Treasures in the Attic: Robert Penn Warren and the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews — Updated Reply


As promised, I am reposting the entirety of the post last week detailing the Letters to the Soviet Writers Conference from the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews.  The letters are posted below, with hyperlinks to a pdf version.  Enjoy!

I was cleaning up my office last week when I stumbled upon a set of letters that Robert Penn Warren helped draft for the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews.  I had sought these letters out back in the Fall because of an obscure reference in the Collected Writings of Robert Penn Warren to his participation on this group.  Fortunately, Randy Hendricks of the University of West Georgia had copies.   The Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews was the first American Conference to consider the status of Soviet Jews and included amongst its congregants: Robert Penn Warren, Martin Luther King, and Justice William O. Douglas to name a few.  The conference met in New York’s Carnegie Center in October 1963.   The conference was largely the result of work by Moshe Dechter , who earlier that year highlighted the plight of Soviet Jews in a Journal of Journal of Foreign Affairs Article titled The Status of Jews in the Soviet Union. There Dechter described the Jewish plight as:

Soviet policy places Jews in an inextricable vise. They are allowed neither to assimilate, or live a full Jewish life, nor to emigrate (as many would wish) to Israel or any other place where they might live freely as Jews…Soviet policy as a whole, then, amounts to spiritual strangulation—the deprivation of Soviet Jewry’s natural right to know the Jewish past and to participate in the Jewish present. And without a past and present, the future is precarious indeed.

The main piece of the Warren letters is a plenary letter addressed to the Fourth All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers by various American writers.  Amongst the signatories include: Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, Irving Howe, Norman Mailer, Author Miller and John Updike to name a few.  Warren begins the letter by calling the Soviet writers to remember distinctive role that Russian authors have played as social critics as a call to action on behalf of an impressed people:

As you can perhaps sense, we are aware that, however honorable the craft of the writer may be, yours is a mission beyond that of writers.  For in your country, probably more than in any other country’s literary tradition, the role of the writer has always transcended art.   The writer has been uniquely, social critic, intellectual goad, moral guide, tribune of the people’s conscience.

You, Soviet writers, are the heirs of Pushkin and Belinsky, of Tolstoy and Herzen, of Dostoevsky and Chekhov of Gorky and Mayakovsky.  But in a sense, all of us, all writers everywhere, stand in that tradition and are its children.  And it is indeed in its spirit and as bearers of a moral burden, that we turn to you now and ask you to consider the painful situation of Jewish literature and culture in the Soviet Union today.

Warren’s letter, signed by other writers, and approved of by the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews calls on the Soviet writers to stand with Jewish persons to preserve their culture through schools, research, theaters and the like.

Warren’s interest in the conference likely stems from his fascination with the idea of exile, and the role that exiles play in defining the society they are exiled against.  For Warren, the exile (particularly the American Southern Exile) presented the ideal being to confront the self against the past, the self as defined by the past, and the self as trying to be free from the past.  No matter who you were as an American southerner, the past was unhappy.  As a segregationist, the past reminded you that those days were passing. As an integrationist, the past was an exemplar of inescapable human violations.  As Jonathan Cullick writes in Making History: The Biographical Narratives of Robert Penn Warren (LSU 2000): “Warren’s protaganists and narrators struggle between a desire to liberate themselves from the past and a need to shape their identities in the context of the past.”  In doing so, Cullick writes, Warren “demonstrates the knowledge gained through return and reconciliation redeems us from the concept of the past as a burden, permitting one to be connected to the past rather than haunted by it.”  Warren’s work on the Jewish Exile committee seems well placed for his desire to create space for humans to confront their past as a precursor to understand both their present and the future.

There is more to say here. I have posted the letters in PDF form below. Enjoy!  The first one is particularly great.   Perhaps a future post on Warren’s view of the exile in American lit would be appropriate.  For now, I still have more treasures to unlock.   For example I just found my lost volume by George Marsden The Soul of the American University.  Some day soon I’ll talk about that, particularly with all of the U.S. news discussion lately.

Robert Penn Warren Letter to Fourth Soviet Writers Conference

Letter to James Dickey enclosing Letter to Soviet Writers Conference

Cover letter enclosing draft to Writers Conference

Image of Moshe Dechter taken from New York Times Obituary.

