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.
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