Just to set down the phrase “Negro Literature” releases in any sensible mind all the ambiguities of a situation that has become so viciously consuming, so semantically, aesthetically, and politically abrasive, that there might seem to be now no way of treating the works of black writers except as curious symptoms of a social agony. Negro critics and polemicists are continually demanding that a literature arise to complement the new racial psychology, a literature with its own identity and standards that will break away from Western traditions of judgment and become a special expression of the black sensibility.
Exactly what that sensibility is, of course, no one seems to know, but publishing companies are ready to piece together anthologies with titles like Black Voices, Dark Symphony, Black Fire, etc., to help one to discover its essence. Almost everywhere he turns, the Negro writer is exhorted to catch up with his musical counter-part, to prove that he can match the examples of cultural genius found in jazz. Short of this, the very least that is expected of him is that he be relevant to his people, true to his origins, and, in other words, not write like Henry James. For example, in his new book Rebellion or Revolution?, Harold Cruse says that economic and political revolution is unfeasible for the Negro in America, and he calls instead for a cultural upheaval, but with the warning that the black writer does not necessarily achieve universality by denying his ethnic base and that his only hope is to escape from the decadent standards of European civilization and go it on his own.
Now Cruse is one of the best historians of Negro ideology writing today, and Rebellion or Revolution? contains brilliant analyses of the difficulties in extracting from Western revolutionary philosophy a workable political program for the American Negro. Yet, at the same time, Cruse wants a vague, literary négritude to arise, as though art, too, did not have historical complications for the new activist principles of the Negro movement in the United States. Like most social critics, Cruse simply wants good, black writers to spring up at this crucial moment for the Negro, and he shows an impatience for their arrival which he would never permit himself to have as a political theorist; for if “Buy Black” is a crude and ineffectual rebuttal to a white, capitalistic economy, what can be expected from the infinitely less precise admonition, “Create Black”?
Faced with these imperatives—imperatives it would take egomaniacal strength to ignore—the Negro writer is caught in an agonizing cultural dilemma. The deeper one goes into recent black writing, the more one feels this tension, this furibund effort to unearth the culturally correct form which will display the Afro-American spirit, the basic folk consciousness. The new, indigenous, non-European vision which Whitman wanted for American literature in general, young black writers are trying to particularize for themselves in African ritual, the rebel slave, the black musician, and the sense of fraternity against the white world, which they view, in their stories, as the Evil Forest where nothing is as it seems and everything is threatening. Writers like Wright and Ellison once felt obliged to make forays into this Forest, where they did battle with sexual fantasies, liberal naïveté, Marxist pragmatics, proletarian violence, and the anguish that came when there seemed to be no way of leaving the wood with the mind intact. Few black writers now find it necessary to engage in these matters: they acknowledge that they are there, but they deal with them by a priori incineration, indiscriminately laying to rest all the beasts that used to provide the adventure in black narratives.
Black Fire, an anthology edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, presents numerous examples of this quest to obliterate at last what W. E. B. DuBois called “the double consciousness” of the black man in America. Each poem and story, explicitly and self-consciously, makes it clear that its purpose is to define and glorify an attitude toward race that is all of a piece and all of a color. Given LeRoi Jones’s aesthetic views, the unanimity of tone in this volume is not difficult to understand, but it would be a mistake to assume that Black Fire is an exercise in propaganda organized by him. The contributors—almost all of them under forty, many under thirty—are responding to the rhetoric of the search for identity that has been fashionable in popular journals for years and in the black community for decades. Of course, this hyperbole of rebellion contains enough truth to make a literary transcription of it seem simple and tempting to the writer.
