to his analysis of the problems of Negro leadership—that the Black Jews, like the Black Muslims, deny the name “Negro,” insisting that they are really a different people of a religion which was stolen from them by whites and which they must recover in order to become whole again. Both groups violently reject a whole range of lower-class Negro mores—the eating of pork, emotional religious services, sexual promiscuity, flashy clothing, the depreciation of parental authority; these are “niggeritions.” They stress the importance of an education that will teach them who they really are, instead of what they have been turned into by the whites. In the case of the Black Jews, this involves a Jewish education as inadequate as the Muslim education offered by the University of Islam, but the intention and the emotions involved are similar. Again like the Black Muslims, the Black Jews emphasize sober living and frugality, and while they are too small a group to open businesses, they do make certain gestures in this direction—building houses, for example, on a Long Island tract of land they have purchased. The greater success of the Black Muslims indicates that they offer greater attractions than the Black Jews, among which a more intense hatred of whites and a more charismatic leadership are probably the most significant. And, as Mr. Brotz also points out, the existence of real Jews in this country poses a disadvantage to the Black Jews in their efforts to expand. But the doctrine of both groups, exotic though they may seem, is potentially meaningful to large numbers of Negroes; and their success in persuading many lower-class Negroes to lead self-respecting, sober, hard-working lives, has attracted the interest of many intellectuals.

In his discussion of Negro leadership, Mr. Brotz argues that the standard division of Negro leadership into the two modes of “accommodation” and “protest”—a division derived from Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma—leaves no place for the Black Muslims, or Marcus Garvey before them. “Accommodationist” Negro leadership accepts the subordinate position of the Negro and acts as an intermediary between him and the whites; it secures what it can for the Negro community without upsetting the status quo—and derives benefits for itself in a segregated setting. The model for this type of leadership is the Southern Negro college president, Dr. Bledsoe, in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, or, to take a historical figure, Booker T. Washington. “Protest” leadership, by contrast, opposes all the barriers that keep the Negro from full equality; the model here is Washington's great antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois. Initially, protest leadership focuses on the laws and practices which take race into account; next on the major private institutions—especially those dealing with education, jobs, and housing—which practice discrimination; and finally on the factors which are presumed to be at the root of remaining inequalities—the high concentration of Negroes in the worst schools, slum conditions, patterns of advancement within private and public bureaucracies, and so on.

But where does Negro nationalism fit in? On the one hand, it “protests” against the condition of the “so-called Negro,” which it regards as a product of white duplicity; on the other hand, it claims to be indifferent to most of the specific goals of the active protest movements. Thus, Elijah Muhammad argues that rather than try to get into white restaurants, Negroes should be opening their own. Negro nationalism—and this was as true of Marcus Garvey as it is of Elijah Muhammad—emphasizes self-help and community building, just as the “accommodationist” Booker T. Washington did, though the nationalist position certainly avoids the verbal accommodation that accompanied the development of segregated Negro institutions in the South.

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But according to Mr. Brotz, the dichotomy between “protest” and “accommodation” is not only an oversimplification; it also obscures what must necessarily be the most creative and important task of Negro leadership today. His own analysis begins with a rehabilitation of Booker T. Washington, ingeniously based on the work of both Elkins and Woodward. He points out that for a period of twenty years after the end of the Civil War, the Negro—at least the educated Negro—was enfranchised in the South; that during this time an important wing of Southern white leadership thought in terms of a partnership between the two races; that Southern Negroes were elected to state offices and to Congress even after 1876; and that the structure of radical separation of the races through an elaborate system of Jim Crow laws had not yet been erected.

It was in this situation that Washington founded Tuskegee. He saw that the Negro had been denuded by slavery of the qualities necessary for building an independent and satisfying life. Primarily what concerned him—at a time when the great majority of American Negroes were Southern rural laborers—was the devaluation of work produced by slavery, for he felt that independent and productive work was the basis of racial self-respect. But Washington also assumed that the Negroes, as they gained education and income, would be enfranchised and would be able to play a major role in politics and in the shaping of their own fate. He fought desperately against the movement to disenfranchise the Negroes in the South in the 1890's. When this movement succeeded, and Jim Crow began to fasten its bonds on the Negro people, he was left with half a program.

