Rebellion or Revolution?
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone
Soul on Ice
Just to set down the phrase “Negro Literature” releases in any sensible mind all the ambiguities of a situation that has become so viciously consuming, so semantically, aesthetically, and politically abrasive, that there might seem to be now no way of treating the works of black writers except as curious symptoms of a social agony. Negro critics and polemicists are continually demanding that a literature arise to complement the new racial psychology, a literature with its own identity and standards that will break away from Western traditions of judgment and become a special expression of the black sensibility.
Exactly what that sensibility is, of course, no one seems to know, but publishing companies are ready to piece together anthologies with titles like Black Voices, Dark Symphony, Black Fire, etc., to help one to discover its essence. Almost everywhere he turns, the Negro writer is exhorted to catch up with his musical counter-part, to prove that he can match the examples of cultural genius found in jazz. Short of this, the very least that is expected of him is that he be relevant to his people, true to his origins, and, in other words, not write like Henry James. For example, in his new book Rebellion or Revolution?, Harold Cruse says that economic and political revolution is unfeasible for the Negro in America, and he calls instead for a cultural upheaval, but with the warning that the black writer does not necessarily achieve universality by denying his ethnic base and that his only hope is to escape from the decadent standards of European civilization and go it on his own.
Now Cruse is one of the best historians of Negro ideology writing today, and Rebellion or Revolution? contains brilliant analyses of the difficulties in extracting from Western revolutionary philosophy a workable political program for the American Negro. Yet, at the same time, Cruse wants a vague, literary négritude to arise, as though art, too, did not have historical complications for the new activist principles of the Negro movement in the United States. Like most social critics, Cruse simply wants good, black writers to spring up at this crucial moment for the Negro, and he shows an impatience for their arrival which he would never permit himself to have as a political theorist; for if “Buy Black” is a crude and ineffectual rebuttal to a white, capitalistic economy, what can be expected from the infinitely less precise admonition, “Create Black”?
Faced with these imperatives—imperatives it would take egomaniacal strength to ignore—the Negro writer is caught in an agonizing cultural dilemma. The deeper one goes into recent black writing, the more one feels this tension, this furibund effort to unearth the culturally correct form which will display the Afro-American spirit, the basic folk consciousness. The new, indigenous, non-European vision which Whitman wanted for American literature in general, young black writers are trying to particularize for themselves in African ritual, the rebel slave, the black musician, and the sense of fraternity against the white world, which they view, in their stories, as the Evil Forest where nothing is as it seems and everything is threatening. Writers like Wright and Ellison once felt obliged to make forays into this Forest, where they did battle with sexual fantasies, liberal naïveté, Marxist pragmatics, proletarian violence, and the anguish that came when there seemed to be no way of leaving the wood with the mind intact. Few black writers now find it necessary to engage in these matters: they acknowledge that they are there, but they deal with them by a priori incineration, indiscriminately laying to rest all the beasts that used to provide the adventure in black narratives.
Black Fire, an anthology edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, presents numerous examples of this quest to obliterate at last what W. E. B. DuBois called “the double consciousness” of the black man in America. Each poem and story, explicitly and self-consciously, makes it clear that its purpose is to define and glorify an attitude toward race that is all of a piece and all of a color. Given LeRoi Jones’s aesthetic views, the unanimity of tone in this volume is not difficult to understand, but it would be a mistake to assume that Black Fire is an exercise in propaganda organized by him. The contributors—almost all of them under forty, many under thirty—are responding to the rhetoric of the search for identity that has been fashionable in popular journals for years and in the black community for decades. Of course, this hyperbole of rebellion contains enough truth to make a literary transcription of it seem simple and tempting to the writer.
Now there is nothing wrong with this so long as it is remembered that cultural definitions do not apply so readily to art as they do to political agitation. Indeed, in so far as literature serves a people as a cultural symbol, it generally excoriates and laments their experience, drawing out through legends of weakness, suffering, and bad practice the fiber that will bind a group together and give it a common sense of endemic agonies that must be lived with in awe and with humor. Even though it can be said that to isolate the Negro consciousness apart from the traditions—American and European—with which it has been in close commerce for over 300 years is virtually impossible, the yearning for an exclusive body of writing peculiarly responsive to the black experience is not in itself a critical contradiction. What I find disheartening in the representative fiction, poetry, and drama of Black Fire is that the writers do just the opposite: for all their febrile rage, they are still playing off and defining themselves against the white world, or, rather, their concept of that world. Loathing the stereotypes of the past, they nevertheless affect a schematic pose every bit as false as any Sambo conjured up in the Hollywood mind, and one can only wonder, when the editor, Larry Neal, speaks of seeking living models for black literature in Negro folk culture, how he could have selected most of these pieces which are the very antithesis of that culture.
