Fire-Bell in the Night
The stairway smelled of piss.
The smells inside the tenement—number 18,342 East 100th Street, Manhattan—were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life.
This was to be home. It had been home before: for a family of eight—five kids, three adults…The place altogether was about 25 X 12 feet wide, with a wall separating the kitchen section from the rest. In the kitchen was a bathtub, a tiny, rusty sink, a refrigerator that didn’t work, and an ancient gas range. In one corner was a toilet with a bowl without a seat…
This was to be my home.
William Stringfellow, a young Episcopal layman, fresh out of the Harvard Law School, came to this “home,” and lived here seven years. He was not there in any official capacity, and he was not trying to “go Negro.” He was, rather, trying to be himself: “There was no reason in Harlem to repudiate anything in my own history or heritage as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, nor to seek to identify myself with the people of Harlem. What was necessary was just to be myself.” My People Is the Enemy is a powerful record, written with verve and literary skill, of those seven years.
Mr. Stringfellow was in Harlem in a dual capacity—as a lawyer and as a Christian. He believed—as a result of indoctrination at law school, he says—that the health of a legal system depends on whether or not the poor and discriminated against are represented before the law. So he was practicing law in Harlem, to do what he could and to learn what he could. The report on what he learned is not comforting. It is not only that the poor man—say, the citizen of Harlem—does not often get good and honest counsel. He does not get the kind of counsel that understands the terrible vulnerability of the poor and can really grasp what is at stake. But of equal importance, Stringfellow would say, is the need to implicate the law in the realities of daily existence, to free it “from pretentious moralism and from superstition and obsolescence as well.” For instance, he would cite the way the rent control law actually works as contrasted with any high-minded intention there may have been or any deluded notion the high-minded liberal may cherish.
As for his role as a Christian, Stringfellow holds that the presence of the Christian among the outcasts of society is the way he represents concretely “the ubiquity and universality of the intercession of Christ.” He is passionately concerned with a drastic overhauling of society, but he does not confuse either social service or social revolution with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This confusion has led to the notion that problems of education, housing, jobs, garbage collection, discrimination, and a thousand other things, including narcotic addiction, must be solved before the Gospel can be preached; in other words, this form of secularism is equivalent to saying that you have to make a man middleclass before he is worthy of salvation—and is, ironically, equivalent, we might add, to the not uncommon notion that you have to make a Negro middle-class before he is worthy of civil rights including the franchise. This is a form of secularism which Stringfellow has found among some of the most dedicated members of the clergy in Harlem, white or black. Stringfellow knows that this, in our age, is a popular view; he regards it as little short of heresy. Given the context, and the fuzziness of mind among us, to maintain the distinction that Stringfellow insists on requires some courage. It is his way, I suppose, of attacking the either-or-ism which, in phase after phase of life today, would rob life of its density, would make all experience two-dimensional.
Stringfellow sees the problem of race as something more than a “fetish of individuals, a matter of individual prejudice and ignorance,” the view taken by the ordinary well-intentioned and enlightened American Protestant; he sees it, ultimately, as a theological question, an idolatry which prevents men from knowing what it is to be a man. My point here is that, even for a reader of non-theological bent or training, Stringfellow’s analysis does emphasize the all-permeating force of racism, its density of effect on personality and society, and the self-maiming it brings to the racist.
But Stringfellow is not preaching the shallow view that we must have the great change of heart before social arrangements can be changed. He has lived too long with the end result of bad social arrangements to wait for that millenium. Something must be accomplished now. He is prepared to bear witness to the economic gouging, police corruption, police brutality, the callousness—sometimes the murderous callousness—of hospitals, and the irrelevance of social service. He presents this world vividly, anecdotally, and unforgettably. There is shock-value here, but the shock is not presented for the sake of shock. Action is what is at stake.
Stringfellow does not present his Harlem in terms of a devil-theory of history. The human texture is here, and a black man is not necessarily good. But he does hold to some theory of the communal guilt of white man. “No white man is innocent,” he says, “I am not innocent.” If we hold this at the theological level, and see the human situation as a consequence of the Fall, it is one thing. It is quite another thing to read the moral of the little fable Malcom X told me once: “If I go home and my child has blood running down her leg and someone tells me a snake bit her, I’m going out and kill snakes, and when I find a snake I’m not going to look and see if he has blood on his jaws.” I wish Stringfellow had discussed some of the complexities of the world lying between his view and that of Malcom X, for there is a tangle of sentimentality and viciousness paradoxically intertwined in that world; it needs clearing away.
