Anger, and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States.
by Herbert Hill.
Harper & Row. 226 pp. $5.95.
It wasn’t until a while ago, while reading a review of Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, that I became acquainted with the term, “Negro genre writing.” I wondered why I hadn’t come across it before, for I sensed in the expression a certain smoothness of texture which suggested it had been in use for a long time. However, I had no difficulty recognizing its meaning: “Negro genre writing” was a clear enough reference to an alleged penchant in the work of Negro writers for “anger, rage, and social protest.” In the words of the critic, Albert Murray, most white commentators “seem to assume that for the Negro, literature is simply incidental to protest.”
I was disturbed at the time—and still am—by the patness of the term, its smug certainty that nothing had happened within, say, the last thirty years or so to impair its relevance as a description of any and all writing that happened to be done by a Negro. Though I was willing to acknowledge that the term may have had a certain historical aptness, it seemed very apparent that today—except for a few defiantly regressive instances—most serious Negro writers do not see literature as simply incidental to protest. One would have to have, it seemed to me, some deep psychic stake in preserving old Negro stereotypes to believe that a category like “genre writing” could describe accurately or honestly the novels of Ralph Ellison and William Melvin Kelly, the plays of the late Lorraine Hansberry, the poetry of Melvin Tolson and Gwendolyn Brooks, and—to a lesser extent perhaps—the work of James Baldwin and Ann Petry, to name only the most obvious instances that come to mind.
So it came as a surprise, in reading this collection of essays on Negro writing, to discover that dispassionate white critics aren’t the only ones who seem to believe that the only proper place for Negro writing is in the protest jug. A number of the Negro contributors to this volume—which grew out of a seminar on Negro writing held at Berkeley in 1964—seem to share the view that the only value worth looking for in Negro literature is its quotient of social commitment—i.e., social protest. A good part of the book, for example, is given over to a discussion of that period in the 20’s which marked the heyday of Negro protest writing—but a discussion so tender and nostalgic as to constitute a kind of pious ritual celebration. Whatever misgivings otherwise perceptive critics like Saunders Redding or Arna Bontemps may feel about certain of the lesser products of this particular literary movement go unvoiced in the general glow of nostalgia and warmth that pervades the occasion. Behind their reluctance to express anything so rigorous as a literary judgment, one discerns a paramount consideration: Negro writing, springing as it did from oppression, is to be regarded as a “literature of necessity,” and as such automatically exempt from “mere” literary criteria; to view it otherwise would be to compromise one’s commitment to the imperatives of the Negro struggle.
Of all the essays in the book, the one by Ossie Davis—“The Wonderful World of Law and Order”—expressed this view at its starkest and most explicit:
The Negro in this country has to write protest, because he is a protestant. He can’t help but be. The protest must continue to be loud, bitter, and haranguing. . . . It must be angry. It must be aimed at corrective action here and now.
A more complex statement of what is essentially the same position is offered by Arna Bontemps in his essay on Jean Toomer, one of the first Negro novelists to turn his back on the didactic tradition.
Toomer’s first novel, Cane, was hailed immediately after its publication as an outstanding work of art, and continues to be ranked today—with Ellison’s Invisible Man—as one of the two important novels to have been written by a Negro in America. Yet Toomer never succeeded in attracting more than the narrowest readership, either for Cane or for his few later works, and is said to have despaired in the end of the possibility of a Negro’s ever winning acceptance as a writer in the United States. Disillusioned, he finally stopped writing altogether.
In Bontemps’s account of all this, the attentive reader cannot help but detect a certain note of mocking pleasure. There is the unmistakable suggestion throughout that Toomer would have been a lot better off had he stuck to writing the kind of straightforward protest novels—like Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem, for instance—that all his colleagues in Harlem in the 20’s were turning out; that he deserved what happened to him for allowing himself to be flattered by white critics into writing “imaginative” literature. Throwing in the fact that Toomer happened to have been light-skinned enough to pass for white, Bontemps concludes:
What Toomer was trying to indicate to us by the course he took still intrigues, but I suspect he realizes by now that there is no further need to signify. The secrets are out. As the song says, “There is no hiding place down there.”
If Bontemps, a veteran of the literary battles of the 20’s, can be excused on the ground of ancient commitments, and Ossie Davis can be dismissed as less than a working writer, LeRoi Jones cannot be let off that easily. Not only is he a serious working writer, presumably experienced in the requirements of art, he is also—considering the French, German, and Irish literary “influences” he so frequently cites—fairly conversant with what, for want of a better term, could be called the modern sensibility, irrespective of national or ethnic considerations. Yet from his essay one gets the impression of total and all-pervading irresolution, of an absolute failure to have reconciled in himself a whole range of fatally irreconcilable opposites, beginning with the primary opposition between his racist enthusiasms and his obvious hunger for artistic coolness. One comes away from this essay of Jones’s—as from so much of his other work—With the impression of a tormented, irresolute figure in a chaos of opinion, one arm reaching toward Mecca, the other clutching at Chicago, hoping perhaps—if only to simplify his problem—that the hand pointing toward Mecca won’t be quite long enough to reach.
