The Press of Freedom: An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones
March 4, 1965
Four men — each a well-known practitioner of one of the arts — appeared on a recent Monday night in the small basement room of the Village Vanguard to address an overflowing crowd on the grandly entitled subject “Art vs. Politics.” The men were Larry Rivers, painter; Archie Shepp, musician; Jonas Mekas, film-maker; LeRoi Jones, playwright. The audience was predominantly — predictably — white, liberal, middle-class. They had come to be entertained and instructed. They stayed to become serious or delighted. They left in a roar of confused frustration, feeling as though they had, with unexpected stunning, been dealt a kick in the stomach and a few swift blows to the side of the head. For LeRoi Jones and Archie Shepp, whose evening it was, had told them repeatedly, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.”
It is almost impossible for me to train total recall on a conversation which developed with the bewildering speed of a barroom brawl. But here’s the gist of it:
Larry Rivers led off, reading from a prepared statement. Speaking of the artist’s relation to his audience, Mr. Rivers traced that changing phenomenon through Courbet, the Impressionists, the Futurists, the Surrealists, coming at last to the present time, in which, he concluded, the artist is his own audience; this not merely in the sense that a painter works for himself, but in the broader sense that in our time the artist’s greatest urge is to emphasize the similarity between his own fundamental desires and those of every other member of society. He put it something like this: I want to eat good, fuck good, work good … just like everybody else.
Archie Shepp, the next speaker, gaped for a moment at Rivers, seemed a bit nonplussed, muttered something about “Art, art. What the hell is all this talk about art?” and, with a shrug of the shoulders, launched into a comparatively mild ramble about a book he’d been reading the other night which described the first passage of slaves to this continent, a passage in which two-thirds of those slaves had died in the hold — and if this (Shepp’s) life and work didn’t represent an attempt to pay the homage of eternal remembrance to those two-thirds, well then … He ended by looking out at the audience and telling them that while he didn’t particularly want to put them down for the ofays they obviously were, still they couldn’t hope to understand what he was talking about.
Rivers’ head went back; the audience stirred uneasily (what was this? they were here as partisans — was this how you talked to partisans?); LeRoi Jones laughed softly and said “Take it easy, Archie. We’ve got all evening.” (The man is a veritable prophet.)
Mekas then struggled through a vague and rather incoherent speech (unfortunately because I suspect his point was, ultimately, the most worldly of them all) about how the experiences of wartime Europe had led him finally to understand that man’s only valuable occupation was his struggle to fashion for himself a more beautiful soul.
Theatre of Victims
Then Jones took the stand. He read a piece entitled “The Revolutionary Theatre” (a piece, he informed the audience, which had been commissioned by the New York Times and then refused). In language of poetic and highly imaginative insistence Jones claimed that it was the business of the theatre to reflect life … to stir up such hatred and such feeling that when the curtain comes down the theatre seats are soaked in the blood of split heads (needless to point out whose blood and whose split heads). This, he maintained, is a theatre of victims; by Western standards (sneer) perhaps a theatre of heroes … but victims all the same. He went on to quote the famous Oxford professor Wittgenstein as having said: “Ethics is aesthetics” and to point out that the white world has never understood or accepted this proposition, intimating that the new Negro artist does understand it and will make damn sure that the whites do before they die.
In the long give-and-take (to be generous about it) that then ensued among the panelists, the dominance beat was one of unflagging insult from Shepp and Jones to the audience, the city, the country, the world — that is, to that section of it which was white, pure white. Nor did the other (white) panelists get off the hook. Mekas, who had been describing an interview between himself and Jack Smith and Mike Wallace, was suddenly asked by Jones: “Tell me, of you can, what is the difference between Jack Smith and Mike Wallace.” To which Mekas had enough humorous composure to reply: “Mike Wallace would never be interviewed by Jack Smith.”
But it was Larry Rivers who bore the brunt of the assault:
Shepp would turn to Rivers every now and then and say: “Man, you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.” And then: “They hire YOU at the Five Spot; they don’t hire me; that’s the whole difference, right there.” And then: “How do you feel about that? I know how I feel. How do you feel? What would you lay your ass on the line for? Nothing! That’s what. Or you? (To the audience, now.) You wouldn’t lay your asses on the line for shit!”
Jones told Rivers he was the exponent par excellence of the middle-class white world: “You aspire to the society of those faggoty uptown art dealers. You paint for them … ”
A round of protesting noises now went up from the audience. “What are you talking about?” cried a woman.
