The Image Of The Negro

Albert Sears.
by Millen Brand.
New York, Simon and Schuster, 1947. 273 pp. $2.75.

Kingsblood Royal.
by Sinclair Lewis.
New York, Random House, 1947. 348 pp. $3.00.

The Path of Thunder.
by Peter Abrahams.
New York, Harper, 1948. 278 pp. $2.75.

God is for White Folks.
by Will Thomas.
New York, Creative Age, 1947. 305 pp. $3.00.

by Cid Ricketts Sumner.
New York, Bobbs-Merrill, 1947. 278 pp. $2.75. (Bantam Reprint, 1947. $.25.)


Perhaps the measure of the really stupendous inadequacy of the five novels under consideration here is the fact that, of them all, the most impressive and the most valid is Millen Brand’s quite unremarkable Albert Sears. Reading these novels I was struck by an almost paralyzing desperation: What could one possibly say about them? What, in these days, is a novel? If it is conceded that Kingsblood Royal is a new low, even for the American liberal middlebrow, what then is one to say about Albert Sears, a resolutely undistinguished novel which, by virtue of its present company, seems graceful and perceptive and quite thoroughly worthwhile? The line between what might be called the personal or creative intellectual and that vast culture of the masses with which we are, willynilly, involved, is a precarious one: on the one hand there is corruption and on the other a remote vista closely resembling No Man’s Land.

Granting the initial debasement of literary standards, the arrival of the protest novel was inevitable. The question forever posed by the existence of the protest novel—a kind of writing becoming nearly as formalized as those delicate vignettes written for the women’s magazines—is whether or not its power as a corrective social force is sufficient to override its deficiencies as literature. It is better, it is said, to have a Kingsblood Royal or a Gentleman’s Agreement, shoddy as they are, than nothing at all; it is an improvement over the unrealistic, hushhush attitude of preceding generations. At least, the existence of these novels keeps urgent social questions in the public mind; no one can hide from them.

But this attractive and optimistic analysis poses questions of its own: How closely do these novels reflect the social questions which—since, admittedly, they are not, by and large, good novels-are their sole reason for being? With what reality are they concerned, how is it probed, how translated, exactly what message is being brought to this amorphous public mind? Finally: is the “great work” these novels are presumably doing in the world quite worth the torture they are to read?



Albbrt Sears comes under the heading of a protest novel somewhat arbitrarily. Much, but not all, of the story is concerned with the efforts of a Negro family to move into a white neighborhood. The book differs from its fellows in that, if the struggle is recounted without distinction or power, it is also relatively free of the condescension and the infantile bitterness which forms the pulpy core of the other novels here. Mr. Brand is not really at ease when writing about the national problem, but one almost admires his occasional honest stiffness when one considers what nightmares of tolerance he might have evoked instead. On the basis of the work being considered, he is the only man here entitled to be called a novelist at all; and this is not because his novel indicates any very impressive talent or because of any startling insights, but merely because there is at work in Mr. Brand a more sensitive intelligence and a modest honesty and the ability to write a sentence. His story, as a matter of fact, is concerned not so much with Negroes as with the relationship between an illegitimate adolescent and his strong-willed father; on this level it is more controlled but no more illuminating than most similar studies produced in our time; and on this level it is not worth much discussion. The incident of the Manhurst family, which adds a kind of violent strength, also tears what there is of the novel to pieces, since it never quite fits in and it diverts rather than broadens our sympathy. To be sure, this is not so much Mr. Brand’s defection as it is the inherited response of our generation, which is inclined to see in every Negro a furious call to arms.

Here, nevertheless, Mr. Brand’s novel has a valuable element, one which might one day be explored with some profit: his protagonist, the young Albert, battles on the side of the Negroes with no very clear aim and only because he is guilt-ridden and anchorless, rejected from that white society in which he was born and with which he struggles to get into step. But his acceptance of the Manhursts is a desperate, transient act; it is neither noble nor liberal, it is not “American.” His friendship with the Negro family may continue or it may not; in any case, both the battle and the identification have been personal. The Manhursts do not represent a problem to him, their blackness or whiteness is not his concern. They are human beings to whom he has responded, who have afforded him a shelter for a time. (Throughout the book the Manhursts never attain the status of a “problem”; they are a nuisance—niggers who are bringing property values down—and they are opposed in the usual ugly, shocking ways. But at the end of the book they are still there; their neighbors are no better for the experience but, having tried and failed, they are resigned and have ceased to hurl brickbats; instead they are looking about for other places to live.)



With Kingsblood Royal we descend abruptly into a kind of lugubrious, sentimental nightmare. This is an ill-tempered, tasteless, condescending novel, which, despite the great fame of its author, might be dismissed as utterly without significance if it were not for the fact that three other novels, written by people closer to the scene—two Negroes and a Southern white woman-differ from it only in that they are not quite so bald. These novels—The Path of Thunder, God Is For White Folks, and Quality—have a great deal in common. They are not, in the first place, so much concerned with Negroes as they are with sex between the races and the doomed offspring thereof. (Negroes are, as a matter of fact, considered with a somewhat uneasy and disapproving affection.) The protagonists are manifestly superior, and are monotonously hounded because of their dark blood, which in these novels has much the same relevance as some mysterious, rather nasty, and implacable disease. In all except one of these novels, the protagonists are as fair as daylight: Neil Kingsblood “discovers” that he has Negro blood and must learn to face it; in Quality, the heroine, who has been “passing” in the North, comes home to the South and her illiterate granny to live among and learn to love her people; in The Path of Thunder, the locale of which is South Africa, Lanny, the hero, is quite dark, but turns out, after all, to be the son of the town’s ruling white man; and in God Is For White Folks, Beau, the illegitimate son of a Southern plantation owner, eventually comes home to his dying father’s bosom, bringing a Negro bride as irreproachably fair as himself to reign in the ancestral halls.

