A vivid, evocative assessment of the activities (and inactivities) of intellectuals—black and white—during the most volatile years (1953–65) of the US civil-rights struggle.
Polsgrove (Journalism/Indiana Univ.; It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties, 1995) has found a unique perspective on the Movement: instead of rehearsing the actions in the streets and courtrooms, she scoured the middle- and high-brow magazines of the period for pieces about race by important intellectuals. And she read their books. The experience left her shaken: “Only as I worked my way through this powerful story did I begin to see more clearly how fully intellectuals can fail the test of history.” She begins in 1953, shortly before Brown v. Board of Education, as Ralph Ellison accepts a National Book Award, and then segues to a consideration of William Faulkner’s racial attitudes. Although she acknowledges Faulkner’s generous spirit in his fiction, she disdains his later embarrassing and even racist public utterances. Polsgrove then examines the contributions of Southern intellectuals like Lawrence Dunbar Reddick and C. Vann Woodward. Turning her gaze northward, she offers devastating analyses of the hesitations and equivocations of Reinhold Niebuhr, Norman Mailer, and Hannah Arendt—all of whom, to varying degrees, urged black Americans to “slow down.” (Throughout her text, Polsgrove employs the word “Negro” because, she says reasonably, it was the accepted contemporary term.) The star here is James Baldwin, who emerges as the most impassioned and eloquent spokesman for the cause, and there is a riveting account of the angry 1963 exchange between Baldwin and Robert Kennedy on what black leaders considered JFK’s failure of leadership. A wistful penultimate chapter charts the fates of some of the principals, and a postscript asserts that race remains “the great unmentionable.” Paul Robeson is a near-spectral presence here—and Thurgood Marshall remains an entirely invisible man.
Polsgrove raises a blunt, uncomfortable question: Why did so many bright, educated people fail the principal moral test of contemporary American history?