Fall 2008, Vol. 17, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Civil Rights, Race, and Memory

Richard Kingt

By Richard King

On April 3-4, 2008, the Warren Center hosted a conference in response to Robert Penn Warren’s 1965 book Who Speaks for the Negro? Entitled “We Speak for Ourselves,” the gathering of scholars and activists joined together to revisit issues raised in Warren’s provocativelytitled volume. Richard King, Professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Nottingham and former William S. Vaughn Fellow at the Warren Center, delivered these remarks at the conference.

It is tempting to answer the question posed by the title of Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro? (1965) with an abrupt “not you, at least.” One of the original Vanderbilt Agrarians, Warren contributed his “The Briar Patch” essay to the manifesto of Agrarianism, I’ll Take My Stand (1930), and it was the only piece in that collection to deal directly with race. Despite its reasonable and even progressive tone, it rested on a basic assumption of white supremacy. Despite nods toward protecting Black rights and making a secure economic place for Black people, Warren concluded that the Negro was best suited for rural and smalltown life and that his or her place would never entail full equality with whites. Even then, Warren’s more conservative Agrarian colleague, Donald Davidson, who taught English at Vanderbilt for years, thought Warren’s piece smacked too much of contemporary sociology, i.e. was too solicitous of progressive notions.

Yet, at the beginning of Who Speaks for the Negro?, Warren informs us that his 1930 essay had nagged at him for years. This suggests that Warren’s oral history of the Civil Rights movement was a way of re-visiting the issue of race in order to be “quits” with the issue once and for all. Surprisingly, race never really assumed a central place in Warren’s fiction, which tended to focus on the individual as he or she sought to overcome self-division and to achieve some sort of moral coherence. Moral identity would be achieved by taking responsibility for one’s hidden fears and denied actions. Typically, as in All the King’s Men (1946), the protagonist, in this case Jack Burden, acquires hard-won knowledge about the terms of his existence and thereby becomes capable of action and feeling. That said, one of the central concerns of Warren’s non-fiction was an obsession with regional, racial, and national identity. For Warren, then, the central purpose of collective existence mirrors that of the individual: the achievement of moral identity in the face of wrenching historical change. In the terms he had himself once suggested, Warren’s fiction tended to assume the South as a setting, while his historically oriented essays, memoirs, and reflections often posited the South itself as a central theme.

Specifically, in two short books published in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Segregation (1956) and The Legacy of the Civil War (1961), Warren sought to puzzle out the meaning of the impending revolution in race relations faced by the South and by the nation. Who Speaks for the Negro?, then, was both a culmination of his meditations upon the moral trajectory of recent southern and American history and a significant step beyond those two books in intellectual and moral complexity. In it, Warren shifted the terrain upon which his exploration was carried out. If the dominant focus of the two shorter books had fallen primarily (though not exclusively) upon the way white southerners and white Americans were dealing with America’s racial dilemma, Who Speaks for the Negro? focused on the way that Black Americans, south and north, were responding to the revolution in race relations touched off by the Brown decision and by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in the South. In form, Who Speaks for the Negro? was different than the two earlier books since it was explicitly devoted to the direct airing of Black voices on these and related matters—though Warren’s own views were subject to scrutiny as well.

As such, the book was distinctly innovative. It is no simple transcription of the Q and A between Warren and various African American respondents, but, rather, a sophisticated collage of questions and answers, responses and counter-responses, interrogations and arguments. At intervals, Warren drew back to gather his thoughts and then present them in essayistic form or as “notebook” entries. Warren also came prepared with a battery of questions that he posed to the interviewees. What did the person being interviewed understand by “Freedom Now?” If the federal government had compensated the slave owners in 1861 and the War plus Reconstruction had been avoided, would it have been worth it? Were southern Blacks apathetic and, if so, why? Above all Warren kept raising the identity question, usually combined with a reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous “double consciousness” thesis. Ultimately, the book was a remarkable meditation on morality and power, identity and alienation, the complexity of which was mirrored in the book’s structure and in the interaction of its voices. A prime example of the best of oral history, a genre that proliferated in the democratic 1960s, Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro? anticipated Studs Terkel’s Division Street (1967) and Hard Times (1970), not to mention Howell Raines’s later oral history of the Movement, My Soul is Rested (1977). Thus, as a kind of book, as a repository of historical voices that at the same time gave historical efficacy to those voices, Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro? was first among equals in a decade when New Left historians called for “history from the bottom up.”

Here the literary and intellectual history of the southern response to the Black freedom struggle should also be remembered. Among the post-war epigones of William Faulkner were two particularly talented white male writers, Warren and William Styron. They, along with Cleanth Brooks, Warren’s one-time co-author, southern historian C. Vann Woodward, and African American writers Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, lived in the New York-New Haven area and, over the years, had become good friends. When brought together by the young editor of Harpers, the white Mississippian Willie Morris, or the then-liberal Norman Podhoretz at Commentary, they constituted a kind of southern literaryintellectual community in self-chosen exile. The title of Morris’s autobiographical memoir North Toward Home (1967) and Warren’s own ambivalent relief as he left the South in Segregation testify to the complex relationship they had to the South: “Yes, you know what the relief is. It is the flight from the reality you were born to” (91). By no means were these men radicals or activists. They shared a Cold War liberal suspicion of radical ideologies and grand abstractions applied to historical reality; added to that was a southern scepticism of “Yankee” attempts to characterize race relations with neat phrases or elegant diagnoses. There is no better way to capture the essence of this position than to read the thirty page exchange in Who Speaks for the Negro? between Ellison and Warren, who had become close friends by the 1960s. One of their favourite topics was the way that white and Black southerners shared more than what divided them, and they understood each other better than “Yankees” understood either. Indeed, this was the basic presupposition, I think, underlying Warren’s concern with the achievement of a new moral identity shared by Black and white Southerners. Such a bi-racial Southern identity would ideally trump separate white and Black regional identities.

