Further Adventures in Editing: Ted Solotaroff at 'Commentary'
The climax of the second act of our relationship came in early 1963. Norman had commissioned a piece by James Baldwin on the Black Muslim movement and had done a good deal of hand-holding in the prolonged course of Baldwin's writing it. By the time Baldwin finally finished the piece, it had grown into the book-length journey through the shadowland of black militancy that would be published as "The Fire Next Time." When Norman inquired about it, Baldwin told him that it had turned out to be too long for Commentary and that it had been sent to The New Yorker. Already in a fury, Norman then found out that The New Yorker had accepted and scheduled it. A ton of fat went into the fire.
This, in turn, further energized Norman's rage by activating his memories of growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the Jewish kids were oppressed and the black kids were their oppressors. One night, Baldwin showed up and Norman let him have it. Baldwin said he should write the tirade he was hearing, in effect providing reparation by giving Norman an idea for a powerful piece of his own. Indeed, Norman was so turned on by the idea and its boldness that he was able to blast through his writer's block to produce his famous essay "My Negro Problem--And Ours." I think he was also emboldened by the opportunity to announce a truth, like the one about success, that none in his liberal cohort dared to admit and that would put him right back at the center of attention.
Normally, a piece by a member of the staff circulated in manuscript like any other and benefited from our comments. But Norman's came around already in type, not even galleys but page proofs, all set to lead off the next issue. It was the first time he had openly pulled rank, and it stung. All the more so when he wound up his self-exposé of the fear- and hate-twisted feelings of whites--liberals no less than reactionaries--toward blacks by making a large and, to me, very dubious point that the stigma of color and the hope of ending it as a poison on both sides of the racial barrier would not come in time, by way of the liberal panacea of integration, to spare us Baldwin's "fire":
I share this hope, but I cannot see how it will ever be realized unless color does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means--let the brutal word come out--miscegenation. The Black Muslims, like their racist counterparts in the white world, accuse the "so-called Negro leaders" of secretly pursuing miscegenation as a goal. The racists are wrong, but I wish they were right, for I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.
Up to that point, "My Negro Problem--And Ours" had been a nakedly candid account of how Norman's boyhood experiences in Brownsville had left a residue of fear, hatred and envy of blacks in his psyche, which gave the lie to liberal racial pieties. But for him to then try to trump integration with miscegenation was very troubling: first, because of the heroic civil rights movement in the South that daily was gaining wider and deeper Northern support through its nonviolent strategy and practice; and second, because he was doing so in a banner piece for the "new Commentary," which was trying to chart a course for pressing political and social reform. I thought it through and decided that I couldn't feel right working there if I didn't let him know what I thought. So I walked down to his office and we had it out. As clearly as I can remember, the discussion went along these lines:
"I guess since you sent this around in pages, it's set in stone."
"What do you want to say about it?"
"I think it's courageous, strong and valuable up to the end. But I think the conclusion you come to about the solution being miscegenation is untimely, to say the least, and all wet if the deep-down feelings are what you say they are. I think it will do you and the magazine a lot of harm, and I think you should reconsider it."
By then he had turned to ice. "Is that all?" he said.
"No, it isn't. There are my own reasons. We're trying to keep the image and values of a more humane America alive and working, and about the only concrete political action toward that end is the civil rights movement. What you're saying in effect to those black ministers and students who are risking their lives is to stop trying to integrate, stop trying to claim their constitutional rights and liberties, and find some white chick or guy and have babies. That's how it's going to be read."
He said coldly, "I'm not proposing miscegenation as a solution but as the best outcome, given the refusal of whites, particularly liberals, to own up to their real feelings about Negroes." Then he said, his voice clenched with anger, "I don't ever want to hear you tell me again what's good or bad for Commentary. Ever!"
I could sense we were now on the fast track to an explosion that would end with my leaving the magazine--which I wasn't prepared to do. "Well, thanks for hearing me out," I said, and then got up and left.
There was some hue and cry about the miscegenation issue, but it was mostly swallowed up by the applause the piece received. Norman was back at his favorite place, and I was moved toward the periphery at Commentary.