“My Negro Problem”—II
To the Editor:
Here is where I am: I found Norman Podhoretz’s unfortunate contribution on the stance of one liberal an ugly item. Ugly because of its arbitrary excision of history in order, apparently, to indulge in a personal aggravation against history. It is the only reason that I can think of that his amazing explication preferred to ignore the sophistication of concern with the commodity value of the blanket opposition of an entire people and roam around instead, presumably as befits a “psychoanalytical” age, in the field of narrative of boyhood iniquities tellingly peppered with the traumatic impact of lots and lots of “mo’ f—r’s”. . . .
I mean to say that an attempt to reduce the situation of U.S. Negroes to an exchange of personal memorabilia of the brutalizing hazards of an urban upbringing is a sheer outrage. I would have supposed even that Mr. Podhoretz’s sensibilities would enjoy more dignity had his lingering distaste for bullies led him, if not to a bus due South, then to a fiercely angry, if safe, pen, in behalf of the objects of the most notorious and institutionalized bullying of the moment.
Above all was I struck with Mr. Podhoretz’s hanging implication that he feels absolved from any crimes that might have been going on around here because, after all, his ancestors were somewhere else when the slave ships docked. To long for that particular absolution Mr. Podhoretz and everyone else will have to give up that sweeping phrase which he uses without hesitation in the middle of his article—“we white Americans.” . . .
The main impression gained from the article was that the world is changing and Mr. Podhoretz is agitated because it is so apparent that the liberal ought be saying and doing something; that he ought be stepping into the street to join the parade but that, as always, His Majesty has discovered that he hasn’t got a stitch on, despite the weaving of intricate platitudes of liberalism for generations.
Thus that “blood” which has been flowing in our streets for three hundred and forty-four years of racial antagonism finally seems a threat; that same three hundred and forty-four years of “miscegenation” in which so much blood has mingled that at least about 40 per cent of the writer’s remembered bullies probably were “misceged”—is now seen by him as the “only solution.” This despite the fact that he can only feel “prurient” stirrings at the mere sight of a “mixed couple”; and is sent into ravings and rantings at the thought of his daughter marrying “one.” But history, once again, has not waited for Mr. Podhoretz’s adjustments and education and it would be beside the point that he would probably be confounded in the face of our own black ultras, and not only the “separatists,” who perceive and curse the implication in This House that the presence of the undiluted black is intolerable and therefore this nation must now weigh, in a manner suggesting the taking of hemlock to the lips, sexually absorbing what it will not love! Black pride, including that untouched by fanaticism or racism of any kind, is, it must swiftly be understood, more ferocious than that! The Negro demand is for equality for Negroes; the biological and sociological reality of Negroes as they presently exist. Which individuals shall choose to marry or otherwise have sexual union with whom remains on all counts outside the scope of any kind of politics.
Finally, reading Mr. Podhoretz’s article, I was ashamed for it in a particular way for I thought that I recognized in it an adolescent expectation and hope that the writer would be congratulated by black and white alike on his—“honesty.” As if, somehow, his recitation of perfectly old fashioned racist motifs would lend a refreshing bit of ambiguity to the tasks at hand and be properly appreciated by all like himself who are trying like the devil to avoid the enormity of the actual confrontation before us. It is a saddening posture for the editor of a responsible journal.
I charge Mr. Podhoretz with not dealing with the greater honesty at all; I charge him with offering up a confessional which will merely be a device of those anxious to see the world stay as it is—“just a little longer.” But most painfully of all, I charge him with something I know that he cannot presently appreciate the seriousness of: of having given those impassioned young black folk who have “given up the Mr. Podhoretz’s” a document with which to heighten their ever-deepening articulation of their contempt of his self-exemption. Those of us who feel that we stand between, trying to maintain the chain, have been handed a body blow. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . God knows the white liberal needs help, and both Baldwin from the outside and Podhoretz from the inside have been of help in discussing the problem. But does the February 1963 COMMENTARY hint at solution? Yes, on the last page the editor proposes one. For a moment I thought it was important: the problem will disappear when color in fact disappears. Assimilation and miscegenation he says are solutions. Then comes the letdown: “I am not claiming that this alternative can be pursued programmatically or that it is immediately feasible as a solution,” says the editor. . . . For a moment I could picture Southern Gentleman-hood rolling up sleeves and taking delight in resuming extra-curricular activities which have been hampered for exactly 100 years this winter. But, no, “programmatic” solutions are to be denied the white male, anti-liberal though he be, who works toward assimilation. He is only to talk about it.