But the difference between the way Styron and the way Warren engaged with the racial complexities of the 1960s is striking. Where Styron dared assume the voice and persona of the leader of the 1831 slave revolt, Nat Turner, in the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), Warren’s format allowed other voices and positions besides his own to be heard. Styron notoriously ran into a firestorm of criticism for his controversial depiction of Turner—and even more so for presuming that he, a white Virginian living in suburban Connecticut, could speak not just for but as a black slave, Nat Turner. This is not to suggest that Warren was a silent partner in the dialogues he constructed in Who Speaks for the Negro? He was nothing if not garrulous and opinionated, peppering his interviewees with questions and challenges, e.g. his rapid-fire exchanges with psychologist Kenneth Clark about John Brown. And we need only compare Warren’s description of Martin Luther King’s “rich, resonant voice, with a vibrance of inner force” (220) with the “stoniness” and “characteristic wide, leering, merciless smile”(245) of Malcolm X to be struck by the way Warren, the seasoned novelist, worked to shape his readers’ reactions.

But Who Speaks for the Negro? was not without weaknesses. Though Warren does talk with plenty of young people, particularly students and Movement activists, that material fails to come alive in the way the interviews with the more familiar—and more famous—figures do. (The interviews with Stokely Carmichael and Robert Moses, then relatively unknown, are exceptions.) So worried is Warren that the common Black people of the South will be unduly romanticized that he fails to underline just how remarkable their civic courage was. Closely related but more significant is the paucity of women canvassed in the book. This is not just a matter of achieving some sort of arithmetical balance. We now know that women clearly played a major role at the grass-roots level and on up the leadership ladder of the Movement. One thinks, of course, of Ella Baker, who has only one index entry. Certainly any oral history of the Movement should include conversations with Rosa Parks (who receives a couple of mentions on one page) or Fannie Lou Hamer, who is mentioned three times but apparently is not interviewed. Clearly, Warren is most comfortable with African American men in positions of authority. Surprisingly, though both Martin Luther King and Wyatt Tee Walker have “good” interviews with Warren, the role of religion, whether Christianity or the Nation of Islam, is relatively neglected. Fellow writers James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison receive a total of around fifty pages, but a younger black writer such as Leroi Jones is omitted. Except for Bayard Rustin, there are no interviews with former members of the CPUSA; neither A. Philip Randolph nor other people with union experience are spoken to. In that sense, the democratic spirit of the oral history genre is compromised by the comparatively narrow range of types of people Warren consults. It is not that a white man is speaking for African Americans, but that too narrow a range of Black voices are heard.

Other issues remain largely unexplored— perhaps inevitably so. In an approach that stresses “voice,” it is hardly surprising that impersonal institutional factors tend to be neglected. The book certainly includes no critique of the economic system or of dominant social and educational institutions. Overall, Warren’s largely moral-psychological approach, with its emphasis upon identity, respect, and recognition, also makes it difficult to focus much attention on the need for economic and social change. Warren does, however, seem to be concerned with the Civil Rights movement’s loss of focus, the fear that the leaders he is talking with may be losing their authority. In this, of course, there was a certain intuitive accuracy. Malcolm X and James Forman, angry men who are less concerned with complexity and balance, clearly disturb Warren.

Finally, the answer to the question posed by the title remains unanswered by Warren—and wisely so. Certainly Warren does not claim to have or want the final word. The question mark is earned rather perfunctorily. It is no great feat to pick out Warren’s favourites—Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, Ralph Ellison, and even Stokely Carmichael—or the figures with whom he felt somehow uncomfortable—James Forman, Malcolm X, Kenneth Clark, and James Baldwin. It is not so much that these latter figures are too radical for Warren’s taste per se. Rather, given Warren’s emphasis upon mutual recognition as the keystone of moral identity, his fear, I think, was that they foreshadowed the way that Black leaders might lose interest in white recognition, no longer think of it as necessary for Black progress, no longer consider white people as points of reference; in sum, no longer care what white people think at all.

In Who Speaks for the Negro? Warren insisted that America was witnessing a momentous historical attempt on the part of Black Americans to wrest recognition from the white oppressor and to overcome “that look in the eye that denies human recognition” (33). History for him seems to revolve around the search for recognition; moreover, it also implies the obligation of white Americans to acknowledge the rights and recognize the humanity of Black Americans. Beyond that, near the end of Segregation, Warren also speculated that the next question asked by Black people might be: “After all the patience, after all the humility, after learning and living those virtues, do I have to learn magnanimity, too?” That is, do Black people have to be patient with white people while they learn what they should already know? “I’m glad,” Warren concluded, “that white people have no problem as hard as that” (107).

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