I had been told that there was an old black elite in Atlanta, a kind of black American aristocracy; that there were many established black businessmen, and a number of black millionaires; and that blacks ran the city. I booked an airplane flight; in Atlanta stood in a line at the airport to hire a car; and then drove through the mighty road-works of the city-center to the hotel. And there I was, slightly astonished that the journey, so long in the planning, should begin in such a matter-of-fact way.
And, as if answering my anxiety, all the little Atlanta arrangements I had made in New York came to nothing, one after another, and very quickly. A newspaperman had gone to another town to cover a story; a black businessman said on the telephone that he was out of touch, had lived these last twenty years out of Atlanta; and the black man whose name had been given me by a filmmaker said that almost everything I had heard about Atlanta was wrong.
The talk about a black aristocracy was exaggerated, this man said. By the standards of American wealth, blacks in Atlanta were not wealthy; in a list of the richest Atlantans, a black man might come in at number 201. Political power? “Political power without the other sort of power is meaningless.”
He sipped his wine, my informant, and seemed not at all displeased to have floored me.
I actually believed what he said. I had felt that the grand new buildings of Atlanta one had seen in so many photographs had as little to do with blacks as the buildings of Nairobi, say, had to do with the financial or building skills of the Africans of Kenya. I had felt that the talk of black power and black aristocracy was a little too pat and sudden.
I wanted to see for myself, though; and I was hoping to be put in touch with people. But there was no hint from this black man of that kind of help. I might see Andrew Young, the mayor, he said; but Andrew Young probably had about 200 interviews lined up. (So I might be number 201—a popular number.) I felt about this black man, in fact, that, sipping his wine, looking at me over the top of his glass, enjoying my discomfiture, awaiting my questions and swatting them down, I felt he was being seized more and more by a spirit of contradiction and unhelpfulness and was about to grow quite wild: that soon I would be hearing not only that there were no moneyed blacks in Atlanta, but that there had never been anything in Georgia, no plantations, no cotton, corn, or taters, that there was only himself in the wide vessel of the black Atlanta universe.
From my room at the Ritz-Carlton, the view at night of the windows of the big Georgia Pacific building was like a big pop-art print. The windows, of equal size, were …
Copyright © 1989 V. S. Naipaul
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.