Now there is nothing wrong with this so long as it is remembered that cultural definitions do not apply so readily to art as they do to political agitation. Indeed, in so far as literature serves a people as a cultural symbol, it generally excoriates and laments their experience, drawing out through legends of weakness, suffering, and bad practice the fiber that will bind a group together and give it a common sense of endemic agonies that must be lived with in awe and with humor. Even though it can be said that to isolate the Negro consciousness apart from the traditions—American and European—with which it has been in close commerce for over 300 years is virtually impossible, the yearning for an exclusive body of writing peculiarly responsive to the black experience is not in itself a critical contradiction. What I find disheartening in the representative fiction, poetry, and drama of Black Fire is that the writers do just the opposite: for all their febrile rage, they are still playing off and defining themselves against the white world, or, rather, their concept of that world. Loathing the stereotypes of the past, they nevertheless affect a schematic pose every bit as false as any Sambo conjured up in the Hollywood mind, and one can only wonder, when the editor, Larry Neal, speaks of seeking living models for black literature in Negro folk culture, how he could have selected most of these pieces which are the very antithesis of that culture.
For one of the solid virtues of Negro art in America, from the Br’er Rabbit tales to the solos of John Coltrane, is its lack of sentimentality, its insistence that life be peeled down to its real pains before it can be honestly made livable. The dissembling which was a way of coexisting with the dangerous vagaries of the white world was not practiced at those deeper levels of self-expression which were meaningful, or which suited a true folk art.
But the writers in Black Fire present pain with the lucidity of Victorian melodrama: dying revolutionaries clasp their comrades’ hands before going out to meet death; a young militant machine-guns his mother down for calling him a nigger and then expires from his wounds, uttering the words, “We’re…new men, Mama…Not Niggers. Black men”; a white man is burned on an inverted cross, another shot down by a “cultural arrow”; a boy fights off white bullies at school; an Uncle Tom preacher receives the militant message from a folksy burglar pretending to be God—the catalogue of sweet contrivance in this anthology is a long one, and it suffocates any feelings one has about the conditions that have produced this histrionic sloganeering. One can speak of this as literature for the folk, for the community, but how can these grim simplicities have any relevance to people whose cultural strength is a strong sense of ironic humor? Perhaps “the people” can be marshaled into having a respectful attitude toward this peremptory and political literature, but this will mean just another variant of the schizophrenic aesthetic which wants art to be both “real” and “acceptable.”
One can well imagine that this sort of anthology is an omen of what will be coming from a great many black writers in the next few years. There will be more and more proclamations of Blackness, more claims to “soul” in place of demonstrations of it, and more undigested anger within wide margins which call themselves poems. This is no more lamentable than other literary grotesques that, in our well-read age, find an audience; what needs to be challenged, however, is the assumption that this style is getting to the nerve of a people, continuing and elaborating on a folk tradition. I have already mentioned several contradictions within this notion, but it should be further stated that the tradition in question has more levels and more complexities than is recognized by those who wish to absorb it into a new literature.
It may once have been true that Negro literature consisted of a subculture of simple parables, but it is no longer so. If one is to look for fullness of expression in black literature, one must confront the work done by novelists like Ellison and Wright and poets like Melvin Tolson. Their art, too, is part of a people’s consciousness and it has set standards of nuance and truth that any writer can learn from. To say, as Larry Neal does, that Native Son and Invisible Man are no longer particularly relevant to the new black attitude is to say that experience itself is not relevant to the black artist. What lies behind this historical dismissal is that these writers are ready to make qualifications as artists that Mr. Neal is not ready to accept, nor can he accept their virtuosity at meeting standards of intelligence and craft that have little to do with his notions of a hermetic folk culture. It seems that over the whole concept of Black Nationalist Art there must hang a metaphysic of primitiveness which its votaries somehow identify with purity, with an imagination untainted by white notions of excellence. Thus, when discussing the fact of writing, Neal simply blots out literary memory. He says:
What of craft—the writer’s craft? Well, under terms of a new definition concerning the function of literature, a new concept of what craft is will also evolve. For example, do I not find the craft of Stevie Wonder more suitable than that of Jascha Heifetz? Are not the sensibilities which produced the former closer to me than the latter? And does not the one indicate a way into things absent from the other?