Note — Letters are posted with the permission of the Estate of Robert Penn Warren.

Welcoming Professor Mark D. White to the Table 1


Its my pleasure to welcome Professor Mark White from CUNY Staten Island to the Table.  Mark D. White is Professor in the Department of Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, where he teaches courses in economics, philosophy, and law. He has authored dozens of journal articles and book chapters in the intersections between these fields, has written Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character (Stanford, 2011), and has edited a number of books, including The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination (with Chrisoula Andreou, Oxford, 2010), Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy (Oxford, 2011), and Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems (Palgrave, 2010). He is the series editor of Perspectives from Social Economics (Palgrave Macmillan), and the associate editor of the journal Forum for Social Economics (Springer).

Professor White is also a frequent contributor and editor in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series, which introduces readers to basic philosophical concepts using the movies, TV shows, comic books, and music that they love. He has edited Batman and Philosophy (with Robert Arp), Watchmen and Philosophy, Iron Man and Philosophy, and Green Lantern and Philosophy (with Jane Dryden), is working on Superman and Philosophy and The Avengers and Philosophy, and contributed chapters to volumes in the series on Metallica, South Park, Family Guy, The Office, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Alice in Wonderland.

Mark, welcome to the Table!

Random Thoughts from around the blogosphere and what’s on my table…. Reply


More elephants…Regarding rankings, I think Al Brophy’s insight is exactly spot on.  We care about rankings when there is nothing else to care about.  Sort of like the saying in politics — the reason the rhetoric is so high is because the stakes are so low.

Over at Legal Lacuna, Mai Linh has posted a followup to a paper she presented at a recent conference (Get your Ass-Phalt off my Ancestors) on Richmond’s historic Burial Ground for Negros controversy with Virginia Commonwealth University . Of course, coming to the decision to remove the asphalt from the burial ground and funding it appear to be two separate problems.

From the Volokh Conspiracy, Publication does not constitute Detrimental Reliance?  Amongst plaintiff’s complaints were:

• Published articles and engaged in scholarly activities at a voracious pace, id. at 65;

• Increased his scholarly production, writing a steady stream of top-flight articles, id. at 66;

• Intensified, concentrated his entire life on generating high-powered research in top-tier journals, id.;

• Did extraordinarily more work than he had ever done or will ever do, id. at 66-67;

• Worked extraordinary long overtime with no immediate remuneration, id. at 69;

• Lost precious time with his family, id.;

• Impaired his health, id.;

• Went with very little sleep for long periods of time, id. at 76;

• Suffered constant stress which resulted in increased medication and hypertension, id.;

• Refrained from applying for other chaired professorships at other universities, id. at 68;

• Did not encourage inquiries as to whether he was interested in changing positions or looking for other employment, id.; and

• Sent a resume to Temple University but did not pursue it, id.

Bummer.

On my table…Last but not least, my table has been somewhat of a strange accumulation of materials lately.  There is Democracy and Poetry by Robert Penn Warren (which I need to post on soon); and Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dotoesvsky; there is a gardening book on raised gardens since now is my yearly attempt to have a green thumb, but likely there will be no progress; there is my now completely defunct NCAA bracket (really, Xavier in the Elite 8 — what in the world was I thinking); and a recipe for Spaghetti Tacos, which we made last night while watching iCarly — my six year old daughter’s favorite show.

 

 

Law Culture and Humanities, Day Two, Part Two 3


In the late morning section, I attended a panel titled Property’s Futures with talks by Ravit Reichman of Brown University (All this Could be Yours), Rebeccca Ryder Neipris (Terroir-ism) and Nomi Stolzenberg of USC (Ghosts of Property: Reshaping the Future by Rewriting the Past Through the Establishment of Facts on the Ground. This was the panel that I moderated, and so I am going spend a little more time discussing these presentations, particularly since they relate so well to the work I am currently doing.