Shepp spoke with elaborate disdain or open anger of the pain with which he lived every day of his Negro life. Finally, in an eloquent outburst, he spoke of James Chaney, the young Negro who was murdered last summer In Mississippi:
“They beat him until unrecognizable. Unrecognizable! They only KILLED Schwerner and Goodman, but they beat Chaney to a pulp. They beat the humanity out of that boy. And in that act, in that heinous crime, in that unspeakable crime they accepted Schwerner and Goodman and refused me. Even in death they are embraced and I am refused. Even in death America accepts its own. You” — he swung on the audience — “you accept your own —and refuse me. And in that fact lies my pain.”
A boy in the audience, agitated now beyond endurance, jumped up and screamed, “Oh shit!”
‘World ot Pain’
Shepp turned a glance of loathing on the boy. “Oh man,” he sighed, “sit down. Just sit down. You hear that?” he asked the audience, ”you hear that? Between me and that ‘Oh shit’ is a world of pain.”
“Oh shit, baby,” the boy screamed again. “I’ve been up tight for a year because of you!”
“Man,” said Shepp, “I don’t want to hear your life story. Will you listen to that? We’re getting a confession here.”
Then LeRoi Jones made a remark of stunning contempt. “His life story?” he sneered. “Why, you can turn on the TV set and get it any day of the week on ‘The Guiding Light.’ ”
From that instant it was crystal clear that the night belonged to Jones — and had from the very beginning. (One had the feeling that Shepp had been taking cues all along.) His antagonists multiplied by the minute … and, with incredible ease, he swung like a beam of light from one to another; his retorts came with deadly speed and precision; it was no sweat for him, no sweat at all, because it was abundantly clear that there were no separate faces in that audience for him. (For when it suits his purpose, Jones produces in his mind a vision of the “homogeneous American soul,” a soul whose only relevance consists in the fact that it dwells in a white skin.) The distinctions of age, sex, background, occupation were as though they never existed. Jones was talking to The Man and only The Man.
What to Do
A small, round, bespectacled man, shaken with emotion, rose: “As a Jew and as a white man, I hear you.” (“Could you possibly hear me in any other way?” interjected Jones.) “You say we are all guilty. What do you want us to do? What on earth do you want us to do?”
“Do, man? Do? There’s nothing you can do!” The malicious pleasure in his voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.
A woman with a contorted face and an eerie fluff of silver-blonde hair shrieked: “What about Schwerner and Goodman? Don’t you care about them?”
“Absolutely not,” rapped out Jones. “Those boys were just artifacts, artifacts, man. They weren’t real. If they want to assuage their leaking consciences that’s their business. I won’t mourn them. I have my own dead to mourn for.”
A civil rights worker, his eyes popping behind his glasses, yelled: “These are not the facts! Maybe we are guilty because we’re white. But Goddammit, we’re not all equally guilty. Some are more guilty than others.”
“Sort of like being ‘almost pregnant,’ Isn’t it?” laughed Jones.
A Women Strike for Peace type lady called out: “This afternoon 400 people marched on the U.N. to protest the bombing in Vietnam. There wasn’t one Negro among them.”
“Why didn’t you send buses down to the garment district to collect some Negroes if you wanted to be all nice and representative? I mean, man, man, when were you marching? At three in the afternoon?” An answer for all eventualities.
Clowns and Gorillas
A roar of anger began to fill the place; out of it Jones was suddenly saying: “You’ve all elected a Texas cracker to represent you, all of you!”
A sandy-haired man dressed in denims jumped to his feet. “Now that got to me,” he said in a soft Southern voice. He began a rambling retort on the variety of pains to be suffered in this world, blurting out: “Man, I’ve paid my dues. And you know it, LeRoi.”
No-mercy Jones, a little tired now: “So you’ve been in jail and you write your confessions for the Saturday Evening Post.”
“I don’t write for the Saturday Evening Post!” the blue-jeaned man cried. “Just ’cause they buy it, don’t mean I write for ’em. I write for people … ” (Thus is passion seduced by farce.)
Casting a cold eye on the increasingly infuriated audience, Shepp said (straight into the mike): “Look at them. The clowns who come to throw peanuts at the gorillas. Only in this case it’s gorillas throwing peanuts at humans.”
Well, why go on with this? By now the direction of all this was obvious. By the end of the evening the audience was reduced to a screaming pleading, degraded, bewildered mob: Jones goal from the very beginning, of course.
