South to a Very Old Place
The Decline of the WASP
“In rummaging through Africa and inventing the Nation of Islam,” Peter Schrag observes in The Decline of the WASP, “Malcolm and the Muslims managed, really for the first time, to color Americanism black; the triumph of Malcolm’s hustle was his ability to make some people believe that the stolen goods from Franklin, Carnegie and Emerson were really new…. Not even the worst dressers in Harlem, said Albert Murray, the black writer, ‘are indifferent to fashion. They are over-committed to it.’ ” In this quotation Schrag argues, as Murray does throughout South to a Very Old Place, that the black contribution to contemporary life in America is as distinctively American as that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which it willingly and often exultantly exploits and parodies.
Schrag and Murray must both be counted among the numerous social analysts now seeking to cool America down and reduce the ferocity of the internal conflicts that rend it. They do so by invoking fundamental American values that may still carry enough moral and political weight to influence their readers. They do not, however, appeal primarily to the same values. Murray is almost exclusively concerned with promoting equality of opportunity; Schrag emphasizes pluralism and cultural diversity—the acceptance and accommodation of a wide variety of styles of life—a goal which Murray dismisses as too frequently a device for preventing blacks from demanding and fully exploiting the opportunities due them.
Among persons who share a desire to heal America’s wounds and restore its integrity, however, this difference in choice of the values to be emphasized is crucial. Reduced to the simplest terms, cultural conflict in America and elsewhere may be viewed primarily as a sometimes lethal struggle between those who prize diversity far more than access to power and material success and those who reverse these priorities. The contrasting tone of the two books illustrates this very well. Schrag, while sympathetic to the anxieties that lead many New York City schoolteachers, for example, to hold on to the economic advantages of their jobs precisely because they possess no real salable skills and are—in the words in which Ortega characterized man in the mass—“unqualified, unqualifiable, and by their very mental texture disqualified”—also insists on respect for what he calls “the kids,” marijuana and all.
Mr. Murray’s position is more difficult to pin down explicitly, since he adopts throughout the book the literary device of imaginary colloquy with various vaguely identified spokesmen. It is usually impossible to tell whether these speak for him or whether he merely wishes to make his readers aware of their points of view as being widely and intensely held among his brothers and hence important social data. Perhaps a bit of both: here, at any rate, is a typical passage:
“I said goddam. I said what the hell I’m doing wasting my goddam time proving some kind of old bull-shit point to some little bullshit ofays down here on a summer vacation and sicking me on the goddam police to get some knots on my head and they can go home to papa and that fat-ass checkbook any time they want to. So here I am with a bunch of hickeys on my knuckleass head and they back up there bragging about how they helped me. Dig that. I said, man, what is this shit? I said, man, fuck that shit.”
It was also summer—June 22, 1964—when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were reported missing near Philadelphia, Mississippi; their bodies were recovered on August 4. This passage appears to be addressed, belatedly, to those who might still follow Mr. Goodman’s and Mr. Schwerner’s example; though the risks are fewer now, partly as a result of their martyrdom. Certainly, there are many sound reasons why blacks should welcome white intervention in their affairs even less than they did eight years ago. Black leadership has had time to develop and black self-confidence justly demands that the competence of local people be recognized in corresponding authority. But the argument against white participation in black movements has held that the experience of the two races in America has been so different that any attempt of whites to share the lives of black people must be inherently hypocritical; and that the conflict of interest between oppressor and oppressed is too solidly built into the American social structure to be abated by good will, which serves merely to confuse the issue and weaken resistance to continued exploitation.
This is almost the opposite of Murray’s position. While he certainly anticipates no change in the hearts of white men, he also insists that American blacks who groove on their distinctive heritage are obstructing themselves and their brothers by systematic self-delusion, because in spite of the eruption of African nationalism, American whites still control Africa. African leaders know it, and will have nothing but scorn for black Americans who don’t know where their home really is:
“Every time somebody come up with some of all that old West Indian banana-boat jive about the ‘block mon’ I tell them…ain’t nobody doing nothing nowhere in Africa and nowhere else that this white man right here don’t want them to do. I tell them. Every time a goddam African put a dime in a telephone, a nickel of it come right over here to this same white man. That goes for them Germans and Frenchmen and Englishmen, all of them over there and them Japs too. So you know it goes for them goddam barefooted Africans….