It is not the programmatic assumption that disturbs me so much as the theory be-behind it. The footnote on page 93 suggests that the editor is a bit diffident about undertaking so controversial a topic in a journal devoted to better intergroup relations. He should not worry about that. All solutions that can be conceived ought to be proposed in these dark days. He is wary about spitting out the word “miscegenation” though I know of few high religions that intrinsically rule it out, however aesthetically improbable it is to most. There is some health to bringing into the open the most radical solution; it makes the more moderate steps seem possible. That could be in Podhoretz’s mind. But that is not in his words, and we are analyzing words. . . .
Baldwin and Podhoretz and all of us find it necessary to reach back to boyhood to find the matrix from which bad attitudes are born. Here is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant sample. Mine comes from a prairie boyhood in the white-majority culture of Nebraska (I’ll bet neither B. nor P. has ever met anyone else from there!). We loved the Negro because the nearest one was ninety miles away in Omaha and each summer the Piney Woods singers, as they came through town to clap their hands and sing their spirituals, showed us how simple, lovable, and godly the Nigger Soul is. Our Sunday School literature told us that the Jew was being punished because his grandfather had shouted to the heavens and to Pontius Pilate: “Jesus’s blood be on us and on our children.” Like Podhoretz, I was puzzled by this kind of mythological approach. The only Jews I knew were the merchants in Norfolk, Nebraska—five or six of them—who were being punished by making more money than all the gentiles in sight. Everyone knew how the Jews are, after all. But we could love even them. They were potential converts.
Our problems were more with the like, not the unlike. First there were the “Cathlicks.” Tension took no more violent form than the snowball fights with the gangs from the Guardian Angels school. But to be told that Catholicism was a beleaguered minority (even in a state where today it is a majority in only ten counties!) was an unbelievable improbability. Our battle cry was always the plaintive, “They that be against us, O Lord, are more and mightier than those that be with us.” They were consolidated, better organized, and like all Polacks, Bigger than we. We always lost. But we still loved them, for they were separated Brethren long before the Pope started calling us that.
Our problems, the location of our real passionate intensities, were the other Protestants in that Protestant county, the other brands of Lutherans in that county of Lutheran majority. The people we were taught to mistrust, despise, and hate: the people concerning whom we drew practical conclusions that we were to stand off, were the people most nearly like us. We did stand them off, and vice versa. “The United Lutherans are all right, but would you want your daughter to marry one?” was a question that was real and practical and thus more threatening than the dramatic ones Baldwin and Podhoretz ask. I hope the parable seems trivial. God, it was and is trivial! And in its triviality is its point: we do no better with the most obscure and subtle shadings of difference than we do with the vastly different. We do worse. For we: Baldwin in Harlem, Podhoretz in Brooklyn, I in Nebraska, were insecure. The former two had real reason to be—I think—and we did not. In that lies a great sociological difference. But theologically and personally the problem was the same for all of us and remains so.
Our Negro problem; our Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and secularist problem is unbelief. We do not believe anything. We do not really believe in the God or gods in whom we profess to place our trust or in His or their revelations of plans and programs for man. . . .
Baldwin and Podhoretz are showing how Will Rogers’s observation is useless in intergroup relations. They are willing to admit that they did meet men they didn’t, they couldn’t like. . . . But their religion and ours, which let us down at the crucial test, told them that they would never meet a man they couldn’t love. Sociology was against them and us, in boyhood as today. But theology and personhood were for them, and neither they nor any of us will get anywhere if we wait until difference disappears. When difference diminishes we will grow more insecure, more fierce—Next Time, The Fire.
