The Mail: Afro-American Club
To the Editors of the CRIMSON:
In the discussion on the propriety of extending recognition to the newly-formed African and Afro-American Association that has appeared in the CRIMSON, a number of issues crucial to any decision on this matter have been curiously omitted. This is particularly so for your editorial (the conclusion of which I happen to support) and the several minority editorials.
The letter of Mr. William Harrison, editor of the Boston Chronicle (a Negro newspaper), and the statements of Dean Monro strike me as the most useful comments to appear thus far. Dean Monro properly underlined the fact that several student associations based essentially upon exclusive or discriminating norms already exist (e.g., the Newman Club of Catholic students, and the Hillel Society) and intimated the hypocrisy of those who would discard this fact in their haste to judge the Afro-American Association out of bounds.
What is more, Dean Monro and Mr. Harrison implied that in themselves exclusive norms by Jewish-American associations has been fundamentally permissive to progressive and intellectually desirable relationships and patterns of behavior in American society union are neither bad nor good. The test is the consequences of the behavior of association rooted in exclusive forces. Thus one surely need not belabor the point that the use of exclusive norms by white supremacist associations in the American South is explicitly restrictive of the Negro's capacity to complete equally and adequately in society, while the use of exclusive norms by Jewish-American associations has been fundamentally permissive to progressive and intelectually desirable relationships and patterns of behavior in American society. Even so, in terms of classical liberal principles governing rights of association, white supremacist associations have a right to the exclusive norms underlying this existence. This right may be restricted only as its institutional expression negatively affects a fundamental right of another group.
Indeed, it is precisely in the realm of classical liberal propositions that I find the most curious omissions from most of the discussion on the Afro-American Association in the CRIMSON'S pages. Essential among these propositions is some notion of pluralism, which means, inter alia, that far from being an undesirable feature of liberal society, particularly associational behavior is the sine qua non of such society. 18th and 19th century nationalisms in Europe were inspired by particularistic norms and forces, and the progress they secured via the destruction of outmoded empire-states was related to these norms. One could say the same of the American Revolution as well, but since contemporary liberalism seems no longer fond of citing the American Revolution as a precedent of something good, proper, and progressive, I won't belabor this one....
It would seem, in short that the problem with present-day liberalism is partly the neglect of its own historical precedents. Hence the facility with which it rejects, with an historical air, contemporary expressions of particularism. (No doubt the use of particularistic norms by German Nazism assisted the current attitude towards particularistic groups, and this is understandable enough; but there is certainly nothing in particularism as such that would necessarily lead to the grotesque and barbaric consequences for excluded groups as Nazism did for Jews.) Moreover, in the case of the Negro's use of particularistic norms, a more serious neglect of history by contemporary liberalism is apparent. Thus the minority editorial statements of Stephen Jencks and Herbert Denton reveal not one clue that it was the historical relationship of white American society to the Negro which has left the latter little more than the particularistic fact of his blackness, his Negritude--and all this implies--as a means to grapple with his backward and demoralized status in society. As far as I am concerned, and perhaps other Negroes as well (though I accept Riesman's point in a recent letter to Commentary that in such discussions as this it is perhaps best to speak for oneself) this is a pathetic addition of insult to an already gross injury....
Finally, I should like to comment specifically on Herbert Denton's minority editorial in the CRIMSON, May 14th. Though Denton's facile style gives the appearance of knowledge about what he writes, the content of what he writes is quite misinformed. There is not space to elaborate this as I would like, but let me note several brief points.
1) The idea of a community of interest and experience among Negroes in the New World (viz., North America, South America--especially Brazil--and the Caribbean) is more than a century old, and possibly older. (See writings of Africans like Sarbrah, Hayford, Azikiwe; Negro Americans like DuBois, Delaney; the French West Indian Rene Maran). In the late 19th century educated Africans in West Africa were articulating such a position--often without having had direct contact with new World Negroes--and Negroes in the Caribbean and North America were doing likewise. More recently, Negro intellectuals in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa have formulated the idea of a community of interest and experience (and even behavior) among Negro peoples. The poem Negritude by the French West Indian, Aime Cesaire, underscores this, as do many of Senghor's poems, like New York City (Hariem), or To American Negro Troops.
Whether the basis of this idea is essentially phoney, as Denton intimates is no doubt an important query. But I would appreciate seeing the kind of evidence Denton has to indicate that the idea has no meaningful relationship to the historical fact of the type of relationship Negroes (in Old and New World) have had with the technologically advanced societies of the west.
2) To my knowledge, none of the major exponents of the idea of a community of interest and experience among Negroes in Africa and the Americas has ever argued that a similar situation does not or cannot apply to other groups claiming similar experiences. In fact, many exponents of this idea both in Africa and the Americas have referred to the situation of Jews as being quite comparable, though not identical. They have also argued, however, that given the fact that Negroes are black, their experience at the hands of technologically more powerful white societies has been essentially unique. Surely Denton must be aware of the fact that white societies which have dominated Negro groups for some three centuries consciously created institutions, myths, and ideologies that rendered the Negro a particular kind of oppressed person within these socities.
3) Finally, I for one do not adhere to the view Denton says he received from his Negro friend in Harvard College that whites qua whites cannot grasp the essentials of Negro experiences in modern times, and assist in eradicating the consequences of these experiences. However, from Denton's article it is clear that he himself is in no position whatever to answer this view-point one way or the other. Despite the fact that he is himself a Negro, Herbert Denton possesses a pitifully superficial understanding of the Negro's experience, both past and present. Martin Kilson Lecturer on Government
Mr. DENTON replies:
Mr. Kilson attempts to establish the idea that there is an overriding international community of Negro Interest and experience by reciting a long list of Negro poets and authors who have expressed this feeling. I could give a longer list of white poets and authors who have expressed a common feeling of "white supremacy." I don't think that an idea is good or true simply because it has been stated before. My main argument against the Association, however, was not whether or not there did in fact exist some possible particular community of Interest between African and American Negroes (or, if he prefers, 'Africans' and 'Afro-Americans'). I asked what these were and whether they were so great as to warrant forming a club which excluded members of other groups.
In point two of his arguments, Mr. Kilson attempts to give substance to the argument of "unity of oppression" by saying, in effect, that African and American Negroes are united by the similar myths that whites have formed against them. I did not argue that the myths were not similar but rather that the styles of oppression have been different. The difference in the styles of oppression and In the social, economic, and political surroundings has resulted, I feel, in a difference in the present circumstances, attitudes, etc., of American and African Negroes. I still fail to see how their widely divergent experiences join the two groups together to the exclusion of other oppressed groups.
I think that point three of Mr. Kilson's argument (which seemingly implies that I am less of a Negro than he is because I don't particularly agree with him) clearly confirms my chief reservation about the forming of an African and Afro-American Association at Harvard--that Harvard Negro undergraduates who don't join would be accused of "selling out," being "Uncle Toms" or, as Mr. Kilson so eruditely puts it, "possessing a pitifully superficial understanding."