It is no news to hear that we are living with a major Negro revolt. For years the foresighted have been warning us of what was going to happen, and we have no excuse for being distressed or surprised now that it is here. Indeed, many of us have welcomed it. We—I mean the sort of people who read The New York Review—can and do congratulate ourselves on the realization of our own program, and celebrate the beginnings of serious integration as at last bringing public policy into line with what we have advocated and practised in our personal relations with our Negro friends all along.
But—as usually happens with attacks of good conscience—such a statement is scarcely out of one’s mouth when it begins to sound awfully phony. There is no point enlarging on the fact that the personal warmth between a minority of “liberated” intellectuals and a handful of highly educated and assimilated Negroes is an isolated phenomenon, although it may be useful to remind ourselves from time to time of the sad reality, provided a note of self-congratulation does not intrude. What is more to the point is that most of us have no knowledge at all of the Negro majority: we drive through Harlem, we exchange a cordial word or two with a Negro cleaning-woman or delivery-boy (perhaps kicking ourselves as we do so at the tone of condescending egalitarianism that has somehow crept in), we shake the hands of our black opposite numbers at the meetings of all the fine liberal organizations that seem to have such distressingly overlapping memberships. Yet most of the time we see our Negro fellow-citizens only from the outside as people remote and alien—like aborigines or a passing show—or perhaps, to echo the familiar complaint, we don’t really see them at all.
Is integration enough? That is the desperate question that assails us. For we know very well that for a generation at least integration can be no more than “tokenism” writ large—that at the deeper level of emotion and instinctive response the old separation will remain. Many—perhaps most—Negroes are skeptical about integration. “Deep down in their hearts,” as James Baldwin tells us, “the black masses don’t believe in white people any more.” They do not trust our promises, and they have only too good reason not to trust them.
In whom, then, do they believe? We do not know—the vast majority remain silent. But at least we have the work of two Negro intellectuals who, themselves unsure of the answer, have set out to enlighten us.
Kenneth B. Clark’s The Negro Protest is the slighter volume of the two and offers the more familiar material. The transcript of a series of television interviews, it presents Baldwin himself, plus Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the Black Muslims. The tone is informal, the order of subject-matter unsystematic. The differences among the three men emerge much as expected. What is noteworthy, rather, is the common tone of urgency they convey—the eleventh-hour warning to the white man, the insistence that time is running out. This is most impressive in the case of Baldwin, who came to his interview directly from an exhausting and frustrating conference with Attorney-General Kennedy, and hardly knew when the taping started whether he would be able to go through with it.
Baldwin’s stand—personal, passionate, totally engaged yet organizationally uncommitted—has been well publicized in recent months by his own writings. The outlines of King’s social strategy are similarly familiar, although I have never found them better stated than in the Clark volume. We are less well-informed and less favorably disposed to the Black Muslims. I suspect that most of us suffer under serious misapprehensions about the movement and its leaders, and that we add to the valid charges that can be made against them a number of further accusations based on ignorance.
Louis E. Lomax’s book is not the first on the subject. There is also the scholarly study by C. Eric Lincoln, to which Lomax gives ample credit. As I understand it, what this second study is trying to do is to place the Black Muslims in the wider context of the Negro revolt, which an earlier book by Lomax first identified and called by that name. He is warning us, like the Negro leaders themselves, but he is doing it as a social observer as well as a participant, and with much new and arresting detail.
I suppose one should start by stressing the misconceptions that Lomax clears up. Much of this material is reassuring—the Black Muslims’ strict morality and discipline, the high level of their Islamic schools, the fact that they have recently been recognized in Cairo and Mecca as true Muslims, rather than the eccentric Negro offshoot that they are usually thought to be. Yet once this has been said there remain all sorts of things about them that are either frightening or confusing or both together. The history they teach is often in error: it is simply not true that Islam was the original religion of most of the Africans who were kidnapped as slaves to the American colonies, and their story of how an evil scientist called Yakub created the white man is dangerous fantasy. Their doctrine of Apartheid is as implacable as that of the government of South Africa. Listen to the words of Minister Malcolm X (as he prefers to be called): “These Negroes who go for integration and intermarriage are linking up with the very people who lynched their fathers, raped their mothers, and put their kid sisters in the kitchen to scrub floors. Why would any black man in his right mind want to marry a lyncher, a murderer, a rapist, a dope peddler, a gambler, a hog eater…Why would any black man want to marry a devil…for that’s just what the white man is.”