Martin E. Marty
The Christian Century
To the Editor:
Sad, sad are the statements in Mr. Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem—And Ours.” The current militancy (a word coined by whites) of the Negro can be partially laid to just such honesty set down by Mr. Podhoretz. To be more specific, he has revealed the classic in-depth feelings of the liberal now and perhaps always perceived by the Negro.
. . . It appears that it is self-hate rather than hatred that the author feels, and it had early inheritance from school days when he was beaten on the street by Negroes. He quite carefully points out that he did not fight back, hated himself, and transferred this hatred to the Negro boys. Forget about the black boys who have been beaten in the streets, not because of medals, not because of giving correct answers in the classroom, but just because they were black.
So the son of countless victims of East European pogroms and the sons of numerous lynching victims, forced into the poverty box, turned even as rabbits will to a kind of cannibalism. A further line will help Mr. Podhoretz to understand the neo-nihilism of the Negro boys. . . . The Negro has been in America for over four hundred years. From then until now he has acquired little. But an Irishman runs the government with a good many Jews in it (and a token group of Negroes), the old Italian with the handlebar moustache has vanished. Postwar refugees, Hungarian Freedom Fighters, Cuban refugees, all move ahead. The Negro waits, history having a way of by-passing him in terms of advancement. If not in the spoken word all this was the sense of things in the 30’s and now. Those black boys who were the author’s classmates knew it and those who are boys today know it. . . .
I do not agree with Mr. Baldwin’s opinion that every Negro person hates every white person. There are times—God, yes. But hate cannot be lived with continually; it is too energy-sapping and too, too overwhelming in its ultimate sense, a love for those who are so hated.
I cannot understand the shock of the Jews at what Mr. Podhoretz calls “Negro anti-Semitism.”. . . Massive historical conditions which to a large extent have excluded Jews from sharing to the full the benefits of American capitalism, have brought Jew and Negro into harsh commercial contact. It is sheer delusion to ignore the fact that 90 per cent of the stores in Harlem are Jewish-owned or to deny that on the upper West Side where Mr. Podhoretz now lives the apartment-hotels are largely owned by Jews who charge exorbitant rents and permit sub-human living conditions and the accompanying violations. The result of all this is not anti-Semitism, but a striking back at whoever seems to be in control, seems to block the nervous progress of the Negro. . . .
And yet for all this confusion and misunderstanding . . . our primary “advance” organizations are officered, staffed, and superbly aided by Jews. Few people of any other Caucasian kind have been so concerned with the lot of the Negro. A former officer in such an organization remarked privately (for the facts are hard) that Jews realize subconsciously that their future goes hand in hand with that of the Negro. . . . Furthermore, he went on, there is that “tradition” rooted in Judaism which submits . . . not that all men are equal, but that all men shall be equally judged, a concept more splendid at the root than the Bill of Rights.
With such a concept in mind, why is it that the Black Muslims cannot be seen in proper perspective? . . . To my mind their work has been good. They’ve salvaged junkies, worked savagely to replace the pride lost through generations of second-class citizenship. . . . They say they will defend themselves if attacked. Can one ask more of a man? To cloud this issue of self-defense, turn its meaning into a perpetual threatening offensive against whites is to misunderstand for the sake, not of misunderstanding, but to give excuse for additional mayhem against all Negroes. . . .
But I disagree with separation. Perhaps I am blind. Speaking for myself, I have no intention of giving up what several generations of my people have rightfully earned by hard, hard labor. This land upon which we walk, especially the South, was sown with the bones of my forefathers. That is a truth not worth arguing. And, like the Jew who sought Israel, I mean to have it, and further, I will have it and my rights as well.
