Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race
Abraham Beame was Harlem’s choice as Democratic nominee for Mayor in the September 14 primary. Everything about Harlem seems in need of translation: translated, this event, whatever its consequences for the rest of New York, means for Harlem that Adam Clayton Powell is again the master of its politics. These books define the value of the property.
Kenneth Clark’s Park Ghetto looks very much like one of those moments when a branch of social inquiry begins to step towards becoming a science. What we feel here is the impact, less of a classic than of the rare and special thing which makes some future classic possible. Dr. Clark suggests that we are in the presence of a precursor of the time when our children can study social psychology in some place besides novels. The book was written in isolation; the feelings it expresses are as private as the novelist’s. We are reminded by the shape of Clark’s work, more than by anything he says, of the invocation with which Lord Clarendon, despairing of his society and his personal fortunes alike, started his history of the rebellion against Charles I. “That posterity may not be deceived…” was the aspiration with which Clarendon opened. But he must at once have understood that posterity was much too likely to be deceived; still he went on in stately progress, more, one thinks, from pride than faith, through other implausible hopes for justice, and then settled for the only claim he had, the grand assertion of prerogative upon which the whole dignity of history has stood ever since: “It will not be unuseful, at least to the curiosity if not the conscience of men, to present to the world a full and clear narration…”
Dark Ghetto began as an appeal to conscience, and, in formal argument, its author clings heroically to that structure even after the hope on which it was based had disappeared. Just the same, he knew well enough how much he has been cheated of that hope. In 1961, Clark took command of Harlem youth Unlimited, an effort to change the downward direction of life in Harlem. He began with a $230,000 grant from the federal government; since the appeal to conscience, when it is realistic these days, is an appeal for public funds, he used his grant to send young Harlem residents into the streets for a study of their own conditions and for some divination of a remedy. The result was Youth in the Ghetto, a 613-page report whose special purpose was to persuade government to give HARYOU $118 million for a program of salvation.
Dark Ghetto is a summary of the findings of that report; in formal argument therefore it remains an appeal to conscience. But it is widened immeasurably by the personal sense that no useful public conscience is possible until men are at least curious about other men, a lesson inflicted upon its author by direct experience with ill-usage by the indifferent authority which heard his appeal. The government thereafter gave HARYOU $6 million to begin. That promised the largest sum the public conscience ever put into Harlem, and it was claimed at once by Adam Clayton Powell, the district’s Congressman, chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor of the House of Representatives, and subject of Neil Hickey and Ed Edwin’s new biography.
Powell was entirely satisfied to let Clark construct HARYOU’s program so long as he could name the assistants who would spend the grant. There was a long quarrel—more open than Negroes like to have us see. At its center, respectable opinion was all on Clark’s side, because respectable opinion is always against Powell and for any of his enemies; we do not, after all, like to see Negroes exploited, and Powell, in a social system where men are oppressed by things rather than individuals, has come to be almost the last visible exploiter of Negroes. At the end, of course, Clark had the sympathy, and Powell had the property; on that balance, Clark had to leave HARYOU and comes now to us with the authority of a victim. His quarrel and defeat by Powell is touched upon obliquely by Clark and reported scornfully and directly by Edwin and Hickey, in the latter case as yet another instance of Powell’s concern for himself rather than for Harlem. It deserves more open expression than Clark has chosen to provide and more thought than Hickey and Edwin seem equipped to give.
Harlem is not a community with the resources to support its own social welfare program. HARYOU therefore had to ask for funds from the society outside. The appointed process is not much different from any other appeal on behalf of the blacks to a resident commissioner. Every colonial government learns before long to respect the rights of a recognized broker for the natives; the broker, in the absence of any recognized black governing structure, would naturally be a person and not an institution. Powell is Washington’s broker for Harlem.