Nomi led off the group in discussing how facts on the ground really serve as creating a moral force for continuation of interests in property.  What Nomi means (or what I took her to mean) was that creating facts on the ground in the process by which the actions of claimants rub against the legal status quo, but in themselves become a basis for claiming a legal relationship to the property (which itself will become a status quo). So the squater who remains for a time creates facts on the ground which mature into an adverse possession claim.  Thus, creating facts on the ground becomes a bottom up way of redefining the legal relationship that the land and its possessors expect to enforce.

Nomi’s presentation was followed by Rebecca who described the interesting issue relating to place in the form of terroir — literally meaning of dirt.  Rebecca spoke of the role that geographic indicators play in the current intellectual property market and asked some thought provoking questions regarding the role of translating, time, and in essence the factual path of the law.  For instance, we learned that Karlsson’s Gold Vodka came about from the desire to instill a dirt flavored terroir taste to potato based vodka.

Finally Ravit described a fascinating reading of Howard’s End by E.M. Forrester.  Ravit described carefully how property instills the idea that memory and identity are moored to our claims and expectations from property.  That property, as Ravit carefully said, “outlives its owner, properly announcing his death.”

This is the last post I am going to make regarding the conference.  I am looking forward to next year’s gathering.  Amongst the people we met were LegalLacuna who is blogging and running a great twitter feed.  Check out her blog! Perhaps we can talk her into doing some cross posting at the table.  I am going to post the link in the side bar.

I also must say for those that are curious, I ashamed myself with my ‘what happens in vegas stays in vegas moment.’  While I planned to return to the reception that night and perhaps hit a casino, I returned to my hotel at 6:30, sat on the couch and fell asleep until 2:00 AM. Such a bummer!

Where have you been? Reply


Oh how I have missed you,
Your look and your touch,
I feel like I have lost you dear,
Your attention I needed so much.

The stories you once told to me,
Of lust and love lost in the night,
Secrets hidden deep within each word,
Emotions so hard to fight.

Secrets shared just between us two,
Locked deep within our heart,
Just our special memories,
A secret from the very start.

Where have you been,
I feel you too have gone away,
I look forward to your return,
For new memories each day.

Where have you been,
In a new world you have found,
I’ll keep watching for you,
As I know you’ll be around.

Where have you been,
There you are within my heart,
Just where you have always been,
from the very start.

Poem: Where have you been by Rose M. Rideout

I have missed all of you. Taking a break was needed. One month turned into two, then to six. But as with all things, I am anxious for what the future brings here at the table.

Law Culture and Humanities Day Two 1


On today’s agenda were some really fabulous panels.  There are so many interesting people that I met and want to spend more time talking to.I am going to break this post up into several posts because of the richness at this conference.

The first panel of the day was one titled Legacies of the Civil Rights Movement with really fabulous presentations including Reconstructing Hate Crime Law: Racism, Abolition and the Thirteenth Amendment by Jacob Kang-Brown; Strategic Affirmative Action, by Bret Asbury of Dexel Law School; Southern Exceptionalism or New South? “White Trash” and the Politics of Southern Modernization, 1944-1969 by Kristine Taylor; and The Community and the Zone: Competing Conceptions of Neighborhood Identity in Land Use law by my friend Kenneth Stahl of Chapman’s law school.

Of course, Kirstine’s talk was of particular interest given our interest in southern literature, race, and the law.  I kept wondering how Robert Penn Warren would conceptualize the question of southern exceptionalism versus the new south.  Perhaps I will post a discussion of Warren’s ethnography titled Segregation in the next few weeks.

I also want to say that Kenneth Stahl’s The Community and the Zone was a compelling treatment of the Chicago School.  Robert Park’s narratives of the city remain a compelling narrative that, as Kenneth points out, form a distinctive basis for the legal rules that limit neighborhood autonomy.

More from Vegas tomorrow.

 

 

Our first year… Reply


The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is on fire!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,800 times in 2010. That’s about 9 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 54 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 48 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 2mb. That’s about 4 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was June 23rd with 125 views. The most popular post that day was Some Advice (and Demands) of New Law Students.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were thefacultylounge.org, WordPress Dashboard, facebook.com, ratiojuris.blogspot.com, and twitter.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for the literary table, literary table, warren emerson, richard parker cannibalism, and sufi poetry.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Some Advice (and Demands) of New Law Students June 2010
1 comment

2

Thoreau, Environmentalism, Economy June 2010
2 comments

3

Law & Literature: A Basic Bibliography November 2010
2 comments

4

Sufi Poetry–I August 2010
2 comments

5

About April 2010
2 comments

Law Culture and Humanities Reply


I am at the Association for the study of Law, Culture and Humanities in Las Vegas this weekend. There is a lot to like here!

Let me point out a few presentations that I have attended yesterday and today:

There was a wonderful panel titled: To Kill a Mockingbird: Reflections on the film. Amongst the presentations Sue Heinzelman’s talk “We don’t have mockingbirds in Britain do we?” was a powerful reflection on the Mockingbird’s role in defining racism against the intuition that we might not think we are racist. Also on the panel were Austin Sarat’s and Martha Umphrey’s work “Temporal Horizons: On the possibilities of Law and Fatherhood in To Kill A Mockingbird;” and Ravit Reichman’s work “Dead Animals.”

Another great panel yesterday afternoon was titled Memory, Slavery, and Civil Rights, with presentations by Mark Golub (“Remembering Mass Resistance to School Segregation”); Mai-Linh Hong (“Get your ass-phalt Off of my ancestors!: Legal and cultural boundaries of slave cemeteries”); and SpearIt (“Criminal Punishment as Civil Ritual: Making Cultural Sense of Mass Incarceration”).

Also on the agenda yesterday was our own Allen Mendenhall presenting: “Holmes and Dissent.”.

More on today’s proceedings later today.

Simone de Beauvoir in Harlem, 1947 Reply


There are myriad ways one might celebrate today’s holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. On my Facebook page, for example, I suggested we learn about—or recall—the other remarkable leaders of the civil rights movement, some of whom were mentors to King and others of his generation, establishing institutions and informal communication networks that served as the socio-cultural and political seedbed for the germination and later flourishing of the civil rights movement. I mentioned in particular such individuals as Bob (Robert Parris) Moses, Ella Josephine Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer, among those ably introduced in Robert Payne’s brilliant book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995). I also had the impudence to ask that we take time to recall the life and work of Malcolm X as well, recommending Eugene Victor Wolfenstein’s Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (1981). Indeed, there’s a work that offers a provocative comparison of the lives and ideas of Malcolm X and King, James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991). Alas, both the prize-winning biographer of Fannie Lou Hamer, the historian Kay Mills, and the (post)Freudo-Marxist social theorist and psychoanalyst Wolfenstein, recently passed away.

Here I thought I’d do something different and share a few passages from Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908-1986) journal that detailed her thoughts and feelings upon venturing into Harlem during a visit to America. Beauvoir came to the States in January of 1947, keeping a fairly “detailed diary of her observations which was published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour” and to little notice several years later in England, and in English, as America Day by Day. The book was published (by the University of California Press) yet again with a new translation by Carol Cosman in 1999 and an inviting foreword by one of our nation’s best and more prolific historians, Douglas Brinkley (which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1996). Beauvoir was by now a well-known existentialist philosopher and writer with a public identity as a cosmopolitan French intellectual tied to yet distinct from her lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre. She is also rightly regarded as one of the seminal theorists of contemporary feminism.

Brinkley writes that,

“with the passage of time, America Day by Day emerges as a supremely erudite American road book—that distinctive subgenre based on flight of fancy rather than flights from economic hardship, as in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In broader sociological terms, her critique outpaces William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America [1983]. In the realm of pure prose style, it easily transcends Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare [1945]. And, for my money, in the field of European highbrow loathing of the cruder aspects of our democratic experiment, it is preferable to Charles Dickens’s haughty American Notes for General Circulation [1842]. [….]

A reader is struck not only by the meticulous descriptive passages on American history and geography but also by Beauvoir’s ability to encapsulate our national psyche (‘Optimism is necessary for the country’s social peace and economic prosperity’) and to comment so deftly on its shortcomings (‘even people of goodwill…refuse to articulate clearly the current conflict between justice and freedom, and the necessity of devising a compromise between these two ideas; they prefer to deny injustice and the lack of freedom’). [….]