Mr. Podhoretz is aware of this sense; it contributes, I believe, to his anguish which is painfully clear. For how may a man see the solution of our racial dilemma through legal or condoned or completely acceptable miscegenation, and in the same breath voice his hatred for the mixed couple? But the author is quite through, it seems, deluding himself. This is an important step and indicates, as trite as it may seem, blessed hope for us all.
John A. Williams
New York City
To the Editor:
The publication of Norman Podhoretz’s article is to be commended. The experiences he describes have the ring of truth. Precisely because this “truth” is likely to be distasteful, it is vital that it be presented and understood.
Unfortunately, his proposed solution (miscegenation) does not appear to resolve the issue which he poses. . . . Is the “melting pot” an appropriate goal in the fight against discrimination? Granted that a society is desirable in which miscegenation is accepted, should not the true goals of the humanist in this connection be: (1) preservation of ethnic differences; (2) loyalty of an individual to his own ethnic group; and (3) respect by the individual for other ethnic groups and their members? My belief is that our social health would be better served by the continuation of a variegated culture with respectful competition among the several ethnic groups.
Mr. Podhoretz has, of course, presented the supreme challenge to my position in asking: “In thinking about Jews I have wondered whether their survival as a distinct group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant. Did the Jews have to survive so that six million . . . people should be one day burned in the ovens of Auschwitz?” While this question may, as he stated, be unanswerable, I wonder whether the assimilation of the European Jew could have insulated him from the terrors of Nazism. It certainly afforded no protection to that most assimilated of all Jewish communities, that of Germany.
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . . I feel that Norman Podhoretz’s article represents a beginning of the unpleasant educational process that the “enlightened” white liberal must undergo before any real progress can be made in race relations in this country. Everyone tells everyone else that race relations are just as deplorable in the North as in the South, because there is so much hypocrisy about them here. But to my knowledge Mr. Podhoretz is the first established white liberal to make an effort to explain why, from his own experience and not just from psychological theories, northern liberals are such hypocrites. . . .
My background could hardly be more different from Mr. Podhoretz’s—I am a middle-class, small-town, Midwestern Protestant who had no contact at all with Negroes when I was growing up. . . . I can’t point to any actual experiences in my background that give me a right to the confused and conflicting feelings I have regarding the Negro. But I have these feelings, and I know that everyone with whom I talk about this question . . . has feelings just as “sick” as mine. . . .
Why can’t it be realized (or even discussed), by Negroes and whites alike, that the society that has done what it has to the Negro has also taken its toll among the oppressors? . . . I am convinced that my feelings—and those of others like me—are important, and that if more whites understood themselves and each other we might truly begin, as Mr. Podhoretz says, to free ourselves from the sickness that keeps us and our leadership from being anything but hypocritical in our attitudes. This doesn’t mean that I am so optimistic as to think that, even if we do become more honest, our actions will necessarily be much more positive; I too am a pessimist. But at least it wouldn’t be quite so easy for us to declare that we are free of prejudice, which is the kind of declaration that makes a mockery of liberalism.
I suppose we shouldn’t ask the Negro to try to understand that our feelings, too, are complex and that we too have been victimized by our white society. He’s got enough troubles of his own. But I have tried and I suppose I will continue to try not only to understand the Negro’s position and feelings but to get him to understand mine. . . .
And I will continue to prod my white friends; I think there is no excuse for them, if they have any integrity in this matter, to put off much longer an honest attempt to analyze and admit to their own attitudes. The white liberals are a big stumbling block to the improvement of race relations. (In time this too will become a cliché if it isn’t already). . . . Surely there is more harm in pious platitudes and empty gestures on the part of the white liberal, in the long run, than there is in an honest expression such as Mr. Podhoretz’s, even if it seems unkind or cavalier in the short run. . . .
In all, I am grateful to Mr. Podhoretz for his honesty and intelligence, and hope that more of us, myself included, will be prompted to display some of our own, no matter how unpleasant the immediate consequences might be.
