Visible Men

The Negro Protest: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King talk with Kenneth B. Clark

Beacon, 56 pp., $2.50

When the Word is Given…A Report on Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X. and the Black Muslim World

by Louis E. Lomax
World, 223 pp., $3.95

It is no news to hear that we are living with a major Negro revolt. For years the foresighted have been warning us of what was going to happen, and we have no excuse for being distressed or surprised now that it is here. Indeed, many of us have welcomed it. We—I mean the sort of people who read The New York Review—can and do congratulate ourselves on the realization of our own program, and celebrate the beginnings of serious integration as at last bringing public policy into line with what we have advocated and practised in our personal relations with our Negro friends all along.

But—as usually happens with attacks of good conscience—such a statement is scarcely out of one’s mouth when it begins to sound awfully phony. There is no point enlarging on the fact that the personal warmth between a minority of “liberated” intellectuals and a handful of highly educated and assimilated Negroes is an isolated phenomenon, although it may be useful to remind ourselves from time to time of the sad reality, provided a note of self-congratulation does not intrude. What is more to the point is that most of us have no knowledge at all of the Negro majority: we drive through Harlem, we exchange a cordial word or two with a Negro cleaning-woman or delivery-boy (perhaps kicking ourselves as we do so at the tone of condescending egalitarianism that has somehow crept in), we shake the hands of our black opposite numbers at the meetings of all the fine liberal organizations that seem to have such distressingly overlapping memberships. Yet most of the time we see our Negro fellow-citizens only from the outside as people remote and alien—like aborigines or a passing show—or perhaps, to echo the familiar complaint, we don’t really see them at all.

Is integration enough? That is the desperate question that assails us. For we know very well that for a generation at least integration can be no more than “tokenism” writ large—that at the deeper level of emotion and instinctive response the old separation will remain. Many—perhaps most—Negroes are skeptical about integration. “Deep down in their hearts,” as James Baldwin tells us, “the black masses don’t believe in white people any more.” They do not trust our promises, and they have only too good reason not to trust them.

In whom, then, do they believe? We do not know—the vast majority remain silent. But at least we have the work of two Negro intellectuals who, themselves unsure of the answer, have set out to enlighten us.

Kenneth B. Clark’s The Negro Protest is the slighter volume of the two and offers the more familiar material. The transcript of a series of television interviews, it presents Baldwin himself, plus Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the Black Muslims. The tone is informal, the order of subject-matter unsystematic. The differences among the three men emerge much as expected. What is noteworthy, rather, is the common tone of urgency they convey—the…

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