Now the answer to all these rhetorical questions might very well be “No.” But if we allow that Stevie Wonder’s vocal mannerisms bear a closer relation to the technique of the Black Fire writers than to that of Heifetz, what does this prove about craft? A black violinist can still be more interested in the methods of Heifetz than in those of Wonder, even though in certain ways he may feel closer to the latter.
What Neal is actually implying is that there is a swagger in black music all its own and he wants some of that in literary form. But once again, I believe, he overlooks the complexities of the art he’s praising. Jazz has its own devices and demands which are light-years ahead of its conscious literary imitators, and advanced musicians are finding it difficult even to uncover an audience, black or white, that can catch up with them. When Neal says that Negro literature has failed because it was white-oriented, the case of an elite addressing an elite, and then holds jazz up as a populist culture symbol, he surely knows that he is being more than a little romantic. Parker, Coltrane, Monk, Ayler—the real artists of recent jazz—never had the broad black support that social critics claim for them. While lines form around the Apollo to hear James Brown, Monk plays in half-filled rooms: the tradition is carried on in many ways and on many levels of experience, so it does little good to call for a non-patrician literature for the people and use jazz as a model when, with its shimmerings of different musical colors, it reflects gradations of taste within the Negro culture and suffers the same difficulties as does most modern art in getting the proper response to its achievements.
Mixing the arts in this way leads not only to lopsided comparisons but to unexamined critical judgments that make a claim for affinities of style when there are none. Thus Neal can call a poet like Yusuf Rahman, who explodes in unconsidered bombast all over the page, the “poetic equivalent of Charlie Parker” without seeing that the former is haphazard and full of imagistic non sequiturs while Parker was a lyric genius who, within an expanded chordal structure and method of substitution, produced music that was never randomly loose. He certainly never honked anything like these lines which end Rahman’s poem, “Transcendental Blues”:
White maggots will not military your babies down dead
White maggots will not mercenary your fertile Nile to ache with pus
My spears shall rain
so humanity can have a clear slate
Just keep me constant
LOVE ME EBONY LADY
LOVE ME EBONY LADY
However strongly one feels about racial unity, by no artistic legerdemain can one compare the author of the above with a man of abstract precision like Parker. Such a comparison goes beyond ebullience into a sort of critical madness.
Now, madness is not used here as a metaphor, but as a reasonably accurate descriptive term for much that is happening in Negro literature and in the criticism surrounding it. Dragged out into America’s social chaos, the new literature, instead of analyzing the lunacy behind the slogans of the racial struggle, has begun to embody it. The Black Fire view of art may be extreme, but the madness filters into much better writers than those in this anthology, and it is a madness far from divine: deadening, awkward, simplistic, strident—in every way inimical to the antic, the unique, the odd and personal. It is the madness in monuments and behind lapidary epigrams, and it settles like a stylish uniform on those who let themselves be drafted into its service. This madness is not that of rebellion, but rather a sort of sensory suicide, an act which allows the vision to be dulled so that it sees in blocks and shadows. It is the madness that transmutes the clear and palpable testament found in James Baldwin’s essays into the strange alloy of his new novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, in which blackness is written about with all the zest of a penance performed for the sake of party discipline. One reads amazed, knowing Baldwin’s intelligence and autobiographical honesty, this stiff account of his hero, Leo Proudhammer, stomping through a world made of sociological constructions and expressing tired, novelettish notions of sex, success, and “race problems.”
As a study of a young man’s rise to fame as an actor, it is essentially no different from hundreds of potboilers that have preceded it: there are the humble origins; the young, bohemian days of struggle, integrity, and sexual dalliance; the battle against a skeptical authority; the “big chance”; the two-edged rewards of success and ambition—all of this narrated in a thin, pat, literary voice as if the author knew that these situations, like those of a TV western, are so well-used that listeners can deduce from the most meager evidence the moral significance in each event. Of course, Leo Proudhammer is a Negro, and this fact, I suppose, was meant to give some snap to the novel’s creaky structure. But all it really does is to make everything seem sadly obligatory, as if Baldwin became creatively atrophied in this book and was anxious to get through the ordeal with as little excitement as possible, lest something should somehow reveal that whereas Baldwin can speak of blackness as a fact of his own life, he is not really comfortable with it as a subject for fiction.
In Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time, Baldwin presented us with the story of a black artist putting himself together piece by piece, setting his own terms, examining them, and defending their implications with a wry but heated virtuosity. The life he set down in these essays was a complex one, for it stretched in many directions and showed a tenseness toward art and culture as well as visceral rage toward a white world that in so many ways seemed bent on dehumanizing him. Whether one agreed with Baldwin or not in his estimate of Richard Wright’s Native Son, or with his sour view of Kerouac’s and Mailer’s romantic notions of Negro life, or, finally, with his analysis of what was askew in our society, was of secondary importance when placed beside the power of his idiosyncratic courage and literary gifts. Throughout these pieces, he never allowed blackness to slip into the limbo of a fashionable attitude; it was never a problem because it was his blackness with its very own artistic logic. To put that quality to official use, as he does in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, to try to make of his hero a Black Everyman, causes him to move from a personal vision to a strange dilution of himself; for in Leo Proudhammer, Baldwin tries to remake and simplify that life which his essays gave us, investing it with a stylistic and psychological bluster that, when set beside the original, seems openly dishonest.
As a novelist Baldwin has never been particularly interested in or profound about the problems of social cohesion; rather, in such a work as Another Country, he made it plain that he sees human relations as sexual and spiritual, and indeed few writers can pack as much philosophizing into a hetero- or homosexual screw as he managed to in that work. If he is a little over-mystical about sex, he nevertheless pursues it as a subject with some passionate secrets to reveal, some high commitments to make, and rewards to give. However, something seems to prevent him from a really unfettered exploration of this subject, which started so well in Giovanni’s Room. Instead, this new book displays as much sexual ease and reality as a treatise on Eskimo tribal customs. We can only wonder what voices he has been listening to that caused him to make this dull, propitiatory offering to the madness of our times. If ever a writer has earned the right to go his own way and find his own particular demons, Baldwin has; and yet he hangs back, bleeding more and more of his talent away in rituals that make him seem not much different from dozens of his inferiors who use their blackness to define safe literary limits for themselves.
The madness takes its toll, but it should be clear, before all critical connection between the black and white sensibility breaks down, that, for the Negro writer, madness comes not in hating the white world but in hating it without style. A lucid rage can be an effective cultural weapon; literary delirium tremens can only bog down everyone’s anger. This frenzy to set up an official literary barricade, to uncover symbols and tales which will promote some sort of atavistic tribal unity, can lead very quickly to a crippled art that threatens nothing. In the rush to do away with the racial double consciousness, it cannot be forgotten that art produces its own version of this division and that it has its own standards of manhood. What Eldridge Cleaver, for example, does to the white consciousness in Soul on Ice is shattering precisely because he appreciates and meets those standards, and so can pick apart with angry humor all the ripe details of that anger’s object.
This collection of letters, essays, and dramatic monologues does what good books have always done: it presents a new stirring of experience that causes hidden sediment to rise where we can all clearly see it. Cleaver does not simply cry monster; he carefully strips away the lunatic raiment of both blacks and whites, sometimes affecting an ingenuous amazement at what he finds beneath, sometimes becoming a lyric moralist fired to rage over what he sees as dangerous threats to life. The subjects in Soul on Ice range from love to revolution, from rape to literary criticism, and one has an idea of just how Cleaver manages to bring all this together into its own unity at the opening of the title piece, a letter addressed from Folsom Prison:
I’m perfectly aware that I’m in prison, that I’m a Negro, that I’ve been a rapist, and that I have a Higher Uneducation. I never know what significance I’m supposed to attach to these factors. But I have a suspicion that, because of these aspects of my character, “freenormal-educated” people rather’ expect me to be more reserved, penitent, remorseful, and not too quick to shoot off my mouth on certain subjects. But I let them down, disappoint them, make them gape at me in a sort of stupor….