New York City
To the Editor:
COMMENTARY deserves great credit for having the courage to publish what must be an agonizing self-appraisal of a liberal. However, I feel that there are several points in Mr. Podhoretz’s article which merit and undoubtedly will receive vigorous further discussion. His feelings toward Negroes are admittedly conditioned by his childhood traumatic experiences in contact with some of them, yet he somehow fails to grasp the essential fact that Negroes’ feelings toward whites are similarly conditioned by a collective traumatic experience which extended over a period of several hundred years. . . .
Indeed, the profound effect of slavery on the psyche of the American Negro is something which must be increasingly reckoned with by all who are interested in the future of race relations in this country. Frequent or sporadic outbreaks of apparently senseless brutality, violence, and amorality must be viewed against the background of that institution which relegated us to the position of animals, and subjected our forebears to the inhuman condition of being bartered and sold, and bred like horses and cows. . . .
I find it quite significant, also, that Mr. Podhoretz, in company with the Black Muslims and others, in looking toward the future, can envision, with peculiar blindness, only the two extremes of further, more fervent hatred, on the one hand, or miscegenation on the other. . . . He asks, rather derisively, what does the Negro have that could possibly make him wish to survive as a distinct ethnic group, yet, a few paragraphs earlier, he waxes almost eloquent about those very qualities of “physical grace and beauty” which characterize our physiognomy. Perhaps the terms hate-love, rather than hate-envy, could better be used to describe this dichotomy of the emotions, and explain this tendency to think of bloodshed and rioting in the same breath with sexual intermingling, and perhaps the psychiatrist’s couch for all of us would be a fortunate substitute for a mad dash to the marital bed of miscegenation and/or the bloody streets of race rioting.
Most of us believe that there is a middle way, a path which avoids both of these extremes. And the patient, careful search for this way must be the ultimate goal of all liberals.
(Dr.) Robert E. Fullilove, Jr.
Newark, New Jersey
To the Editor:
The significant quality of Norman Podhoretz’s article is the high sense of irrelevance reflected in its personal emphases. The Negro problem in America in the last one hundred years has been the denial of equal status before the law. It is not basically a problem of racial brotherhood. That aspect might take time but we cannot wait, ever, to rely on public attitude in assuring equal status before the law. That must be guaranteed to every individual, particularly against hostile prevailing majority hate.
To the Editor:
. . . As, I hope, a good Jew, and as the wife of a Negro, I think I have some insight into Mr. Podhoretz’s feelings. Even though I must admit I was stopped short by his prurience (disgust?) at the sight of an interracial couple, I forced myself to go beyond that—something perhaps that his detractors have not done—and complete his piece. I want him to know that we—my husband and I—do understand what he is trying to say and respect him for it. . . .
Having said all this, may I then take a few lines to indicate where I think he has not been completely honest—or perhaps realistic is a better word. For example, he says that in the world of his boyhood there was little difference in the poverty of the Jew and the poverty of the Negro. And yet, I wonder if he really thinks back hard, wouldn’t he find that perhaps all—or most—of the shopkeepers—however hard they may have worked and however small their profits—weren’t they usually Jewish? And the consumers—who were perhaps sometimes overcharged or sold defective goods (because, let’s face it, that poor little grocer had to sell the stale rolls to somebody)—weren’t they almost always Negro? The problem with being exploited is that you don’t always see the man at the top. When I was a little girl in the Bronx—we were refugees from Vienna and Hitler, circa ’38—we lived in a neighborhood mostly Irish and Italian. (Incidentally, I was afraid of them as Mr. Podhoretz was of Negroes, and for the same reasons. . . .) My parents, in their stinking little grocery, worked seven days a week, sometimes fifteen and sixteen hours a day, delivering bottles of milk to the sixth floor walk-ups to keep a customer, never looking right or left, but only to “get ahead.” They, on the other hand, had parents who worked in banks, factories, and the like; they got new outfits (cheap, but flashy) for all their holidays (while on the High Holy Days, as well as the rest of the time, I wore hand-me-downs); their parents got drunk every Saturday night, and I, too, envied and despised them, all at the same time. Of course, my parents did get ahead a little, and then they accused us of being secretly “rich” and cheating them!