For one of the solid virtues of Negro art in America, from the Br’er Rabbit tales to the solos of John Coltrane, is its lack of sentimentality, its insistence that life be peeled down to its real pains before it can be honestly made livable. The dissembling which was a way of coexisting with the dangerous vagaries of the white world was not practiced at those deeper levels of self-expression which were meaningful, or which suited a true folk art.
But the writers in Black Fire present pain with the lucidity of Victorian melodrama: dying revolutionaries clasp their comrades’ hands before going out to meet death; a young militant machine-guns his mother down for calling him a nigger and then expires from his wounds, uttering the words, “We’re…new men, Mama…Not Niggers. Black men”; a white man is burned on an inverted cross, another shot down by a “cultural arrow”; a boy fights off white bullies at school; an Uncle Tom preacher receives the militant message from a folksy burglar pretending to be God—the catalogue of sweet contrivance in this anthology is a long one, and it suffocates any feelings one has about the conditions that have produced this histrionic sloganeering. One can speak of this as literature for the folk, for the community, but how can these grim simplicities have any relevance to people whose cultural strength is a strong sense of ironic humor? Perhaps “the people” can be marshaled into having a respectful attitude toward this peremptory and political literature, but this will mean just another variant of the schizophrenic aesthetic which wants art to be both “real” and “acceptable.”
One can well imagine that this sort of anthology is an omen of what will be coming from a great many black writers in the next few years. There will be more and more proclamations of Blackness, more claims to “soul” in place of demonstrations of it, and more undigested anger within wide margins which call themselves poems. This is no more lamentable than other literary grotesques that, in our well-read age, find an audience; what needs to be challenged, however, is the assumption that this style is getting to the nerve of a people, continuing and elaborating on a folk tradition. I have already mentioned several contradictions within this notion, but it should be further stated that the tradition in question has more levels and more complexities than is recognized by those who wish to absorb it into a new literature.
It may once have been true that Negro literature consisted of a subculture of simple parables, but it is no longer so. If one is to look for fullness of expression in black literature, one must confront the work done by novelists like Ellison and Wright and poets like Melvin Tolson. Their art, too, is part of a people’s consciousness and it has set standards of nuance and truth that any writer can learn from. To say, as Larry Neal does, that Native Son and Invisible Man are no longer particularly relevant to the new black attitude is to say that experience itself is not relevant to the black artist. What lies behind this historical dismissal is that these writers are ready to make qualifications as artists that Mr. Neal is not ready to accept, nor can he accept their virtuosity at meeting standards of intelligence and craft that have little to do with his notions of a hermetic folk culture. It seems that over the whole concept of Black Nationalist Art there must hang a metaphysic of primitiveness which its votaries somehow identify with purity, with an imagination untainted by white notions of excellence. Thus, when discussing the fact of writing, Neal simply blots out literary memory. He says:
What of craft—the writer’s craft? Well, under terms of a new definition concerning the function of literature, a new concept of what craft is will also evolve. For example, do I not find the craft of Stevie Wonder more suitable than that of Jascha Heifetz? Are not the sensibilities which produced the former closer to me than the latter? And does not the one indicate a way into things absent from the other?
Now the answer to all these rhetorical questions might very well be “No.” But if we allow that Stevie Wonder’s vocal mannerisms bear a closer relation to the technique of the Black Fire writers than to that of Heifetz, what does this prove about craft? A black violinist can still be more interested in the methods of Heifetz than in those of Wonder, even though in certain ways he may feel closer to the latter.
What Neal is actually implying is that there is a swagger in black music all its own and he wants some of that in literary form. But once again, I believe, he overlooks the complexities of the art he’s praising. Jazz has its own devices and demands which are light-years ahead of its conscious literary imitators, and advanced musicians are finding it difficult even to uncover an audience, black or white, that can catch up with them. When Neal says that Negro literature has failed because it was white-oriented, the case of an elite addressing an elite, and then holds jazz up as a populist culture symbol, he surely knows that he is being more than a little romantic. Parker, Coltrane, Monk, Ayler—the real artists of recent jazz—never had the broad black support that social critics claim for them. While lines form around the Apollo to hear James Brown, Monk plays in half-filled rooms: the tradition is carried on in many ways and on many levels of experience, so it does little good to call for a non-patrician literature for the people and use jazz as a model when, with its shimmerings of different musical colors, it reflects gradations of taste within the Negro culture and suffers the same difficulties as does most modern art in getting the proper response to its achievements.