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The other half became the program of “protest,” and indeed as long as the Negro was legally defined as separate and inferior, the most energetic Negro thinkers and leaders could legitimately see no other task for them than the removal of the bonds. But the logic of “protest” led Negroes to construe their condition as solely the product of white activity; and they denied passionately that any action on their part could in any way effect an improvement in their situation unless it led the whites into doing something—first changing the law, then changing the conditions that were defined in subtler and ever subtler fashion as the author of the Negro fate. “The main stream of Negro protest,” Mr. Brotz writes, “found itself unable to argue simultaneously against Jim Crow and for the needs of a Negro community. But this means that it has trapped itself into a rhetoric where it is forced to conjoin its quest for the individual rights of Negroes to the premise that any co-existence among Negroes qua Negroes is degrading (because segregated). . . . One can imagine the impression this point of view makes among whites.”

Obviously, it only becomes meaningful for Brotz to develop such a point because there is, in large areas of the country, a rather meticulous rooting out of all forms of public and many forms of private discrimination against Negroes. In other words, we now have a situation which corresponds—despite the differences—to the one in which Booker T. Washington first saw as his major task the building up of the economic and social foundations of the Negro community. Now I believe that white uneasiness over the exclusiveness of Negro demands for what in effect is assimilation—and assimilation of a more subtle kind than any other group has demanded in America (note, for example, the almost Talmudic arguments about how many Negro students make a school “de facto” segregated, which is quite unique in American experience)—can be analyzed somewhat more extensively than Mr. Brotz has. He does not deny white responsibility for the exclusiveness of the main line of Negro demands. In fact, he points out that this exclusiveness arose just because no path to assimilation was offered the Negro by white America (as, say, Brazil made it possible for the lower-class “Negro” to become an assimilated Brazilian “of color”). “Without this choice, which would give the Negro an objective basis of showing his reluctance to assimilate except on his own terms and where he chooses, the white, no matter how wildly and with what paranoid fears he may exaggerate this, sees the Negro as completely dependent upon him and wanting to fasten upon him like a starfish.”

I think this is true. The point would have been strengthened if Mr. Brotz had analyzed the white side more fully. For paralleling the apparent insistence of the Negro militants that there should not be a distinct Negro community, is the fact that the white side is itself composed of a series of communities, none exclusive or complete, but all with a certain sense of their identity and a sense of some value and distinctiveness. In other words, there is no “white American community” into which the Negro can assimilate, for no such abstract community exists—there are only white Protestant communities, Catholic communities, Irish, Italian, or Jewish communities. It was not white America that rioted when Negro children were brought into certain schools in Cleveland—it was the Italian-American community there. It is not white America that organizes interracial committees to reduce the movement of Negroes into a white suburb in order to keep the whites from fleeing—it is Jewish or white Protestant liberals. And similarly with the restrictive practices of many organizations, whether local craft unions or great banks.

The assimilation of various out-groups into jobs, schools, residential areas, and social life has always been partial in this country. Mr. Brotz's chief insight consists in seeing that such assimilation has in the past been successful because at some point the dominant groups realized that the subordinate ones preferred or expected it to remain partial. To take one example, the Jewish concern over intermarriage—which is real and public—reassures, I believe, some part of the white Protestant world that its institutions are not fated to change completely when, by operating on the principle of individual merit, they open themselves up to large numbers of Jews.

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Obviously anyone who reads about the Black Jews or the Black Muslims would not for a moment believe that any such strategic consideration lies behind their dislike of intermarriage, or their concern for educating and consolidating a Negro community. Nor, of course, does any such strategy dictate Jewish concern with intermarriage. But that is just the point: Mr. Brotz argues that the positive bases for a Negro community do exist. Along with the attack on discrimination and segregation and prejudice, the building up of such a community offers a far greater hope for a better and more self-respecting life for Negroes than the kind of exclusive preoccupation with segregation and discrimination that has developed in parts of the North and the West. Mr. Brotz here discusses forthrightly and honestly the absurd historical claims of the Black Muslims and the scarcely less absurd or poorly based claims of various secular nationalist groups to past grandeur and to the splendor of Negro achievements in Africa. But he points out that a culture or a community need not be old to provide a basis for self-respect. Negroes in America, whatever the conditions under which they have been forced to live, have in effect created a meaningful and distinctive cultural style; and in any case all cultures in the modern world are deeply influenced by powerful technologies, ideas, and styles stemming from a few major centers. Mr. Brotz agrees that whites must accept the obligation to repay the “unpaid debt the United States owes the Negro, who was, indeed, as the Black Jews correctly say, robbed of his self-respect. But in a fundamental sense he can only recover this by himself.”

The connection between the “unpaid debt” and the Negro's need to build a meaningful and respect-restoring community is subtly analyzed by Mr. Brotz. One must recognize, however, that only a few white intellectuals and a few exotic Negro nationalists are as yet prepared to appreciate such an analysis; and that is hardly enough to make it effective.

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