But that is also too simple. On his side of the quarrel, Clark had the support of his own broker, J. Raymond Jones, City Councilman from Harlem and the most powerful Wagner Democrat in Manhattan. What made the contest between these two brokers uneven was that Jones’s rule, even when it was secure, ran only to Harlem, while Powell is the chairman of an important Congressional committee and thus a factor in the whole society. His biographers tell us that, when the Harlem Congressional district was established in 1944, Powell at once observed: “The man who gets into Congress from this District can stay there the rest of his life.” Reelection is less and less a problem as his seniority advances; by now he is powerful primarily because he is a committee chairman and not because he is a spokesman for Negroes. In 1962, the Attorney General of the United States was asked to use his influence on Powell and replied, “He is a very important Congressman. He doesn’t ask us for things. We ask him for things.” So it remains unlikely that any Negro, armed only with the resources which authority recognizes as constituting merit, can stand up against anyone, even another Negro, whom authority recognizes as possessed of real power.
Powell is the only Negro in America, except whoever happens to be the heavyweight champion of the world, who can decide matters involving the real property of white people. That condition renders irrelevant, however cheering, the findings of Edwin and Hickey that year by year he has less influence with the ordinary Negro.
But Clark has learned how far beside the point Harlem’s taste in leadership can, be in the real world. Harlem is not an area with choice. Powell is the most powerful Negro politician, not because Negroes accept him as such but because the President of the United States accepts him as such. “The fear among whites,” Clark explains, “compensates for Powell’s actual loss of power in the civil rights movement. So long as people believe one has power it is almost as good as having it.”
Powell is immense also by the mere condition that he is there and that nobody else is. More than any other figure, he has command over the chance of the unworthy Negro to make a living and of the worthy Negro to make a contribution to society. He finds political jobs, of course, for persons who are unemployed and lazy; but he also finds opportunities for persons who are unemployed and energetic. A young Negro lawyer who has no white patron, to take an instance, can look to no Negro patron with the smallest resource except Adam Powell. He is all Harlem has of a Ford Foundation or a Rand Corporation.
Clark’s experience of being deserted by white society in his contest with the one great power force in black society has set him to talking more than he otherwise might about the ghetto which moves with every Negro wherever he goes. Powell is an ambassador from the Negro to government; Clark is an ambassador from the Negro to the public conscience. Neither comes accredited by anything recognized as a sovereign power; the advantage was Powell’s largely because he owned property in the host country. The eminence of each was a matter of indifference to their judges, in deciding what was in essence for them only a quarrel between two blacks over which should control the allotment of money set aside for blacks. Now, both Powell and Clark have gone a long way from Harlem; but, when they quarrelled, each had most of all to protect his own place in Harlem and the loser was exiled. It is the Negro experience to leave home, and yet to endure the rest of his life yoked to another Negro, as Powell and Clark are yoked together in this review for no better reason that these quite different books are about persons who happen to be Negroes and must thus automatically be warped into the same frame. The “A” train still seems to run only uptown.
The most conspicuous notice which has attended HARYOU’s study has been for its discovery that the intelligence quotient of the children in Harlem schools actually declines between the third grade and the eighth. That is a useful statistic because it renders rather less forcible than they have seemed to the President of the United States the less surprising figures which detail the social damage that accompanies the process of living in Harlem: one child in four on public welfare; only half the children living with both parents; one out of every eight adults out of work. Whatever intelligence quotient a child brings to the third grade is in part a survival of all these disasters; then he sits five more years in school and his I.Q. is the less for the experience of education. He has thus been worse damaged in eight years of assistance by the prime instrument society has devised to help him than he was by his five prior years alone against all the misfortunes which society permits to afflict him.
“Among the earliest explanations of the educational inferiority of Negro children was that the poor average performance was to be accounted for in terms of inherent racial inferiority.” Now the explanation is that these children have been retarded by an environment which is the sin of us all. The second theory clearly has more comfort in it; but, in either case, the effect of either is to say that the child, whatever the reason, cannot be taught. Mr. Johnson, at Howard University, tells us about a problem of slums and family decay so massive that it is only sentimental to believe that this society would even begin to engage it; and, in Harlem, one teacher says: “I soon learned that the boys liked to be beaten, and,…when I learned to hit them when they needed it, I got along all right and they began to like me.” We shall not know, as Dr. Clark reminds us quite simply, whether these children can be taught so long as most of their teachers are sure they can’t.
But all that is social documentation, and we can get along without it at least until there is some indication that we have the slightest intent to use it for any good. What is special and irresult of his having been reminded that there is a ghetto for the social scientist in search of a grant just as there is for any child in Harlem: He sat in a Harlem church and heard a lady of substance in the parish “urging Negro women to organize for community reform.”
