J.R. Johnson

Public Awareness of the Negro Question

(April 1945)

Originally published as Signs of Negro Revolt, Labor Action, 2 April 1945.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 58–60.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The press in recent days has been filled with reviews praising Black Boy, a book by Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, a novel which had an enormous circulation some years ago. The new work is an autobiography, a record of Wright’s Negro childhood and youth in the South.

It is not my purpose to review the book here, except to say that it is, in my humble opinion, a successful attempt to portray in terms of an individual life what living in America means to a modern Negro. On the jacket, Bennett Cerf, a critic, is quoted as saying of the book: “Beautifully written, with the impact of a battleship.” It is the impact with which I am here concerned. For this impact is in reality the impact of a tenth of a nation upon the contemporary American consciousness.

In 1944, another book that dealt with the Negro question made, in its own way, an effective impact upon the United States. It was called Strange Fruit. Written by a Southern white woman of liberal ideas, Lillian Smith, it dealt seriously and honestly with race relations in the South. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold.

Toward the end of 1943 the scientific and sociological world, and not they alone, were startled by two splendid volumes, entitled An American Dilemma. The dilemma was the Negro question.

The history of this book is significant, especially for labor. It was a serious scientific study, taking years of research and organization. Every accepted writer, every economist, every sociologist, white and Negro, who had knowledge or ideas, was invited to cooperate. This took money and the money, some quarter of a million dollars, came from the Carnegie Endowment Fund. In other words, big capital paid for it. The choice of an investigator to coordinate the material was also striking. It said openly that it could not trust an American, however able and however honest, because the deeply ingrained and traditional racial prejudices of the United States would affect his judgement. This does not mean that necessarily the writer would be anti-Negro. He might try not to be anti-Negro, but this too would not be conducive to scientific accuracy. The capitalists wanted the facts. (What it would do with them was its own business.) For the same reason, the Carnegie Fund said it did not want an Englishman or any European from the imperialist countries. It therefore chose a Swede, Gunnar Myrdal.

The book was very large and cost $7.50 a copy. It was not intended, obviously, for the general public. To the surprise of many, despite its solid treatment of the subject and the all-but-prohibitive price, it was a popular success. The first edition disappeared. It is being widely read today. Still another novel recently published, Freedom Road by Howard Fast, has made its impact upon the reading public. It deals with the Negroes in the Reconstruction period. It is selling well and is widely discussed.

Now, all this is not accidental. It is a sign of the times. Why should talented writers choose these subjects? Why should they write so well about them? Why should the general public grasp at them so eagerly? It is because they are a manifestation of the social crisis in the United States.

As the contradictions of capitalism in the United States multiply and sharpen they bring to the fore all the sores inherent in a rotting society. The major problem of capitalism in general is unemployment. The books, the solutions, the arguments on it pour down upon us. But in every country capitalism has special problems. In the United States such a special problem is the Negro question. Hence the presentation of it from so many different points of view, and the enthusiastic response of the public.

But literature is only one phase of this crisis. The other is more important. The public has not been stimulated only by ideas and by an intellectual interest in the problems of the day. The Negroes themselves in the March on Washington agitation, and in their violent protests in Detroit and Harlem, have made the American people aware of them and their resentment. In its struggles with rival imperialisms, American imperialism itself has been compelled to drag hundreds of Negroes into the production process. Thereby organized labor has been brought sharply up against the Negro question, and the CIO has taken vigorous action to incorporate Negroes into its own ranks on terms of equality.

The books and their millions of readers, the actions of the Negroes, the organizational response of labor, can be termed as, on the whole, overwhelmingly progressive. The general tendency of ideas and actions is toward abolition of the oppression and humiliation of Negroes. Even the book the capitalists financed expressed itself (in wishy-washy terms) as aiming at some solution of the dilemma in terms of the Negro’s incorporation into American society on equal terms. The others make no bones about the necessity of this. And the public that reads them so eagerly is obviously in sympathy. That is splendid.

To state a problem in harshly truthful and moving terms is fine; for millions to read eagerly about it and be sympathetic about its solution is also fine. Also wherever there is such strong public feeling there is always a will to action. For the will to action, like the books and the readers, is also a manifestation of the social crisis. The question is what to do. And here the trouble begins.

If the facts we have observed are the expression of the social crisis, then the solution, the ideas of solution, must penetrate to the very essence of the social problem – that is to say, to the nature of capitalist society itself. For if not, there is nothing in store but disappointment, disillusionment, and despair.

An old proverb says that desperate diseases demand desperate remedies. The readers of books, the protesting Negro masses, the labor unions striving for social solidarity, the collective will to action which is maturing and achieving results in the labor movement – these varying forces will not be able to avoid the ultimate answer: capitalism or socialism.

Last updated on 19.7.2011