Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Separatists, Integrationists, and William Styron's the Confessions of Nat Turner

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Separatists, Integrationists, and William Styron's the Confessions of Nat Turner

Article excerpt

After the Brown versus Board of Education ruling in 1954, THERE was hope that the United States would finally overcome its legacy of anti-black racism. So moved by the court's decision was Ralph Ellison that on hearing it "Tears sprang to" his "eyes as he thought not simply about himself but also about the millions of other blacks, especially the young, about to enter a world transformed" (Rampersad 298). (1) In the concluding section of The Lonesome Road, which brilliantly documents the contributions blacks made to the formation of American culture, politics, and identity, J. Saunders Redding poignantly pictures the response of blacks when the Chief Justice read the ruling: "there was not a Negro among them who did not feel his allegiance to democracy strengthened and his faith in the American dream renewed" (334).

Historically speaking, this euphoria was short-lived, for by the early 1960s, it became transparently clear that whites had devised sometimes subtle, sometimes flagrant ways to circumvent the law mandating integration, as James T. Patterson so intelligently documents in his book about the case and its troubled legacy. Younger blacks in particular became increasingly frustrated with the United States because of rampant forms of racism among the general population, in higher education, and within the legal system, and it was these entrenched and systemic forms of racism that led many young blacks to reject integration and to support separatist movements. For instance, in his 1965 autobiography, Malcolm X mocks "integration-hungry Negroes" (28) who fail to realize the degree to which they have been duped by white liberals. In 1967, Harold Cruse offered a blistering critique of the black intellectual of his age, which he describes as "a retarded child whose thinking processes are still geared to piddling intellectual civil writism and racial integrationism" (Crisis 475). H. Rap Brown expresses the matter most clearly in his 1969 book Die Nigger Die!: "integration Is impractical" (55). For Brown, it is "White people [who have] got hung up on integration." Black people, he asserts, were not opposed to the separate in separate but equal. "It was the unequal nature of segregation that Black people protested against in the South, not segregation itself" (124). For these black writers, separate-but-truly-equal, and emphatically not integration, is the political ideal.

So powerful and compelling were these movements and many of their writers that it would be easy to think that the majority of blacks adopted and supported Brown's separate-but-truly-equal political agenda. But actually, statistics indicate that the majority of blacks favored integration over segregation. As the black psychologist and activist Kenneth Clark says:

   During this period of intense and much publicized separatist
   activity on the campuses, the vast majority of the folk Negro did
   not themselves become advocates of black separatism. According to
   surveys of opinion among Negroes, no more than 15 percent of a
   representative sample of Negroes ever expressed any sustained
   rejection of the goals of racial integration. Nor did they accept
   black separatism as an effective approach to racial justice in
   America. ("Some" xiv)

And yet a brief survey of texts from the late sixties and early seventies could easily lead people to think that the majority of blacks supported separatist agendas.

To illustrate, consider some influential works of the late sixties and early seventies that criticize integration and support separatism: Malcolm X's 1965 autobiography (though it is worth noting that Malcolm reversed his position about integration by the end of his life and work); Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton's Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (1967); Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) and Rebellion or Revolution? …

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