“On every block in Harlem, she said, a committee should be rallied to buy brooms…She argued that people who live on dirty streets could not hope to gain the respect of others. She did not understand that it is not the job of the people to clean the streets; it is the job of the Department of Sanitation.”
“Among Negro middle-class families the attitude towards sex is vastly different from that among marginal and lower-class Negro groups. The middle-class Negro fears that he will be identified with the Negro masses from whom he has escaped or tried to escape…The men may be impotent, the women frigid, and both afflicted by guilt…a blank and apathetic sexlessness dominates their lives…It has long been an ‘inside’ bit of bitter humor among Negroes to say that Negro men should bribe their wives to silence.”
“Negroes have come to believe in their own inferiority. In recent years Negro men and women have rebelled against the constant struggle to become white and have given special emphasis to their ‘Negroid’ features and hair textures in a self-conscious acceptance of ‘negritude’…But each is reacting primarily to the pervasive factor of race and still not free to take himself for granted…It is still the white man’s society that governs the Negro’s image of himself.”
“The ghetto pathology includes an unwillingness to make any personal sacrifices beyond those already required by the ghetto itself. The ghetto fails to prepare one for voluntary sacrifices precisely because it demands so many involuntary ones.”
“The roots of the multiple pathology in the dark ghetto are not easy to isolate. They do not lie primarily in unemployment. In fact, if all of the residents were employed it would not materially alter the pathology of the community…More important than merely having a job is the kind of job it is…[And] merely to move the residents of a ghetto into low-income housing projects without altering the pattern of their lives—menial jobs, low income, inadequate education for their children—does not remove them from the tangle.”
“Those who have been deeply damaged by the ghetto seem unable to trust even their own feelings. They cannot afford the psychic luxury of depth of emotion. Even their hostility must be kept manageable…The same person might move from indifference to adoration to condemnation of a fellow Negro without his or his audience’s seeming to be conscious of any inconsistency…Given the chronic debasement and assaults on his ego, probably the most difficult feeling for any American Negro to maintain towards himself or any other Negro is that of stable and unqualified respect…The real tragedy for the Negro is that he has not taken himself seriously because no one else has…He cannot win the right to human dignity without the ability to respect and cherish his own humanity in spite of pervasive white rejection.”
All these wages of pain, have been collected and are here spent by a man instructed by his defeats that in facing this future, “one cannot allow oneself the luxury either of hope or despair.”
It is odd that Kenneth Clark should seem to help us as much as he has to understand Adam Clayton Powell and still not understand him himself, being, one fears, too aware of the sin of indifference to notice the variety of ways men find for dealing with pain. Congressman Powell’s biographers are glad, as we all are, to set down as definition the judgment of Ray Jones that Adam Powell has nothing but contempt for the Negro masses. Dr. Clark struggles over, without quite uttering, the same dismissal: “The question arises whether Powell is not actually contemptuous of his constituents.”
But one ends wondering rather if Powell’s contempt is not less for those who surrender to the ghetto than for those who struggle to overcome it. He could hardly be so conscious of his duty to proclaim his sexuality—a posture which is wearing to the most athletic man in his late fifties—unless he feels compelled to wear as his plume what Negroes struggling to escape think of as the identifying stigma of the ghetto.
But then, Adam Powell grew up in a garrison; he was a minister’s son walled off from the sin around him. His biographers tell us that he came to Harlem in 1923 when he was only fifteen and when the area was engaging in that single real experience with the style of display which ended with the Depression in 1929, which has been, its most regular experience since. The adolescent Powell was denied all these transient delights, and his whole life, since seems to have been an acting out of the fantasies that were inflamed and the repressions that were enraged by the rules which confined him. One meets him occasionally in Washington in exile; and again and again he comes back to how much he misses the Harlem bars. Kenneth Clark has learned much and rejected much; we cannot really ask him to believe that somewhere there is a Negro, the dedication of whose life has been to make himself as comfortable as he can, and yet who envies the residents of Harlem and truly believes that the best thing on earth is to be colored and there on a Saturday night.