The Crusade of Indignation
The article originally appeared in the July 7, 1956, issue of The Nation.
“The love of money,” St. Paul once wrote, with a fairly typical lack of precision, “is the root of all evil.” This formulation seems to leave a great many evils out of account, and it does not even raise the question of just why the human heart, in which this love of money lives, should be so base. Nor does it raise the question of what money is, what is its power, what it means to people or states. With so many knotty questions thus neatly disposed of, people who share Paul’s attitude about money can also believe—as he, being bigoted in quite another direction, did not—that people will be made better as their economic state improves. It is an extremely attractive theory, and most of us have at one time or another espoused it.
Only—in order to bring about this economic utopia, one needs a band of people who do not care about money—or power?—who will carry out the necessary operation of taking the money from those who now have an abundance of it and distributing it among those who have too little.
In this operation—the love of money persisting so tenaciously—blood is likely to be shed. And the shedding of blood will probably prove to be the operation’s most real achievement. When things go back to what may be called normal, it will be seen that the people who were to be made better still persist in loving money and in trying—no matter what it may do to themselves, their neighbors, or their children—to make it.
People who approach the Negro problem from this doctrinaire point of view are always embarrassed by at least two facts. One is that Negroes love money quite as much as whites do, and rather more than they love one another. The other is that the people in America least attracted to the idea of a worker's state are the workers. They are not interested in themselves as workers—except in their clashes with management, in which they are represented by those other managers, the union leaders. They are interested in achieving what, in fact, can still be achieved at this period in American life: a measure of economic peace. Unless forced by outside pressure, they are not terribly concerned with what may be happening next door—among Negroes, for example.
In the Negro world, as in the white world, Negroes who have money band together and try to ignore the existence of their unluckier brothers. That is the way the love of money works. But neither money, nor the love of it, is the root of all evil. The importance of money is simply that power in the world does not exist without it and power in the world is what almost everyone would like to have.
The love of money thesis is the thesis of Daniel Guerin’s Negroes on The March, and, since I find it impossible to take the thesis seriously, I find it rather difficult to discuss the book—which is, anyway, less a discussion of the American Negro’s situation than a rather shrill diatribe against the capitalist system. No one with any pretension to intellectual honesty claims that the capitalist system is perfect, or is likely to be made so. It may indeed be doomed, and we may all be the slothful and pussy-footing creatures Mr. Guerin says we are. But hls own tone is so extremely ungenerous that I cannot avoid a certain chill when I think of the probable fate of dissenters in his varicolored brave new world. Here he is on Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish social scientist whose An American Dilemma Mr. Guerin finds "feeble in interpretation". (All italics are Mr. Guerin's). "...it does not explain how, by whom, and why race prejudice was brought into being." (It certainly does not; I, too, should like to read the book which does.) But Myrdal's feebleness, it turns out, is blacker than mere incompetence: “Without calling into question Myrdal’s good faith, we must nevertheless make the observation that his method is quite in harmony with the concerns of those who subsidized his work and serves their interests quite well. For what did the trustees of the Carnegie Foundation actually want?” What they didn’t want was a “cause-and-effect relationship…established between capitalist oppression and race prejudice.” Bright students, or people who have heard this song before will already have guessed the reason, as follows: “…victims of race prejudice would be likely to draw conclusions dangerous to the established order.” Nor would the awakened white workers have taken long to realize that their best interests lay in black-white solidarity. Myrdal’s real task, according to Mr. Guerin, was to avoid saying anything which, by leading to such a holocaust, would displease and posslbly destroy the Carnegie Foundation.
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A man whose vision of the world remains as elementary as Mr. Guerin’s can scarcely be trusted to help us understand it. It is true enough, for example, as far as it goes, that slavery was establlshed and then abolished for economic reasons; but slavery did not come into the world along with capitalism any more than race prejudice did; and it need scarcely be said, at this late date, that where capitalism has been abolished slavery and race prejudice yet remain. It is also true—again, as far as it goes —that, as Mary McLeod Bethune said, “The voice of organized labor has become one of the most powerful in the land and unless we have a part in that voice our people will not be heard.” But “our people” are then speaking as a part of organized labor. Labor’s interests may often be identlcal with the Negro’s interests; but Mr. Guerin fads to understand that, in the light of the white worker’s desire to achieve greater status, his aims and those of the Negro often clash quite bitterly.
