From Publishers Weekly
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.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Between 1954, when the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, and the mid-sixties, when Congress passed civil-rights and voting-rights bills, American academics and writers were invited to opine on race relations. In this brisk and understated account, Polsgrove shows that, with a few brave exceptions, whites told blacks to be patient rather than risk white Southerners' violence. Editors were slow to call on black thinkers, and, in the McCarthy era, racists found support for their argument that desegregation was a Communist plot. In 1960, the sit-ins staged by black students interrupted the timid debate, and, soon after, James Baldwin's New Yorker essay "Letter from a Region in My Mind" gave condescending white intellectuals a sense of black anger and suffering.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker