Divided minds : intellectuals and the civil rights movement /

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Main Author: Polsgrove, Carol.
Format: Book
Language:English
Published:New York : W.W. Norton, c2001.
Edition:1st ed.
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Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In the decade after Brown v. Board of Education, "white intellectuals, in the North and the South... having helped for so long to keep Negroes apart and below... were faced with the challenge of racial equality," asserts Polsgrove (It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, but Didn't We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties). In this disturbing book, she shows them to have been "fearful, cautious, distracted, or simply indifferent." Based on interviews and archival research, she indicts not only prominent novelists and thinkers, including William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Hannah Arendt and even the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ("none better exemplifies the caution that northern white intellectuals... displayed toward desegregation"), but also their editors (who were "more interested in southern whites' responses to the Negro challenge than in what Negroes had to say") and the media, which "at a time when national magazines ought to have been leading the way to change... opened their pages to those who resisted it." Many of the best-known African-American novelists, cowed by "the emotional and political atmosphere of the McCarthy days," fare little better than their white counterparts in Polsgrove's hands. Only a few heroes emerge from her portrait: Lillian Smith, Kenneth Clark, Lawrence Reddick, James Silver, and most importantly, James Baldwin. Polsgrove concludes her accessible and disturbing account with a thought-provoking broadside against contemporary American intellectuals, who she thinks "have abandoned their responsibility even more completely" than those in the 1950s and 1960s and whose "publishing industry has moved farther and farther from any sense of obligation for the social enterprise." (May) Forecast: A wide range of periodicals (and their editors) from major weeklies and monthlies to small journals take a thrashing here. Polsgrove could set off a firestorm if she doesn't get the silent treatment. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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?

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