LeROI JONES LOOKS into my ofay face with cold steady eyes and in a soft, seductively reasonable voice accuses me:
As to the veracity of the first accusation: who is there to say him nay? Certainly not I. His pain, he claims, is relevant, and mine is not. I believe him. I believe every word of it. His experience will remain forever foreign to me. This too I believe. Every now and then one looks into a man’s face or overhears an exchange or reads a page of print or sees a photograph and for one hideous instant there is revelation: blind, wordless, overwhelming. You stumble in your tracks, you have difficulty breathing, there is a terrible pressure in your head. That is the most, I think, that we who pass for white can ever know. That is the closest I can get to realizing the words of a young Negro woman I once knew — the intelligent, restrained, profoundly bourgeois daughter of a Harlem doctor — when she said, in an unbearable moment: “There are mornings when I get up and walk out in the street wishing I had a rifle with which to mow down every white face I see.”
As to the second accusation: where does one begin — in the name of reason and justice — to unravel the half-truths and the painful falsehoods? Nowhere. Here the lines of communication are entirely broken down. Thus every white works now (in or out of the civil rights movement) on the side of the Negro does so in the knowledge that he is committing an act of conscience, an act which is essentially lonely and which to a large extent is unwelcome, unrewarded, unremarked. And rightfully so. The Negroes who tell us: “You’re doing this for yourself, baby, not for me,” are right. Or at least they should be. So now, in America, white men of conscience find themselves in the same ironic position that the Russian Jews who fought in that remote Revolution found themselves in. Anyone with half a brain could see that in anti-Semitic Russia, comes the revolution, the first ones to be purged as counter-revolutionaries would be the Bolshevik Jews … and sure enough. But what choice did those Jews have? By the same token, many white men know now that when the barricades are thrown up in the streets of this country, they will have no choice as to the side they find themselves on, even though comes the revolution, they too will probably be in the first purge.
In Jones’s eye there is blood and in his system a raging bile. The burning sword at his side (or is it the hatchet inside his breast pocket to which he continually and ominously alludes?) is his blanket indictment of white America. For him now there is only passion … which is not always the same as truth. His effectiveness as a revolutionary lies in the emotional power with which he seeks to wrest his humanity from his oppressors by in turn denying them — every last one of them — their humanity. From this wretched vantage point in these bloody terms, I supposed we ARE all guilty. Who is there to give the final judgement?
It is to the third accusation that I most strenuously address myself — this utterly wrong-headed insistence that when the Negro’s turn comes to rule, he will do things differently. Under his authority the precious fluid of the human spirit contained in a chalice broken in white hands will be scooped up and treasured as the white world never knew how to treasure it. In the lifetime of Negro authority a particular level of spiritual decrepitude, moral rot, and demeaning weakness will vanish. The human race will develop a lovelier form, occupy a handsomer skin. The Negro will, once and for all, show the white world how a man can and ought to live.
This entire speculation turns on the incredibly naive belief that suffering has ennobled the Negro, that his pain will continue to exert an influence over him even long after it has passed from his life.
What rubbish! The sad, sad point about suffering is that there is no point at all. The lesson to be learned is that there is no lesson. It is simply a fact of life which has no after-life. While it endures it is the entire universe. On the very instant that pain ceases, the process of forgetfulness already begins. (And this is an element of white experience that no Negro can comprehend for the simple reason that while a man is suffering, he is unable to envision a time when it will have no meaning for him.) The scars begin to fade, the memories begin to dull, the relaxed hand can hardly remember the shape of the clenched fist. If there is any single great lesson to be learned from the 20th century it is this lonely and barbarous fact (witness “Hiroshima, Mon Amour”), which is at once the salvation and the irony of our lives. If we retained the memory sharp and clear of every wound ever inflicted on us, we surely could not survive; and the fact that we do not remember our wounds makes or our lives a primitive and unexalted thing. For all men in all conditions at all times this has been true. It is therefore hardly likely that it will be less true for the American Negro. When it’s all over but the shouting, the American Negro will lose along with his soul-destroying fury the memory of that fury; his spirit, in time (in a generation, in two generations,) will become as flimsy and as shapeless and as impoverished as the spirit of that decadent white bourgeoisie he now so comfortably despises.