What I am trying to say is that one serious mistake in Mr. Podhoretz’s generalization about the very real chasm between the races in this country is that he thinks that all white children who grew up near Negroes, grew up with the same feeling toward them. That there is hatred, jealousy, and even fear, I am not denying. But I am suggesting that they are based on something different from what Mr. Podhoretz’s personal case suggests. My husband, as a shy, frightened, black boy from Jamaica, moving to the States when he was twelve, was prone to the same emotions Mr. Podhoretz describes for himself when, on moving into a formerly “all white” neighborhood, he and his friends were terrorized by a group of young white hoodlums whose ferocity might have made a good match for Mr. Podhoretz’s childhood nightmares. Their favorite word may not have been “m’t’r f’kr,” (a word probably originated by Southern whites, according to the best of sources) but they were pretty free with their own obscenities and racial epithets, so it all kind of works out to the same thing.
And still I agree with Mr. Podhoretz—for him, and me, and people like us only—more than I disagree. As I grew older, as the state of Israel emerged, and I realized that to be a Jew didn’t have to mean letting yourself get abused without fighting back, as I learned more about my religion and culture (perhaps fortunately, for my development, not from official sources, but, as with all lonely children, from books), I took the same path he did of having intellectual convictions which were for a long time not matched by emotional growth of the same order. By the time I was sixteen and lived in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Yonkers, I had still had little personal contact with Negroes. . . . Then, I read Native Son, and my awakening nationalism, my new Jewish pride, seemed to insist that I see the fight for Negro rights in this country as my fight. Those few Negroes I had in my classes at this time were similar to the ones Mr. Podhoretz has described, except that this middle-class environment did not permit them to terrorize white children, only each other. Nevertheless, I began consciously to seek to change my feelings—to regard what had seemed to me almost another species (don’t forget I was European, and they were strange to me) as equals. I blush with shame at the thought of all the patronizing I must have done in my own kind, stupid way, on the road to salvation.
This was not meant to be the story of my life, and yet I must, for Mr. Podhoretz, add a few more words. He ends his article by saying what his reaction would be if his daughter decided to marry black. When I was finally faced with a man whom I loved, who loved me, whose simple fault in the eyes of the world was his black skin, I could not morally, intellectually, or any other way reject him for that reason only. What did I owe white? Hadn’t our people been murdered by them for two thousand years? There would have been more hesitation on my part if he had been a practising Christian. And did I not know that the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish? My thoughts of our future children were set at rest in this way. I told my parents of my decision. They were, naturally, quite upset. My mother said I would soon be sitting shive for them. My father—who does not stoop to such tactics—said that I was throwing my life away, it could not possibly work, and they both agreed that we would not be able to see each other if I went ahead with my plan.
It was a lovely wedding. My mother took only a few weeks to come around. She had done everything she could to stop me, and having failed, she still wanted her daughter. My father took longer. . . . Nevertheless, our little daughter has been the apple of my parents’ eyes since her birth, and whatever my papa still holds against the marriage, he couldn’t love her more. She’s almost eleven, incidentally, quite proud of being a “Jewish-Negro” girl, and one of the better students at the Hebrew school she attends.
I agree with Mr. Podhoretz completely about the phony liberals who move to the suburbs, the sick ones who come to Harlem looking for thrills and vitality (and oh, do they get abused for their troubles), and the ones with a double standard of morality. I also think that the many problems faced on the West Side are problems of poverty and ignorance. If Mr. Podhoretz ever meets one of what the late Dr. Franklin Frazier called the “black bourgeoisie,” he will find that he is as frightened of violence, unrepressed sex, and nonconformity as any middle-class Jew. . . .
Finally, as long as Mr. Podhoretz remains on the West Side, probes honestly and deeply (à la James Baldwin), and is willing to contemplate so radical a solution (to what is, after all, an American dilemma) as a Negro son-in-law, then only the foolish and misguided dare call him racist. I call him friend.
(Mrs.) Ronald Gibel
New York City
To the Editor:
My congratulations and gratitude for Norman Podhoretz’s courageous and liberating article. . . .
Melvin J. Lasky
To the Editor:
When a brilliant writer, Negro, describes his childhood and youthful experiences in order to give the unknowing white man a glimpse into the ghetto, this should not constitute an invitation to a less talented writer, liberal and Jewish, to answer with a reminiscence of his own. Unfortunately every Negro knows and understands the antipathy Norman Podhoretz feels for him. . . .
The liberal must begin to understand that Negroes are different from whites, they have a culture white men are not part of. The Negro’s past is no more a stigma than the Jew’s—it is filled with a heroic battle to survive, with poetry and music. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz’s program for miscegenation is a sophisticated racist argument; to wit, we can only solve the Negro problem when there are no more Negroes; everything will be all right when everybody looks alike. Miscegenation is probably the most radical sounding reactionary slogan a white liberal can find. . . . Until Mr. Podhoretz begins to understand that Negroes are human beings who are brutalized in this society, and that it is their responsibility to stop the brutalization, relations between Negroes and white liberals will deteriorate. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
When Mr. Podhoretz in “My Negro Problem—and Ours” writes autobiographically of his youthful experiences with Negroes in a specific part of Brooklyn, I am sympathetic. When, however, on the basis of such experiences, he vaults to the conclusion that “the Negro problem can be solved . . . in no other way” than miscegenation, I must object strongly. . . .
Whether granting the Negro his constitutional rights might lead to increased intermarriage is presently irrelevant. Marriage is a personal decision and one’s sister or daughter can always say “No.” . . . To grant or to deny the Negro his rights as an American citizen on the basis of “the wholesale merging of the two races,” or on the disappearance of color “in fact” is to introduce inflammatory nonsense into an already blazing conflict.
Roslyn Heights, New York
To the Editor:
Having just read Norman Podhoretz’s courageous and strugglingly honest account of the Negro-white dilemma, I am moved to suggest that the prospect is not as near-hopeless as he suggests. Nor as James Baldwin had previously suggested in the New Yorker.
For, Ecclesiastes to the contrary, there is something new under the sun, something I believe that can be “caught, not taught” by the American Negroes and may help them walk with pride down those streets to which, by their own efforts and those of the forward-looking whites, they are now gaining access. This “something” is the appearance on the world scene of the independent African nations and, on the domestic scene, because of African curiosity and willingness to travel, the appearance throughout the country of these new nations’ UN representatives. . . .
By and large—with exceptions of course—these Africans do not have the proverbial chip on shoulder. They are whole and rich and vital persons who turn out to be, with their openness and their humor, more like Americans than are many of the more skeptical Europeans or more reserved Asians. . . .
The result is that, today, when such an African suffers a racial slight in this country, his reaction is not one of diminishment but of righteous wrath. . . . The experience of growing up as part of the majority, a majority, moreover, which in former times had regally ruled itself, appears to be such a wholesome one that not only the person involved but those who later identify with him can profit from it. . . .
For what has been imported into this country, duty-free, as a by-product of the UN’s being established here, is precisely the consciousness of being black as something good, something to be respected by those of paler hue and perhaps thinner blood. The Africans themselves refer to this consciousness as Négritude or The New African Personality. . . .
In addition to the personal impact of these UN Africans, there is also the new political dimension to which Harold Isaacs referred (COMMENTARY, December, 1962). For as the African nations grow individually and collectively in international importance—and if they succeed, as they hope to, in developing a “third force” which may prevent the white nations from blowing each other to ashes—then the American Negro, more and more, may lift up his eyes unto the (African) hills whence cometh what may feel like salvation, namely the removal of the stigma Mr. Podhoretz talks about. The UN Africans in their robes may thus be paving the way for American Negroes not only into previously lily-white restaurants, hotels, and clubs, but, more importantly, into the inner realm where self-acceptance is nurtured. . . .
