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Buried Treasure: selections from the Peace News archives

50 years ago: The curious dilemma of the American Negro

The South African political exile Lewis Nkosi, writing in Peace News in the period before he became a well-known author, drew on his experience of the South African struggle to criticise the analysis of African-American writer Louis Lomax in the latter’s book The Negro Revolt. This was part of PN’s wide-ranging coverage – by those involved – of the Civil Rights movement in the US in the ’60s.

The struggle in America is not what it appears to be to most white people; nor is it comparable or similar in nature to the fight against apartheid. It is a curious struggle that is being waged both in the area of public amenities and in the Negro soul itself. The struggle for civil rights – which is also, in the main, the subject of Mr Lomax’s book – is moreover perplexing because of its diverse ramifications. While speaking to American Negros one soon gains the impression that the growing momentum against segregated institutions is bound up with a need to destroy once and for ever a picture which the white master has always had of the black slave. But in seeking to destroy this image, the Negro is also painfully aware that he is not at all sure that he wants to take on the other more general, diffuse image of simply becoming a white American. He would like to become a better American, certainly; but how is he going to be unless we consider his suffering to have made him better, more resourceful, more humane and far richer?

To be an American is a complex fate, said James Baldwin. I’m not at all sure that I want to be integrated into a burning house, doubted Lorraine Hansberry. At his most metaphysical, the distinguished Negro writer, James Baldwin, continually argues that it is the American Negro who must liberate or save America, and Baldwin is far too complex and imaginative a writer to be merely talking about political power. After all, Negroes can be just as vicious or simply as ignorant as white people.

Baldwin recently made the highly revealing statement that he was trying to ‘find another word besides Negro to say what I mean, and I can’t use tragedy.’ Most of the time, Baldwin is using Negro as a kind of existential term to cover a certain body of experience which he considers forever locked to white Americans so long as they decline to come to terms with the ‘Negro’ within themselves. Like most deeply thinking Negro intellectuals, Baldwin is ambiguous about ‘integration’ and is terrified of what might happen to the Negro when he becomes simply ‘an American’. Paradoxically, it is this ambiguity which sometimes invests his writing with extraordinary power. It is this ambiguity which brings about a marked contrast between his writing and that of the present writer, Louis Lomax.

If I seem to have been writing about James Baldwin rather than about Louis Lomax’s book, it is because I wanted to indicate the complexity of the Negro problem in America. The struggle is perhaps simplest in the area of public amenities, where any liberal can gather enough facts for a competent book on the subject, and that is precisely what Louis Lomax has done. What I find irritating about Mr Lomax is that he takes the liberal dogma for granted where it is being seriously questioned: the revolt which he discusses at length is one involving a change in tactics, but none that involves a direct challenge to the very social structure that allows for such barbaric treatment of the Negro. Nowhere does Mr Lomax question the liberal assumption that at bottom we love each other, and I am not now talking essentially of the Negro-white problem.

But such an assumption has to be questioned if only because, if we do not question it, we run the danger of having our minds continually focussed not on the real problem which faces us, which is one of discovering a way of radically changing human consciousness, but instead we are led into the easy path of political platitudes which, in Mr Lomax’s case, leads him to perpetrate upon us such howling clichés as when he claims the American Negro wants to realise ‘the American dream’.

Which American dream? ‘I cannot accept the proposition,’ says James Baldwin, ‘that the four hundred year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilisation.’ I consider the chief failure of this book that it does not provide any deeper insights, beyond journalistic fact, into the anguish which grips the American Negro as he marches towards full political citizenship.


From a book review in the 19 July 1963 issue of Peace News.
This item was suggested by Albert Beale, author of Against All War: Fifty Years of Peace


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Topics: Race