However deeply Stringfellow is committed to the theological view of the world, and however strongly he feels the moral mandate of justice, he knows that theology and ethics refer to unpleasant realities, and he knows that some motives other than love of God or of justice work there. One thing that works is self-interest: “And it is just that which is now at stake—survival of the nation—in the Negro revolution, and no white man need become involved in the revolution, as has been said, because he thinks of it as a ‘good cause.’ He will become involved, he will support the revolution, because his own life and livelihood are just as much at issue as that of the Negro.” For Stringfellow sees the time of total alienation of the Negro population drawing near.
Stringfellow’s book is written from the inside. Fire-Bell in the Night, by Oscar Handlin, Professor of History at Harvard, is written from the outside, from an analytical over-view in which the very virtues must be concerned with an abstract chart of the dynamics of the situation and not with the personal experiences and the personal passions. These are two necessary, but very different, perspectives.
The world Stringfellow pictures is grim. The world pictured by Handlin is even grimmer, a world we shall shortly inhabit if there is no effective policy. Handlin sees in the South and West a vigilante society, and in the North a heightened color consciousness, with the great cities—except for a few heavily guarded islands of administration and finance—occupied almost solidly by a black population. There would be increasing unemployment among both urban and rural Negroes. The police would be able to contain violence, but crime would be rampant. The Negro would have lost his political balance of power by the hardening of white resistance. As tensions reached a crisis, the Federal government would intervene with a dictated settlement to freeze the situation for an indefinite period.
Handlin does not see this nightmare as inevitable. As for ways and means to avoid it, he does not give a blueprint, but does suggest some guide lines. “The Problem,” he says, “is not all of a piece; there are degrees and differences and there should be priorities that will indicate which matters cannot be compromised or postponed and which can, which involve substance and which appearance.” All this is good sense, and is relevant. But what kind of relevance does it have?
For one thing, who lays down the priorities? If the white man—say, the government—lays them down it is properly a matter of public knowledge. But if Negro leadership lays them down, that distinction between musts and maybes will, by the very logic of negotiation and of stud poker, remain face down on the table until late in the game.
Again, when Handlin says that what is most important is “not what advances the interests of one group or another but that which will help all members, as individuals, to co-exist,” he is desscribing the situation which we devoutly hope will come about, but he is not describing the complex and painful human process by which that delightful situation may be produced. He is describing how the democratic process would work in Heaven—if Heaven were a democracy. Or when he says of the Negroes that “a misappraisal of their position…leads some to imagine that what cannot be gained by negotiation may be gained by threat,” he is, in one sense, quite right: it is true that certain kinds of threats are folly, forfeit the Negro’s position of moral superiority, and do backfire to harden white resistance, and it is also true that white good will, or at least enlightened self-interest, is essential. For instance, the federal government would not enforce the voting right unless there were “good will,” a white consensus on this point, the federal government being nothing, ultimately, but an agency for executing the consensus. Be that as it may, in this general line of thought Handlin neglects the fact that power is of the essence of all negotiation. If the Negro does not have a sense of power he cannot, in the first place, negotiate; and if the white man does not believe that the Negro has significant power, in some form or other, he will not bother to negotiate, he will tell him. This is simply the logic of life. It is also the logic of life—of civilized life anyway—that power, to be effective, does not have to be absolute power. Power becomes absolute at gun-point. Even the person with the gun may, however, recognize pressures against using the gun. Both Negroes and whites need to ponder this distinction between relative and absolute power; for some, of both races, fail to understand what is here at stake.