“All y’all want to go back to Africa, you welcome to go. Fare thee goddam well, horse, I say. But I tell you what I’m going to do. Because I know what’s going to happen. I say: I’m going to get my college boys trained to go to New York City and Washington, D. C. and get next to something. Because what’s going to happen is them Africans going to take one look at them goddam jive-time Zulu haircuts and them forty-dollar hand-made shoes and they going to lock your American ass up in one of them same old slave-trading jails they put our ancestors in, and they going to have you writing letters back over here to this same old dog-ass white man in the United States of America asking for money….
“And you know what the goddam hell I’m going to be doing? I’m going to have my college boys sitting up there in Washington and Wall Street with a mean-assed rubber-assed goddam stamp saying Hell, no! Saying, forget it, cousin. Hey, because by that time with what we know we supposed to have this white man over here all faked out and off somewhere freaking out and I mean for days! And I’ll bet you this much any day, we’ll have this white man over here faked out long before any boots from Harlem fake out any of them Africans over yonder.”
Schrag might well accept the conclusion, at least, of this statement; since the theme of his book is the decline in authority of the power-wielding WASP and the ease with which that authority is consequently countered or ignored by conflicting interest groups. He certainly does not deplore the passage of WASP hegemony, but he does recognize that this hegemony, when it was effective, depended on a kind of moral consensus that the WASPs themselves abandoned, thus contributing to their own down-fall. The squares, in his phrase, willingly turned plastic and thus came to stand for nothing at all; and this, at least, is a loss to culture.
Schrag’s approach, then, is that of a social critic. But Albert Murray is a booster rather than a critic. In the current American climate of national self-denigration, only a black American could have published so sentimental and chauvinistic a book as South to a Very Old Place with any hope of having it taken seriously. His reminiscences of college days at Tuskegee are nostalgic, rhapsodic, schmaltzy, and intellectually pretentious, as college days seen through the glass of memory thirty-five years later probably ought to be. But these are too much, they read like an S. J. Perelman parody of Stover at Yale. Maybe Tuskegee really was like that then—many American colleges were—but Murray apparently still cherishes the memory not merely for itself but as evidence that undergraduates had just as collegiate a time at Tuskegee, and just as good teachers, as they had at Yale. But who doubts it? And considering how ineffective such experiences have proved in restraining the subsequent barbarity of whites, how can they be recalled by blacks with tenderness rather than irony?
Murray’s central message to Whitey is “Anything you can do we can do better!” To want to do anything different would be romantic extravagance. His choice of examples for possible emulation can be very striking:
To which still someone else adds: “This is what I say. I say we know this white man. I say don’t nobody nowhere in the world know this white man better than us, and this is the goddam white man that runs the goddam world. That’s a fact, gentlemen, and ain’t no disputing it. Don’t nobody nowhere do nothing if this white man here don’t really like it. You remember what Kennedy did to old Khrushchev that time about Cuba? Old Kennedy said, ‘I’m going to tell it to you straight, pardner.’ He said, ‘Listen, horse, cause I ain’t going to tell you but once, so listen good or it’s going to be your natural vodka pooting ass.’
“He said, ‘Now I want all them goddam missiles and shit out of there by Wednesday’ (or Thursday—or whenever the hell it was) and he said, ‘I want them back on them goddam boats heading in such and such a direction, and then goddammit when you get to such and such a latitude of longitude I want you to stop and peel back them tarpaulins so my bad-assed supersonic picture-taking jets can fly over and inspect that shit and then I want you to get your Russian ass out of my hemisphere and stay out.’
“That’s this white man, and don’t nobody mess with him, and what I’m saying is we the ones that know him inside out and been knowing him inside out…. What I’m saying is he smart enough to go all the way up to the moon and we know he still ain’t nothing but a square like he always was, so what these [black] college boys got to do is get ready to take all that stuff we know and push it up to the nth degree and use it on this white man right here.”
Or on others. Black GIs bomb gooks—and call them that—just as white GIs do. Granted that Mr. Murray is not here speaking his own mind: he puts these words in the mouth and syntax of an old Mobile buddy who never left home to be educated. And, clearly speaking for himself, he states the issue precisely: “The problem is how to evolve socio-political tactics and strategies that are truly indigenous to and compatible with the dynamics of US Negro life style. Because until somebody does, the so-called masses are not likely to become very deeply involved no matter how earnest your appeals—even to their self-interest.”