All thls is changing, to be sure, but so very, very slowly, and in such unexpected ways that only a madman would dare to predlct the final Issue—if one can speak, in human affairs, of a final Issue. The world in which people flnd themselves is not simply a vindictive plot imposed on them from above; it is also the world they have helped to make. They have helped to make, and help to sustain it by sharing the assumptions which hold their world together. Mr. Guerin’s book, so far from having broken wlth any of the assumptions whlch have helped to cause such agony in the world—so far from being revolutionary or even “modern”—is a desperate cliche, is painfully, stiflingly old-fashioned. It is certainly not revolutionary today to suggest, that, whereas it was wrong for capitalists to murder workers, it is right for workers to murder capitalists; whereas it is wrong for whites to murder Negroes, Negroes may be pardoned for murdering whites. Mr. Guerin is unable to recognize a sadly persistent fact: the concepts contained in words llke “freedom,” “justice,” “democracy” are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply. Since Mr. Guerin lacks any sense of history, except as something to be manipulated, and has really no respect whatever for the human personallty, he is unable to give us any sense of the perpetual interactlon of these forces on one another. Wlthout this sense all states become abstractions, and lawless ones at that.
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Mr. Guerin wants us all to go out right away and begln preparing for the equitable new state which will succeed to the present inequitable one; and should the present state seem reluctant to wither away, he has no objection to setting it to the torch. One of his heroes, John Brown, is one of the minor villains in J. C. Furnas’ admirable Goodbye To Uncle Tom. Mr. Furnas’ attitude can be gathered from his comment that “What Mrs. Stowe and John Brown did was not to create the forces that would free the slave but to make sure that North and South went into thelr crlsis in the least promising state of mind.” In view of the enormous bltterness the Civil War has left us, this statement seems dlsquietingly close to the truth. It suggests that indignation and goodwill are not enough to make the world better. Clarity is needed, as well as charity, however difficult this may be to imagine, much less sustain, toward the other side. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about social indignation is that it so frequently leads to the death of personal humillty. Once that has happened, one has ceased to live in that world of men which one is striving so mightily to make over. One has entered into a dialogue with that terrifying deity, sometimes called Hlstory, previously, and perhaps again, to be referred to as God, to which no sacrifice in human suffering is too great.
Mr. Furnas maintains that, despite the world-renowned indignation of its author, Uncle Tom's Cabin is a shoddy and almost totally undocumented piece of fiction, which it is; and, further, that it is thls book which has set the tone for the attitude of American whites toward Negroes for the last one hundred years. This may seem, at flrst, rather too heavy a welght to place on a single book. Yet when one considers thls novel's enormous prestige and popularity, remembers that it was read for generatlons as though it were another Bible, that it is involved with the deepest, most lasting bitterness and the bloodiest conflict this nation has ever known; when one reflects, above all, how it flatters the popular mind, posltlvely discouraglng that mind from any tendency to think the matter through for itself—and this to such an extent that both pro and anti-Negro sentiment have read thls book as scripture—one is forced to the conclusion that Mr. Furnas is almost certainly more nearly right than wrong. Add to thls the impact of the "Tom" shows, whlch perslsted, according to Mr. Furnas, until 1933, the last one being heard of in 1950, whlch definitely jettisoned whatever valldity Mrs. Stowe's work might have had, and which introduced—with Topsy—that blackfaced comic-character who is the despair of Negro actors even today—well, at least it can be said that few indeed are the novels which can boast of such a long, varied and influential life, few the novels which the objectlve condition conspired to keep in fashlon for so long. Even today, Mr. Furnas places the annual sale of thls novel at about 8,000 copies.
