A Southern Prophecy
“There is a saying among the Negroes in Harlem,” James Baldwin said recently, “to the effect that if you have a white Southerner for a friend you’ve got a friend for life. But if you’ve got a white Northerner for a friend, watch out. Because he just might be the kind of friend who decides to move out when you move in.” This is a sentiment which may be beguiling to a Southerner, yet the fact does remain that a Southern “liberal” and his Northern counterpart are two distinct species of cat. Certainly the Southerner of good will who lives in the North, as I do, is often confronted with some taxing circumstances. There was the phone call a number of years ago in the distant epoch before the present “Negro revolt,” and the cautious interrogation from my dinner hostess of the evening: a Negro was going to be present—as a Southerner, did I mind? If I wished to stay away she would surely understand. Or much later, when Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its schools, the deafening and indignant lady, a television luminary, who demanded that “we” drop bombs on “those crackers down there.” (She got the state wrong, Virginians may be snobs but they are not crackers; nonetheless, she was proposing that “we” bomb my own kith and kin.) Or quite recently, a review in The New Yorker of Calder Willing-ham’s Eternal Fire, a remarkably fine novel about the South which the reviewer, Whitney Balliett, praised extravagantly without knowing exactly why he was doing so, charging that the book was the definitve satire on Southern writing (through the book is funny it is anything but satire, being too close to the bone of reality), and polishing off Faulkner, Welty, Warren, et al. with the assertion that Southern fiction in general, in which the Negroes had served so faithfully as “a resident Greek chorus,” had now terminated its usefulness. It is of course not important what this particular reviewer thinks, but the buried animus is characteristic and thus worth spelling out: white Southern writers, because they are white and Southern, cannot be expected to write about Negroes without condescension, or with understanding or fidelity or love. Unfortunately, this is a point of view which, by an extension of logic, tends to regard all white Southerners as bigots, and it is an attitude which one might find even more ugly than it is were it prompted by malice rather than ignorant self-righteousness, or a suffocating and provincial innocence. Nor is its corollary any less tiresome: to show that you really love Negroes, smoke pot, and dig the right kind of jazz.
A tradition of liberalism has of course existed honorably in the South and is as much a part of its history as is its right-wing fanaticism and violence. The South in the nineteenth century had produced liberals of staunch fiber—the Louisiana novelist George W. Cable is a notable example—but less well known …
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