And a few sentences further he goes on:
In beginning this letter I could just as easily have mentioned other aspects of my situation; I could have said: I’m perfectly aware that I’m tall, that I’m skinny, that I need a shave, that I’m hard-up enough to suck my grandmother’s old withered tits, and that I would dig (deeper than deeply) getting clean once more—not only in the steam-bath sense, but in getting sharp as an Esquire square with a Harlem touch—or that I would like to put on a pair of bib overalls and become a Snicker, or that I’d like to leap the whole last mile and grow a beard and don whatever threads the local nationalism might require and comrade with Che Guevara, and share his fate…or how I’d just love to be in Berkeley right now, to roll in that mud, frolic in the sty of funky revolution, to breathe in its heady fumes, and look with roving eyes for a new John Brown, Eugene Debs, a blacker-meaner-keener Malcolm X, a Robert Franklin Williams with less rabbit in his hot blood, an American Lenin, Fidel, a Mao-Mao, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO, A MAO MAO…. All of which is true.
But what matters is that I have fallen in love with my lawyer.
From personal outrage, to revolutionary enthusiasm, and then into self-irony with a profession of love that scales things back to human size—Cleaver’s style can cover a great deal of ground without stinting on its subject, for beyond having a rare honesty, it has a dramatic temper that makes it a point gently to remind us of who is speaking and from where.
If there is a major theme in Soul on Ice, it is Cleaver’s use of the old Mind-Body difficulty, which he changes from an epistemological problem into a social and psychological one. When he looks at American society he sees it primarily as a function of this dualism, split into such categories as “The Omnipotent Administrator” and “The Supermasculine Menial.” The Administrator has permitted The Menial certain rights: in physical areas—with, of course, the exception of sex—he may excel, but any aspiration to administrative prerogatives—e.g. the attributes of mind—is taboo. Thus Cassius Clay went too far when he became Muhammad Ali, for this was evidence that some intellectual process had taken place, and, what was worse, The Menial, The Body, did not hesitate to articulate just what that process was.
With a rueful anger, Cleaver uses this image in an intuitive rather than a sociological way to discuss some of the more interesting events of recent years. The transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, for example, he considers the beginning in the long-needed merger of the mind and body polarities, and he is devastating when he describes the white psyche thawing out as it tried to put on a little flesh by taking up the new—for the blacks, old—rock sound and the dances that went with it. Anyone who remembers Society’s invasion of The Peppermint Lounge in the early Sixties knows the appositeness of Cleaver’s description:
They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life, rekindle the dead limbs, the cold ass, the stone heart, the stiff, mechanical disused joints with the spark of life.
That Cleaver sees this as a small, comical hope for the country does not mean his judgment of the white world is any the less exacting than that of LeRoi Jones; it is simply delivered in a human voice that convinces because of the heavy dues it must have paid in experience in order to write so well. That folk tradition which Larry Neal and others are scurrying about to define is right here in Cleaver’s book. He does not have to set down “Blackness” as a subject, because every twist of intelligence, every turn of phrase make this identity a self-sufficient fact that needs no invective nor analogy to jazz to come into sharp relief; and as old categories of thought break apart, minds like Cleaver’s are sorely needed, minds that can fashion a literature which does not flaunt its culture but creates it.
At this writing, it seems that the Administrators, led by Governor Reagan, are bent on having Cleaver’s parole rescinded. The historical ignorance in such an act, and the petty fear to which it gives evidence, are qualities it is not surprising to find in the possession of the state leader of California. It is really so inept an attempt at censorship that one might, in the spirit of revolutionary pragmatics, applaud the idiocy for the reaction it will inevitably provoke. However, for my part, I am weary of seeing imagination paid for with personal freedom, especially when it is an imagination that could conceive, as Cleaver’s did in the pages of Ramparts, of challenging Ronald Reagan to a duel—a clean, traditionally American solution. If the Administrators have their way and Cleaver is returned to prison, there is nothing left for us to do but to throw down gages of our own and thereby honor his.
December 19, 1968