What a Problem!

The Negroes and the Jews

by Leonora E. Berson
Random House, 436 pp., $8.95

No Name in the Street

by James Baldwin
Dial, 197 pp., $5.95

Whatever the reasons—and common sense is not the most likely one—there seems much less alarm about black anti-Semitism these days than there was four years ago. For example, New York City’s secondary schools are once again the splendid institutions they were before the Afro-American Teachers Association subjected them to its malignant mischief in the late Sixties. The New York Times no longer compiles the indecencies of the streets; and the only present danger that seems clear enough to the Anti-Defamation League to excuse its abandonment of chivalry is Rabbi Meyer Kahane of the Jewish Defense League.

The transient shadow of black anti-Semitism impelled Mrs. Berson and Drs. Weisbord and Stein to their studies; and the lifting of that shadow, if not as fact at least as material for fantasy, has given their work a post-humous quality. All three have most worthily risen to an occasion while it was passing them by. James Baldwin has a different problem: his account of his experiences in the eight years since he published The Fire Next Time is both affecting and informed with the wit of despair. Still the immobility of those years has left him with very little to say about his appointed theme that he did not say then, although Baldwin’s mind and eye are no mean instruments, even when they are marking time. But all parties seem somehow stranded—Mrs. Berson and Weisbord and Stein by the transience of our fashions in Negro themes, and Baldwin by the permanence of the Negro condition.

The specter of black anti-Semitism, though it has departed from the stage, did manage, in its brief appearance, to leave behind suggestive illuminations about the government of cities and the conditioning of their inhabitants. Both inquiries into that subject are conscientious, and in Mrs. Berson’s case even spirited.

All the same, with Baldwin in their company, even though less attentive than usual, one wants in these guides, alert as they are, just a trifle more of the sense of the complexity of life. When Baldwin, rather by the way, remembers his own father’s “unrequited love for the Great God Almighty,” he makes us aware of the stubborn mystery of the transmission of genes, for we substitute his own not-often-enough-requited love for all Mankind. What the merely conscientious writers lack is just that suggestiveness which helps us to understand. Mrs. Berson, for instance, reminds us that what got itself called black anti-Semitism was first noticed in New York in the fall of 1966 when East Harlem’s IS 201 was invested by Negro parents protesting the appointment of Stanley Liss as its principal. Mrs. Berson is most scrupulous in tracing the false promises of the Board of Education that carried so many IS 201 activists from a beginning as hopeful integrationists to an end in a rage that could only be turned against poor Liss, whose otherwise unoffending nature could not exempt him from the crime of being the only visible target.

Mrs …

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