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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.