Moreover, some day—as Lomax’s title implies—“the word” will be given. The Negro’s centuries of humiliation will be over, and he will come into his rightful inheritance as a superior specimen of humanity. What will “the word” be? On this, nobody—not even Lomax—is particularly helpful. Sometimes it sounds like a summons to Sicilian Vespers (and white people cannot be blamed if they find in the Black Muslims’ hate-filled language an incitement to massacre). But I am willing to believe Malcolm X and others in the movement when they claim that violence figures in their ideology only as self-defense. So far as I can tell, “the word” is a metaphor rather than an actual command, a trumpet-call from heaven proclaiming a blight on the black man’s oppressors. (It is curious, incidentally, how much of a vocabulary that claims to be Muslim still has the ring of Negro Protestant evangelism.)
Yet the Negro masses, we know, are restless. If even Martin Luther King, with his doctrine of non-violence, has trouble restraining his followers from responding to intolerable provocation, what is Malcolm X to do if his listeners begin to take his own rhetoric at face value? Fortunately, Lomax offers some evidence that the Black Muslim leaders are aware of their precarious situation, perched between the danger of mass violence on the one hand, and the opposite threat of a vast wave of disappointment at their failure to deliver on their nebulous promises. In their unguarded moments, they virtually admit that their hope for an all-black state in the South will never be realized. And the latest phase of Black Muslim policy—still less than a year old—shows a new emphasis on Negro unity and a muffling of anti-white propaganda.
The return of Akbar, the youngest son of Elijah Muhammad, from his studies in Cairo last spring, marks the emergence of a fourth generation of Black Muslim leadership. First came the mysterious figure of Fard or Farrad, persuasive peddler of silks with a look of the Near East about him, who founded the movement in Detroit in the depths of the Great Depression and in 1934 simply disappeared (perhaps translated to higher spheres if, as many seem to believe. Fard was in fact Allah himself). The most promising of his converts, Elijah Muhammad—note the significance of the name in this context—has run the movement ever since. It is not true that today the third in the apostolic succession, the dynamic Malcolm X, is jealous of the prophet’s authority and is striving to supplant him. Ill and in semi-retirement though he may be, Elijah Muhammad still gives all the orders. “I am his slave, his servant, his son,” Malcolm X declares, and so in effect do the other chief lieutenants, John X and Raymond Sharrieff. It is significant that it devolved not on one of these, but on the prophet’s son—a young man in his twenties representing a fourth generation in the movements history—to give the Black Muslims a new direction. Both Arabized and Africanized from his stay abroad, Akbar suggests in his own person a firmer link with the Islamic world and with African nationalism, while calling for a halt to the kind of sniping at other Negro leaders, such as Malcolm X’s post-Birmingham outburst at Martin Luther King, which has done the movement so much harm outside its own ranks.
And here things rest. With admirable honesty, Lomax admits that he also is uncertain about the future. His book is not of literary interest: it is indifferently written, and it will date very fast. But it has the qualities of good reporting—adequate documentation, clarity of presentation, the knack of conveying to the reader the urgency of the topic, and, above all, a scrupulous fairness. Lomax does not conceal his distaste for the Black Muslims. But he does his best to outline their case at least as persuasively as they could do it themselves.
“The Black Muslims,” he concludes, “will endure but they will not prevail.” I wish I were that sure. To my mind, the movement is no mere aberration. It is an integral part of the inflamed, anti-rational, and inverted nationalism that has swept the non-European world in the past decade and a half. I think it is unwise—most of the time even immoral—to combat this type of nationalist movement. But I cannot approve it either. There is too much hate about it; there is too little common humanity in it. I have no affection for people like Castro or Ben Bella—however frequently I may defend their right to existence.
If even the Jews have instituted a relatively benign version of Apartheid in Israel, what are we to expect of American Negroes, who have suffered still more grievous humiliations than they? The dozens of self-constituted ghettos that are now dotting the underdeveloped world are a fitting punishment to us white Christians for our multiple sins. Perhaps Lomax is closest to the truth when at the very start of his book he warns us: “In reality, Western man is on trial…. Without the failings of Western society, the Black Muslims could not have come into being; without the continued failings of our society, the Black Muslims cannot endure. Here, then, Western white man, is a bitter pill. Do with it as you see fit.”
November 28, 1963