Confessions of a White Racist
Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town
The American South has always been treacherous to those who try to describe and explain it, and capture its reality. The finest writers in America have written fiction about it—many of them intentionally—but it traps its more earnest interpreters into using it as a kind of Thematic Apperception Test. It isn’t so much that writers distort it as that they so easily select from it themes and issues that reveal their own concerns more clearly than they do its essence. Even Gunnar Myrdal’s classic An American Dilemma did not help me much, when I read it, to understand my own homeland, although it certainly helped me, twenty-five years later, to understand Jan Myrdal’s Confessions of a Disloyal European.
Disloyal Europeans are probably a generally more reliable and less solipsistic lot than white racists. European disloyalty being, in the present moral climate, so much more easily justified than white racism. Mr. King’s book, which ought to have been valuable, is badly marred by the state of mind in which he wrote it. “It is not my individual confession alone,” he observes in his Introduction, “but a gratuitous admission of guilt on behalf of all white racists, past or present, malignant or benign.” Gratuitous is right. There are still two or three things in this world that a man cannot do until he feels ready, and then has to do for himself. Confession is one of them, though not, for most people, the most urgent.
White racism, God knows, has led to serious enough evil to merit further study as well as confession; and Mr. King is almost ideally qualified to observe and comment on its curious manifestations. He was born in 1929, in the mid-Texas village of Putnam; his family moved from there to a hamlet in southeastern New Mexico near the Texas line when he was thirteen, and soon moved back to Texas—this time to the raw, growing town of Midland further west, where he remained until he joined the army in 1946. He was discharged in 1949 and returned to Texas to enter Texas Tech in Lubbock. But he reports that he found its crudeness and racism intolerable, left before his first year was out, and took a series of jobs, working when he could as a newspaper reporter on small New Mexico or Texas papers.
The army had stationed him at a Signal Corps Photo Center in Astoria, Long Island, from which he had visited Greenwich Village and developed a taste for intellectual life:
“What do they talk about?” a G.I. friend asked as I tried to explain this puzzling new world into which I had stumbled. “Well,” I said, “things.” “What kind of things?” “Just…things.” I was trying to say that these new people talked primarily of ideas, an experience so alien that I could give it no name.
Accordingly, Mr. King tried to get a job on a New York City paper and “having offered myself in …