To begin with, Jones issues a firm and resolute call to Negro writers to dissociate themselves from the mainstream of American culture—a tired, white stream, wholly polluted. This cry is by now familiar enough and even, one must admit, stirring. Yet what does it mean? What, precisely, could the content of writing be that was divorced from “the mainstream of American culture”? Where is one to begin? As though admitting to the purely rhetorical nature of these brave words, Jones then turns around a few passages later, and praises for “top-level performance in the areas in which each functions” such diverse Negro writers and spokesmen as W. E. B. Dubois (his later radical politics notwithstanding), Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Where, then, one is inclined to ask, have these writers been functioning, if not in the mainstream of American culture; and how is one to define them if not in its terms; and by what standards of excellence is Jones praising them, if not by the same ones critics have been using all along in according these writers their reputations? Indeed, considering the increasing toll that ideological considerations have taken of him recently, Jones is surprisingly generous toward Negro writers in the present essay; by contrast, writing a few years ago in the Saturday Review, he denounced “the impressive mediocrity” of Negro literature.
Jones is at his best when he is willing to shed the mantle of the ideologue and get down to specific cases, as in the following passage:
We’ve lived here, which is what everyone else has done, and we have memories of our particular and specific ways of living here, and that is valuable as a statement not only about this place but about the world.
This passage makes a lot of sense, and it even contains useful prescriptions for the Negro artist, but it comes soon after one in which Jones has recommended to Negro writers the artistic method of Negro jazz musicians, who are free to work without having “to respect any tradition outside of their own feelings.” Quite apart from the question of whether even jazz musicians have this bold a freedom—so frequently, and, I suspect, erroneously attributed to them by popular romantic myth—what possible meaning could such a prescription have for a working writer? How is a writer—Negro or otherwise—to render in intelligible terms his specific statement about his specific way of life without taking into account the prose tradition in which he is working? In other words, how is one to talk about writing without talking about technique, aesthetic method, all the rest of it? The response of Ralph Ellison to Jones’s Blues People is perhaps not insignificant in this connection:
Attempt to discuss jazz as a hermetic expression of Negro sensibility, and immediately we must consider what the “mainstream” of American music really is. . . . Negro musicians have never, as a group, felt alienated from any music sounded within their hearing. . . . and it would be impossible to pinpoint the time when they were not shaping what Jones calls the mainstream of American music. Indeed, what group of musicians has made more of the sound of the American experience?
Yet Hill’s book is not so onesided as I may have suggested. For all its lengthy and nostalgic celebration of the value of social commitment, it also uses the occasion to point out that Negro fiction can broaden its universe of concern without necessarily losing touch with the peculiar area of experience that gave it life. It does so largely through the inclusion of two essays on the work of Ralph Ellison who, among all contemporary Negro artists, has most notably attempted to liberate Negro writing and Negro thought about writing from the orthodoxy—the bondage, I would even say—of sheer racial protest, and to remind us of our citizenship within the wider and more complex boundaries of the American experience. These studies, by Robert Bone and Albert Murray, of the varieties of interests and attitudes, cultural and aesthetic, that are blended in Ellison’s sensibility, and, as a consequence, integrated in his work, are without doubt the finest in the book and—along with the piece by Nat Hentoff on the literary uses of the blues tradition—worth the price of admission.
On the face of it, then, it would seem from a reading of Anger, and Beyond that Negro writing today is caught between two poles: at one end is the neo-didactic LeRoi Jones, in whose hands literature tends to heat up into racist pamphleteering that screams as much for blood as for freedom now. And on the other is the traditionalist Ellison, working out of the totality of his experience as man, Negro, Negro American, and heir to Western literature. Such a polarization does, indeed, exist, but only up to a point, for in recent years more and more young Negro writers have been acquiring an interest in that “craftsmanship” whose lack Ellison has so frequently deplored. Once they have mastered their trade, however, these young writers will still be faced with the question of whether to adopt Ellison’s content as well as his form, or to pursue substantively a new course which in the final analysis might even bring them into the vicinity of Jones.
To say this is to suggest that Ellison has his limits as a guide, however much we admit that his work does indeed point out new directions for Negro fiction, and however much we admire his efforts at a fusion and integration of cultural and literary sensibilities. The new generation of writers may well feel obligated to offer their own “necessary modifications” to Ellison’s work, for it is, after all, entirely possible that they may view Ellison’s effort to make whole again “the shattered psyche of the nation” (as Robert Bone puts it) diency and, consequently, as an effort pervaded by moral compromise. In other words, it might just be their view that the psyche of the nation, as it is presently constituted, needs not so much to be repaired and reconstructed as reconceived and recreated.
Those, however, who hold this view would seem to impose upon themselves the obligation to move beyond nihilism and to attempt a sane and methodical critique of that psyche, as well as to propose a set of more viable values by which it might recreate itself.
It is my impression that they have yet to do so. So far as one has heard from the radical position, so far, in fact, as this position might be said to be represented by Jones, the critique seems to have been drowned out in emotional rasping and ranting, and one does not see any definitive alternative stance taking shape. The new and coherent radicalism may, of course, still emerge in the future, and if and when it does, it will be entitled to our patient consideration. Until such time, however, as we are confronted with proposals that represent more than mere willful, petulant anarchy, we have no choice but to endorse strongly the responsible, courageous, and humane direction taken by Ralph Ellison, and by all those who share his vision.