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A Refreshing Radicalism

From the Shelf

By Michael Lerner

When the subject is the Association of African and Afro-American Students, I am a critical audience. The idea of a Negro club that excludes whites is no more appealing to me than the idea of a final club that excludes Negroes and all but the least Jewish Jews. Replacing one racial exclusiveness with another, even in the name of a "necessary negritude," appears to me to be one of the saddest side-effects of the civil rights movement. Black nationalism, which may fit Africa but cannot fit the United States, is what the Afro-American Association has symbolized to me.

This pronunciamento of bias is my only preface to saying that the Harvard Journal of Negro Affairs, just published by the Association, is one of the most promising magazines I have read. If you are involved in civil rights, you will buy this journal without my prompting. If you are not involved but collect rare issues of important publications, you still might buy Negro Affairs. The first number of what might become a classic is a good investment.

The genius of the first issue of Negro Affairs is that it has no ideology. The introduction announces that the magazine is purposely reflective and diverse: there are articles by a Radcliffe graduate now teaching junior high-school, a Harvard lecturer, a Harvard SNCC worker, and a Yale drop-out.

The list of contributors is itself like a fresh breeze when the Charles is in full summer odor. There has been no attempt to find big-name authors whose hasty contributions would give the magazine an inviting surface but sewer-like depth. The contributors are not (as they might have been) ideologues with self-assured, all-embracing solutions. They are different people, some right and some wrong, writing of different experiences. This is a magazine, not a NEGRO MAGAZINE, and if the promise of the first issue holds, it will be a good one.

The diversity of Negro Affairs is necessarily limited, "necessarily" because if there had not been unarticulated radical discontent with the civil rights movement, a new review could not have come into existence. Sheila Rush, a Harvard Law graduate, expresses this discontent in "New Militants," the lead essay. The writing in the piece is full of educated cliches about "tension" and "effective instruments of social change." Behind the cliches is an intelligent and sensitive thesis: the old Negro leadership is unresponsive to the real needs of the Negroes; the young militants are simplistic in their identification of whiteness with enemy and negritude with good.

But the limit on diversity also constitutes the danger of the magazine's future. The introduction speaks of desire to "foster awareness and scrutiny of the variety of...opinion among the Negroes of our generation." Yet while the journal reprints an Esquire piece denouncing the fate of a Negro in an Ivy League college, it has failed to reprint the original piece praising the relative degree of humanity a Negro may find at Harvard.

The reprinted piece by Martel W. Davis is excellent. He writes of the patronization and hypocrisy he found at Yale with sensitivity. Yet Davis sounds as if he believes no perceptive Negro can conceivably disagree with him, and this is simply not the case. Some Negroes here do believe Harvard is a sanctuary, inasmuch as one exists, where race is not in the eyes of every passer-by. Davis describes a bull-session at Andover where one of his classmates screamed at him "God, what an asshole." "Tears," said Davis, "welled up in my eyes. His words struck me in the heart; and I know how they were true. That was about the first decent human response I had received in my whole prep-school career." If Davis did not find obscene frankness at Yale, he just went to the wrong school. There are plenty of people here who, if his conversation annoyed them, would address him in similar terms.

Pamela Blake's "A Dream Deferred" is a wonderful article, analyzing the Negro American's psychological development in Erik Erikson's terms. Martin Kilson's "Responses to Blackness: Negro Americans and Africa," is intriguing but I think wrong. Negritude may well be a bond American Negroes and Africans share, just as Jews are linked to the people of Israel. But the first identity of American Negroes and Jews will ultimately be, I believe, to our country and not to the countries from which we came. Herbert Aptheker's "W. E. B. DuBois" is more a function of his scholarship than of his Communist Party allegiance, and since its scholarship is of a high level it is very good.

The only piece I didn't like, although it was well-written, was Claude Weaver's "Martin Luther King at Oslo." When Weaver writes "the white community is bursting with paternal advice for its little brown brothers," he does exactly what he told me not to do: he looks at someone's skin and sees the big bad wolf. He does what Sheila Rush warned against and again demonstrates the danger that Negro Affairs faces. By lumping the "white community," even for a single sentence, Weaver begins the debilitating process of over-simplification. Moreover, his denigration of King's power sounds partly like wishful SNCC thinking.

Negro Affairs starts with the excitement of a diverse, sophisticated radicalism unburdened by ideology. Even the details of printing, typeface, and design are uncommonly good. If the magazine blossoms outward, there are few limits to the stimulation it may provide.

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