(Mrs.) June Bingham
Riverdale, New York
To the Editor:
As neither I nor Mr. James Baldwin is a psychoanalyst, perhaps I can with at least equal authority on one point presume to disagree with him, or with Mr. Podhoretz’s interpretation of his feelings. I am a Negro and I do not hate all white people. However, as a sociologist, I have long been interested in the expression of values and conflict within the society of whites. . . .
I believe Mr. Podhoretz’s comments would have represented a more useful agonizing reappraisal if he had chosen to write either as a Jew relative to the Negro or as a white American relative to the Negro. The alternating perspective, incomplete in both instances, weakens the reader’s understanding of either. . . .
To the extent that categorized social relationships can be usefully analyzed between the various groups in America and American society as a whole and/or between themselves as separate entities, it seems clear and supported by data that the relationship between Negro and Jew in either its positive or negative manifestations is not identical with that between white Americans and Jews. That there are certain common features which make them similar in many respects is quite another matter. . . .
A forthright personal expression in the field of race or ethnic relations is always very welcome because it is so rare. Its greater value, however, beyond that of personal therapy, rests on giving it the proper theoretical, or if you will, categorical focus.
(Mrs.) Adelaide Cromwell Hill
African Studies Program
To the Editor:
Mr. Podhoretz’s article is a moving confession of his feelings about Negroes but throws light only on his own state of conflict. It has the virtues of honesty and good will but, alas, not of insight. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz was intimidated and persecuted by some boys acting in groups and singly. Had they been white or mixed or unidentifiable to him in ethnic background, they would simply have been malicious boys. How is it that the fact that they were Negro boys remains so salient in his memory? . . . They could have been identified in a number of ways—“group 3” boys, or boys from a certain block, or boys from bad homes or from the opposing team. It is not the fact of their skin color but the meaning given to this fact in our culture by its agents of transmission that is crucial. . . .
If this were not so, why should it be that many middle-class whites who have never been beaten or threatened by any Negroes, who may have never even been close to a Negro, share the same fears as Mr. Podhoretz (and, I would submit, probably to an even greater degree)? . . .
As any Jew should know . . . the essence of the minority problem . . . is the deeply-held conviction that there exists an evil or inferior Negroid or Jewish essence which makes the ethnic adjective seem appropriate. Otherwise why include it? This is the conviction against which minority group members continually bang their heads in a hopeless and frustrated attempt to demonstrate and explain the facts of biological and cultural life to the majority. . . .
No, Mr. Podhoretz, your experiences, traumatic as they may have been, are probably irrelevant to your present feelings. As a social psychologist once observed: “We get our attitudes toward minorities not from contact with minorities themselves but from contact with the prevailing attitude toward minorities.”
Charles Herbert Stember
Department of Sociology
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem—And Ours” is bound to evoke howls of rage from some quarters, but I found his article both a beautiful piece of prose and an uncommon act of courage. I am not myself a partisan of miscegenation, possibly because it has always seemed to me a union between guilty whites and self-hating Negroes. And since we are all losing our color so rapidly in a world without distinctions, I would prefer a solution which allowed to both races their self-respect, privacy, and special identity. Still, Mr. Podhoretz has carried liberal thought to its inexorable conclusion, an intellectual feat which contrasts refreshingly with the pious platitudes of most white spokesmen, and even with the ambiguous exhortations of James Baldwin, who invariably mitigates an orgy of anger and hatred with contradictory pleas for Love. It is Mr. Baldwin’s individual experience, like that of Mr. Podhoretz, which, if honestly and courageously presented, can be of most value to us; for it is as personal witnesses, rather than as public spokesmen, Brotherhood peddlers, or salvation salesmen, that both are making genuine contributions to this necessary debate.
Department of English
New York City
[Correspondence to be continued next month.]