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ATTN:

September 26, 2009

“A rich man told me recently that a liberal is a man who tells other people what to do with their money. I told him that that was right from the side of the telescope he looked through, but that as far as I was concerned a liberal was a man who told other people what to do with their poverty.

I mention this peculiarly American phenomenon, i.e., American Liberalism, because it is just this group of amateur social theorists, American Liberals, who have done most throughout American history to insure the success of tokenism. Whoever has proposed whatever particular social evasion or dilution–to whatever ignominious end–it is usually the liberal who gives that lie the greatest lip service. They, liberals, are people with extremely heavy consciences and almost nonexistent courage. Too little is always enough. And it is always the symbol that appeals to them most. The single futile housing project in the jungle of slums and disease eases the liberals’ conscience, so they are loudest in praising it–even though it might not solve any problems at all. The single black student in the Southern university, the promoted porter in Marietta, Georgia–all ease the liberals’ conscience like a benevolent but highly addictive drug. And, for them, ‘moderation’ is a kind of religious catch phrase that they are wont to mumble on street corners even alone late at night.

Is it an excess for a man to ask to be free? To declare, even vehemently, that no man has the right to dictate the life of another man? Is it so radical and untoward for nations to claim the right of self-determination? Freedom now! has become the cry of many American Negroes and colonial nations. Not freedom ‘when you get ready to give it,’ as some spurious privilege or shabby act of charity; but now! The liberal says, ‘You are a radical.’ So be it.

Liberals, as good post-Renaissance men, believe wholeheartedly in progress. There are even those people who speak knowingly about ‘progress in the arts.’ But progress is not, and never has been, the question as far as the enslaving of men is concerned. Africans never asked to be escorted to the New World. They never had any idea that learning ‘good English’ and wearing shoes had anything to do with the validity of their lives on earth. Slavery was not anything but an unnecessarily cruel and repressive method of making money for the Western white man. Colonialism was a more subtle, but equally repressive method of accomplishing the same end. The liberal is in a strange position because his conscience, unlike the conscience of his richer or less intelligent brothers, has always bothered him about these acts, but never sufficiently to move him to any concrete action except the setting up of palliatives and symbols to remind him of his own good faith. In fact, even though the slave trade, for instance, was entered into for purely commercial reasons, after a few years the more liberal-minded Americans began to try to justify it as a method of converting heathens to Christianity. (And, again, you can see how perfect Christianity was for the slave then; a great number of slave uprisings were dictated by the Africans’ gods or the new slaves’ desire to return to the land of their gods. As I put it in a recent essay on the sociological development of the blues: ‘You can see how necessary, how perfect, it was that Christianity came first, that the African was given something ‘to take his mind off Africa,’ that he was forced, if he still wished to escape the filthy paternalism and cruelty of slavery, to wait at least until he died, when he could be transported peacefully and majestically to the ‘promised land.’ I’m certain the first Negro spirituals must have soothed a lot of consciences as well as enabling a little more relaxation among the overseers. It almost temps me toward another essay tentatively titled Christianity as a Deterrent to Slave Uprisings. More tokens.

A Negro who is told that the ‘desegregation’ of a bus terminal in Georgia somehow represents ‘progress’ is definitely being lied to. Progress to where? The bare minimum of intelligent life is what any man wants. This was true in 1600 when the first slaves were hauled off the boats, and it has not changed. Perhaps the trappings and the external manifestations that time and the lessons of history have proposed make some things seem different or changed in the world, but the basic necessities of useful life are the same. If a tractor has replaced a mule, the need to ahve the field produce has not changed. And if a black man can speak English now, or read a newspaper, whereas (ask any liberal) he could not in 18 so-and-so, he is no better off now than he was if he still cannot receive the basic privileges of manhood. In fact, he is perhaps worse than in 18 so-and-so since he is now being constantly persuaded that he is receiving these basic privileges (or, at least, he is told that he soon will, e.g., R. Kennedy’s high comic avowal that perhaps in forty years a Negro might be president).

But, for me, the idea of ‘progress’ is a huge fallacy. An absurd Western egoism that has been foisted on the rest of the world as an excuse for slavery and colonialism. An excuse for making money. Because this progress the Western slavemaster is always talking about means simply the mass acquisition of all the dubious fruits of industrial revolution. And the acquisition of material wealth has, in my hand, only very slightly to do with self-determination or freedom. Somehow, and most especially in the United States, the fact that more Negroes can buy Fords this year than they could in 1931 is supposed to represent some great stride forward. To where? How many new Fords will Negroes have to own before police in Mississippi stop using police dogs on them? How many television sets and refrigerators will these same Negroes have to own before they are allowed to vote without being made to live in tents, or their children allowed decent educations? And even if a bus station in Anniston, Alabama, is ‘integrated,’ how much does this help reduce the 25 per cent unemployment figure that besets Negroes in Harlem?”

-from “tokenism: 300 years for five cents” published by LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) in 1962

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Kirwin permalink
    September 29, 2009 9:14 PM

    this is pretty sweet in general, although it’s ironic to read the line “R. Kennedy’s high comic avowal that perhaps in forty years a Negro might be president.” 47 years, to be exact. doesn’t seem so comic now, does it?

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