This approaches pure fantasy, an element familiar in fiction but never allied formally with sociology. Here we can make two charitable assumptions: one, that, after all, these things do happen; two, that the tasteless prose and the antique plots will present no obstacles to the public mind and are, perhaps, the safest vehicles for a humane and honest rage. But, probing more deeply, one finds that these novels are not essentially any more “advanced” than The Birth of a Nation; even the humane rage comes closer to approximating a kind of uncontrollable hysteria. These novels utilize—compulsively—a rather shabby trick: Treat Negroes as human beings, the novelists cry; but this contains a clause: there are some Negroes you ought to admire; and finally: many of them, most of the best of them, are not much darker than you are. This might be forgivable, were there not at the same time an exploitation of the more familiar myth which these novels are loudly engaged in tearing down.

Thus, when the heroine of Quality goes home—to a landscape not notably different from that made familiar by Margaret Mitchell—her greatest humiliation comes when she is treated in exactly the same manner as a dark, gin-drinking, razor-toting hussy—concerning whom the author, through the heroine’s eyes, comments: “In a way [her hysteria] compensated for her ignorance, her low standing in the social scale. Maybe the same thing was true of the great mass of the colored people, simple, ignorant, yet uninhibited in their emotional expression.” It is the heroine, with her great admixture of white blood, who will lead her people from these low grounds. Similarly, when Neil Kingsblood discovers his ancestry, his wife waits apprehensively for the signs—expecting him to turn into a “shambling, foolish” darky. But this does not happen and she sticks to him; after all, he has not really changed; he is as white as ever; he has merely become a crusader for a downtrodden people.



The really remarkable plots, counter-plots, and sub-plots that make these novels as impossible to remember as they are difficult to read, again betray an essential desperation. The plots are all concerned with the sexual aggressions of whites against blacks; these constitute, before the books begin, the essential a priori dilemma; they operate to burden every encounter within the novel proper with a clandestine, historic significance; the atmosphere inside which these people move is made heavy with unfulfilled desire. The considerable problem this presents to the American psyche is partially solved by keeping the protagonists as light as possible or, at any rate, making it abundantly clear that the Negro under discussion is not subject to the same passions and cannot therefore be bound by the same laws as saddle other Negroes. These novels are, really, exceedingly timorous studies of transgression, and they all have two sets of transgressors: the ancestors, who are a Negro woman and a white man; and the protagonists, who, in all cases but one, are a Negro man and a white woman. The exception is Quality, whose heroine forsakes her white would-be lover and is last seen making plans for a Negro hospital with a quite satisfyingly dark young doctor. In Kingsblood Royal the sting of transgression is removed by the complete innocence of the transgressor and the impossibility of taking his one-thirty-second Negro-ness seriously. God Is For White Folks ends in quite an impressive display of abrupt insanity, murders, and sudden deaths in which all of the elderly transgressors are destroyed and the lover and his lass, produced, incontrovertibly, by sin, are redeemed through blood and allowed to enter the manse. In The Path of Thunder, Lanny, despite his father’s blood, is dark, and Sarie is fair, and they are shot to death in an old cabin; it is Lanny’s father, incidentally, who shoots them.

But the quarrel here is not with the violent incident; or the violent death; or the difficulty of union between black and white. The reports of violence may not come in the nature of a revelation, but it is a real and valid aspect of the lives that Negroes lead. One suspects, however, that the very frequency and sameness of the reports operate on the public mind as a bludgeon, numbing the hypothetical response; it may, indeed, be insisted that unless the report has the urgency of a revelation, the report is worthless.

Out of whatever motives, we have here, in effect, merely the exploitation of an ugly reality. Finally, we are shown nothing, we feel nothing, nothing is illuminated. The worthlessness of these novels consists precisely in that they supposedly expose a reality that in actuality they conspire to mask. For this is not the reality: the reality is more sinister, more treacherous, and more profound than this; and it is, above all, more personal. In none of the foregoing has it been my purpose to resurrect or exploit the ancient bogeyman of sex between the races, but only to inquire how and why in the first place it became a bogeyman at all, and why, if it has been exorcised, it exerts yet, as the sole breath of life in these ambitious novels, so ferocious and unmistakable a force. It is a question we are inclined to dismiss with jeers: that old stuff! But the question has not been answered and the failure is significant.

These novels have in common a subterranean assumption, unspoken by the emancipated, but living in our culture and apparently shared by the novelists themselves: the assumption that whiteness is a kind of salvation and that blackness is a kind of death. Beneath this assumption, like the dark, fantastic sub-plots on which these books rely, are the centuries of fear and desire and hatred and shame that are peculiarly the province of the Puritan Anglo-Saxon and which have made the oppression of black by white a more complicated reality than these novels indicate. The exploration of this reality may yet produce a very powerful literature; we are, in the meantime, confronted with a phenomenon not even remotely literary, which is only one more aspect of an enduring inability to face the truth.



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