Though Handlin approves of demonstrations and direct action in the South, where the Negro is deprived of the ballot, he sees that tactic as a mistake in the North, again “a misreading of the situation.” But Wyatt Tee Walker, lately of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had already indicated the lack of realism in such a view: the Negro, he says, must “have a crisis to bargain with”—and he often has to create his own crisis. This principle applies, North or South
We know, of course, that there has been for some time great soul searching among Negro leaders about the nature of direct action and the new possibilities; and we know how deep has been the division precipitated after the riots by the debate over a moratorium on demonstrations, most recently, for example, by the defection from CORE of Norman Spencer Hill Jr., third-ranking man and expert tactician. But it would take considerable power of persuasion by Professor Handlin to convince, say, Ruth Turner of the Cleveland CORE, to agree that direct action is outmoded in the North—or to convince, it seems, a number of patrons of the Harlem bars. This is not to say that wildcat outbursts and riots advance the cause of liberty, or that a merely mechanical application of the technique of direct action will serve a useful purpose. But it is to say that Negro leadership—even Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins, being both human and smart—is not going to sacrifice, except for particular situations, manoeuverability and the factor of surprise. It is to say, further, that the demonstrations have served a complex of purposes, and that pressure is only one of them. For instance, the relation of the demonstrations to the problem of “somebodiness,” as King puts it, or “identity,” is central; and, as King says, demonstrations drain off the sense of frustration that would otherwise build toward violence. The nonviolent demonstration has certainly had, too, significant moral effects; and it has a new image of the Negro to the white world as well as to the Negro. Furthermore, by Handlin’s own diagnosis, it has a significance beyond pressure. He says that the desperation of the Negro after the disappointments subsequent to the Supreme Court decision of 1954 derived from a sense of being more and more isolated; now direct action has given a chance for dramatic and incarnate proof to the Negro, by the intervention of white flesh, that he is not isolated.
On the distinction between the situation in the South and that in the North, Handlin bases another and even more important point. In the South inequality has been sustained by law, in the North by a complex of practices and situations; and Handlin says that the Negro’s “inability to differentiate” complicates both situations. The violence in Mississippi, he says, makes the Northern Negro feel that integration is the sole solution, and the emphasis on integration “lends substance to the Southern fear that complete amalgamation will be the result of any approach to equality.”
This strikes me as a tissue of error. First, I have yet to meet a literate Negro who did not differentiate sharply between North and South—though he might agree with James Baldwin that the difference means only that there are two ways to be castrated. Second, I can’t see how it is that Southern violence makes the Northern Negro want integration; the desire for integration has, certainly, many roots deeper than that, one being simply the desire to “belong” to society. Third, though the word integration does carry for most Southerners (and as Professor Handlin no doubt knows, most Northerners, too) the implication of intermarriage, there is a great deal more to the Negro question, even in the sexual sphere, than the fear of “mongrelization.” That fear is often the mask, conscious or unconscious, for other motives, some not sexual at all, some concerning money, for instance, or power or even identity. Here we have, again, an example of the underlying defect of this book—a failure in psychological awareness.
Handlin offers all, North and South, the comforting assurance that the Negro wants equality and not integration—even if, sometimes, the Negro doesn’t know that that is what he wants and all he wants. The fact that minorities, under equality, tend to maintain their ethnic identity is significant, but it is merely statistically significant, and is significant only in a certain range. If we don’t believe this to be true, all we have to do is to think of the number and variety of relations we have with people of Jewish, Irish, or, say, Italian extraction; and those relations certainly amount to integration. And further, who can assure us that these ethnic solidarities will persist?
It is true that many Negroes (how many?) don’t want integration, but there is a real and strong drive toward it. The point is not that, as Handlin would have us believe, Negroes deceive themselves on this. It is that nobody, including Negroes, can predict what integration may mean. The referent of the word is nothing more than a shifting and shadowy mass of interwoven possibilities. It is, in other words, the future. Nobody has ever looked into the seeds of Time, or broken the bank of the future. The future is what we have to live into in order to know it. To live into it successfully we require, most fundamentally, imagination concerning possibilities and the willingness to face them in the fog of contingency.
I have felt compelled to take issue with Fire-Bell in the Night on several important points, but I don’t wish to give the impression that it is not a valuable book. It is valuable, for one thing, as a set of caveats. Even if there is a deep drive toward integration, there is also a tendency, as Handlin says, to take it as a shibboleth, to make it into a panacea or to use it as a verbal solution. Even if power is the essence of the Negro problem, this does not mean that wise leadership is not going to see that negotiation, not threat, is the key to success—and see that power has moral as well as physical manifestations. Even if the machinery of the federal government must be used to give the Negro equality of opportunity, we must beware of the abuse of forced shifts. Even if we can’t expect Negro leadership to put all the cards face up on the table, we can hope that, in the privacy of their councils, they understand the difference between musts and maybes, between shadow and appearance. The white people themselves should even try to understand that. It would make a difference.