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Norman Podhoretz Reflects on Essay

10:52 AM, May 1, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
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Norman Podhoretz reflects on the 50th anniversary of his essay "My Negro Problem-and Ours":

This year marks the 50th anniversary of possibly the most controversial but certainly the most notorious piece ever published in Commentary from that day to this. Its title was “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” and it was written by me. Over the years I have often been asked what impelled (or as it was sometimes put, “possessed”) me to write such a thing when I must have known that (in the words used by a critic when it first came out) “there was something in it to offend everyone.” Yes, of course, I would usually answer, I did know that many readers, both white and black, would be outraged. But contrary to a widely held suspicion that this was precisely my purpose in writing it, I had no conscious desire “to offend everyone.” Nor did I enjoy having provoked so much anger (though I very much enjoyed being applauded by those who admired the essay for one reason or another). In any case, the truth is that both the idea and the instigation came not from me but from James Baldwin. And thereby hangs a tale.

In those days, in common with just about everyone else in the literary world, I considered Baldwin one of the best writers of any kind in America, and among black writers Ralph Ellison’s only rival for the crown. As a novelist, he had produced nothing to compare with Ellison’s Invisible Man, but his essays were much better than Ellison’s, and there was no more elegant prose stylist then writing in any genre in English. Nor was there anyone, white or black, who had cast more light on the complexities of the relations between the races—a subject about which passions ran even higher than they do today and that were about to be further exacerbated by the rise of the Black Muslims.

This movement, whose leading spokesman was the incendiary Malcolm X, totally rejected the idea held by the dominant civil-rights movement that the solution to what everyone then called the Negro Problem1 lay in the “integration” of the two races. The goal of the integrationists, both white and black, was a society in which the two races would live and work and rub shoulders together, and the way to get there was through a gradual dismantling of the discriminatory barriers that were forcibly keeping them apart and denying blacks an equal chance in the “pursuit of happiness.” But the Black Muslims had no wish to associate with whites on any terms whatsoever. What they wanted was to have as little to do with them as possible. Indeed, they did not flinch from (literally) denouncing the whole white race as a creature of the devil.

To the surprise and consternation of the devout liberals who led and supported the civil-rights establishment, the Black Muslims seemed to be gaining influence within the black community. This was due in no small part to the brilliant oratorical skills of Malcolm X, but the main cause was that many blacks were beginning to feel that progress toward integration was too slow and that in the end whites would never stop resisting it.

Whole thing here.

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