Poverty of the spirit has nothing whatever to do with the life of a race. It has to do with the seduction of men’s souls at the hands of that prosperity. For men do not thrive on the good life; they are, rather, atrophied by it. Thus very few men are in possession of the middle-class life; mainly they are possessed by it. And for the most part there is no escaping it. For the point is not so much that the nation has aspired to the middle-class life, but rather that, in the absence of certain specific tensions, it has acquired it. Without war, without depression, without foreign troops in occupation, without social oppression, without combat with the elements … what is one left with? One is left with what nine-tenths of the world spends its life fighting for: freedom from want, the so-called starting point of life. But freedom from want is not enough. Not enough? It doesn’t even come anywhere near the mark. The demons are still with us, in fact they loom larger than ever, and oddly enough, they even get harder and harder to identify. Thus freedom has become a desperate affair. Freedom from what? Toward what? FOR what? Very few men have the talent or the imagination to know what to do with themselves once they have achieved the good life. They never did have it — in no class and during no age. In some remote and distant time (say, 50 years ago?) there did exist a belief in a unifying structure of principle, a perception of continuity, a conviction that he lived at the center of his universe, which allowed a man to live out his life relatively unshaken in his faith in the validity of the pursuit of life. In our time those principles have been shattered, and we have been left with nothing — nothing but the rotten hoax of he good life and the contemplation of futility. And so in the Land of Peace where the Meaningless is King, there exists an insatiable hunger, an unfillable emptiness, a numbing aimlessness — in response to which we open more supermarkets and more psychoanalysts’ offices. In a frenzy we seek the orgy of accumulation: the accumulation of more goods, more personal loyalties, more uncommitted opinions. The result, of course, intolerable isolation, so that instead of being the master of his split-level dovecot, a man finds himself wandering about its rooms as though under house arrest. And still he will not open his doors to strangers …
There is no one in this country who understands the meaning of this condition better than the American ex-radical. What destroyed him was his insight into the paltriness of the political vision, that long look down the road to Utopia which told him suddenly that the enemy was inside us, not outside us. The passion of the American radical was certainly as whole-souled (and as naive) as that of the Negro revolutionist, and the loss of that passion drove half of them into existentialism and made of the other half gibbering idiots, men terrified of the void, who — in the most literal sense of that word — copped out after 1938 by simply refusing to take further note of the world’s changing knowledge.
It is one of the bitterest ironies of our life that the tension that keeps men alive in their nerve-endings and equipped with a sense of urgency is the tension of deprivation. And deprivation is what — with an imperative need — we work to rid ourselves of. Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer have both written with understanding about the first half of this proposition. It is on the second half that they screwed up. To romanticize oppression in order to stimulate waning passions is a disgusting perversion, and the yearnings of these two finely confused men for the Negro’s life-sense (knowing it is based on his unspeakable condition) are on a parallel with the Japanese tale of the businessman who encouraged an affair between his wife and a young doctor and then spied on them while they were making love in order to awaken his own failing sexuality. It was with obvious truth and in perfect justice that James Baldwin declared that should Kerouac or Mailer get up on the stage of the Apollo Theatre and recite one of their white Negro hymns, they would be stoned to death. If there is justification on any level for the Negro’s contempt for the white liberal, it is certainly on this one. Norman Mailer sitting in his Columbia Heights mansion, drawing thousands in royalties, complaining of his lost appetites … Christ!
Rewards and Payments
The point is that this is what we are stuck with. The rewards and the exacted payments of Western culture are the accumulation of goods and the existentialist’s sense of loss. “Western culture!” LeRoi Jones sneered the other night. But it’s ridiculous. After all, who the hell does the man think he is? He’s not a Chinese communist or an African soldier or a Hindu religious. He is a Western man, and the shape of his anguish and of his longings has been determined by Western culture. When he says he wants his, what he means is that he wants his share of this life — and no other. And he will reap the rewards and the losses of this life just as every other American has. For Negroes are, indeed, men like all other men, which means that for the most part they are weak and greedy and anxious, of limited imagination and hopeless mediocre ambition. While suffering depresses their spirits and causes rage to flare up in them, it is true that their sensibilities are dipped in fire. But when that suffering ceases (and as sure as the sky is blue and the grass is green, it will cease), the fire will die down, the holocaust will pass, its former existence will be marked only by ashes which eventually will be kicked into oblivion … and Negroes will live exactly — but exactly — the same lives as every other American now lives.
In answer to all of which LeRoi Jones will beyond a doubt reply: “Yeah, baby. But I want my chance. My time is coming, and I want my chance. You dig?”
I dig. And he will get his chance. He’ll get more than that, he’ll get everything he is now straining for. And then he will live, to his everlasting sorrow, to look up one day, aged 75, at his grown grandchildren, leading utterly ordinary lives — absorbed in taking Johnnie to the dentist and not opening the door at night to strangers and telling a psychoanalyst once a week, “Doctor, I don’t know what’s the matter with me. No matter what I do I have this strange feeling of emptiness … ” — and, remembering these draining days, he will say (as OUR revolutionary grandfathers have said to US): “Is this all? Is this what it was all about?” And his grandchildren will answer, with affection and mild irritation, “Oh, for goodness sake, Grandpa! This is 2005, not 1965. All that stuff is over and done with!”
Like the man said: “That’s the way it is, man. That’s the way it really is.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 7, 2020