And. indeed, if anyone seriously doubts that the attitudes to be found in Uncle Tom's Cabin are still prevalent among us, he has only to wade or sit through that other publishing landmark and mammoth rnovie, Gone With The Wind, or see almost any other movle dealing with Negro llfe, or read almost any other novel on the same subject publlshed in thls country since 1852. Or simply: ask hlmself what he really knows about the American Negro, what he really feels about him. It is a question, after all, whether what we will here call the ordinary American of good will knows anything more about Negro life than what has filtered through to hlm via memories of an exemplary Negro maid, or the experience—for whlch he is almost certainly not prepared—of, say, some Blllie Holiday records, perhaps a trip or two through Harlem, perhaps one, or two Negro colleagues, or a Negro college friend. And what he feels concerning all this is a mystery, probably even to himself. The sad truth is that he has probably taken refuge from thls exceedingly disturbing questlon, In the arbltrary decision that Negroes are just like everybody else. But, obviously, and especially in thls context, this is no truer than the sporadlcally old-fashioned notion that Negroes are inferior to everybody else sporadically, because fashions in thought—in the breast and in the world—are subject to bewlldering and shameful cycles. We have all had the experience of finding that our reactions and perhaps even our deeds have denled beliefs we thought were ours. And this is the danger of arrlving at arbltrary declsions in order to avold the risks of thought, of striklng arbltrary attitudes. If the attitude is a cover, what it is covering will inevitably be revealed.
And exactly this, in fact, has happened so often there is another, and very crucial difficulty encountered in interracial communication, in attempting to dlscover not what, but who the Negro is. In the first place, popular belief to the contrary, it is not enough to have been born a Negro to understand the history of Negroes in America. And, whereas whites have a complicated social machinery and a natural—and cultivated—mental and spiritual laziness operating to keep far from them any sense of how Negroes live; Negroes, beglnning with the natural desire to escape the humiliations, the downright persecutions, which Negroes endure, end, often enough, by despising all the other Negroes who have brought them to this condition—a condition which they spend incalculable amounts of energy blotting out of their conscious minds. But they, naturally enough, therefore, also hate all whites, who make the world as bleak for them as does a cloud before the sun. This universal hatred, turning inward and feeding on itself, is not the least ghastly aspect of the heritage of the American Negro, for all that it remains, by its nature, so hidden. It is, for one thing, the absolute death of the communication which might help to liberate both Negroes and whites.
And all this, according to Mr. Furnas (and in the words of Abraham Lincoln) because of the “little woman who made this big war.” Well, of course, not quite. Mr. Furnas, who clearly cannot stand the “little woman,” makes the point that she was able to have such a tremendous effect because she was a mildly gifted woman who mirrored the assumptions of her time—and place—so perfectly. She helped to inspire and keep aflame the zeal in the general Northern breast to liberate those slaves, of whom they knew only that the souls belonged to God. Of the motives beneath the zeal she helped inspire, Mrs. Stowe knew nothing; it was not real to her that the war which was finally being fought was not being fought to free the slave, that it was a hand to hand contest between the North and the South for dominance. And when the slave was finally freed, it developed that his soul did indeed belong to God and that God could take it, for all the nation seemed to care.
For it is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God: it is hard to make men equaI on earth, in the sight of men. This problem had never entered Mrs. Stowe’s mind, for the reason that it had never entered her mind that the Negro could conceivably be an equal. She knew nothing about the Africa, to which projects were made to send him, as, when writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she had known nothing of slavery beyond what she had gathered by reading and one or two short trips to Kentucky. Perhaps if she had known more about the slave’s condition, and what this condition does to a people, she (and the nation) would have had a more realistic, more responsible view of what would probably happen when thousands of unlettered, abruptly homeless, totally vulnerable and unprepared people were turned loose upon the body politic. Mr. Furnas is not being unjust when he observes that the righteous zeal of Mrs. Stowe, like that of most of the Abolitionists, resembled that of an anti-vivisectionist committee. It had not entered their heads that they were fighting for the rights of men llke themselves. They were fighting for the right of the “sons of Ethiopia, whatever…their natural stupidity…to stretch forth their hands to God.” Of the right of the “sons of Ethiopia” to conquer that unquestioned “natural stupldity,” of their right to work, live, vote, marry, and even to become unbelievers, they had never thought. We are until today struggling with many of the results of this righteous zeal in action.
One of the results is the continuing bitterness felt by the descendants of those "sons of Ethiopia," whom we have never yet, wholly, managed to regard as men. Perhaps nothing in Goodbye to Uncle Tom more justifies the title than Mr. Furnas' unsentimental insistence that this must be done, and now, for no other reason than our common humanity, and that the way to begin is by taking a hard look at oneself.