Clearly a voyeur of America’s transient underbelly, Beauvoir’s able, like George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London [1933], to penetrate the haze and blue smoke of our nation’s tenderloin districts deeply enough to offer detached insights into desolation row. In Chicago with [Nelson] Algren as her guide, she learns firsthand about the world of morphine addicts and petty thieves, murderous gangsters, and midnight cops. ‘America is a box full of surprises,’ she writes, intoxicated by her walks on the wild side. [….]

Beauvoir’s peripatetic journey by automobile, train, and Greyhound bus took her from coast to coast and back, and illuminating sections of the memoir are devoted to Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, Reno, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and San Antonio. Always amused and exhilarated by the lapdog friendliness of urban and rural folk alike, she is also flabbergasted that these same good-natured people embody the volatile, schizophrenic mixture of ‘strictness and hypocritical license.’ An eternal rebel, she has an uncanny eye for the shallow extravagances of American culture and an abolitionist’s rage at the evil of segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line. While San Francisco and Chicago are celebrated in America Day by Day, other cities get scorched: ‘Williamsburg is one of the sorriest shams to which I’ve ever fallen victim,’ or ‘I dearly hope I’m never fated to live in Rochester.’ [….]

For women, and men, who want to experience vicariously Jack Kerouac’s open road with less machismo romanticism and more existential savvy, America Day by Day, hidden from us for nearly fifty years, comes to the reader like a dusty bottle of vintage French cognac, asking only to be uncorked.”

From American Day by Day:

“Of course, I want to get to know Harlem. It’s not the only black neighborhood in New York. There’s an important black community in Brooklyn, three or four areas in the Bronx, another called Jamaica in Queens, and few more on the city’s outskirts. In New York itself one finds neighborhoods here and there where black families live. Until 1900, other than the one in Brooklyn, the most important black community in New York was situated near West Fifty-seventh Street. Harlem’s apartment buildings were originally built for white tenants, but transportation was inadequate at the beginning of the century, and landlords had difficulty renting apartments in the eastern end of the district. At the suggestion of a black man, Philip A. Payton, who was involved in the rental business, blacks were offered the apartments on 134th Street. Two buildings were filled this way, and soon more. At first, the whites didn’t perceive this invasion of black people; when they tried to stop it, it was too late. Blacks gradually rented all the available apartments and began to buy the private houses that were going up between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. Whites then felt justified in moving; as soon as one black family was spotted in a block of buildings, all the whites fled as if they were running from the plague. The blacks soon took over the whole district. Social and civic centers were formed; a black community took shape. Harlem expanded spectacularly after 1914.

Those among the French who get down on their knees to worship all-powerful America adopt all its prejudices even more obsequiously than Americans do. One of them says to me, ‘If you like, we’ll go through Harlem by car; you can go through Harlem by car, but you must never go on foot.’ A bolder Frenchman declares, ‘If you’re determined to see Harlem, in any case stick to the larger avenues. If something happens, you can always take shelter in the subway. But above all avoid the small side streets.’ And someone else tells me with a shiver that at dawn some whites were found in the gutter with their throats cut. In the course of my life, I’ve already come across so many places where right-thinking people declare you could not go that I’m not too impressed. I deliberately walked toward Harlem.

I walk toward Harlem, but my footsteps are not quite as carefree as usual; this isn’t just a walk but a kind of adventure. A force pulls me back, a force that emanates from the borders of the black city and drives me back—fear. Not mine but that of others—the fear of all those whites who never take the risk of going to Harlem, who feel the presence of a vast, mysterious, and forbidden zone in the northern part of their city, where they are transformed into the enemy. I turn the corner of one avenue and I feel my heart stop; in the blink of an eye, the landscape is transformed. I was also told, ‘There’s nothing to see in Harlem. It’s a corner of New York where people have black skin.’ And on 125th Street I indeed discover the movie houses, drugstores, stores, bars, and restaurants of Forty-second or Fourteenth Street; but the atmosphere is as different as if I had crossed a chain of mountains or the sea. Suddenly, there’s a swarm of black children dressed in bright shirts of red-and-green plaid, students with frizzed hair and brown legs chattering on the sidewalks. Blacks sit daydreaming on the doorsteps, and others stroll with their hands in their pockets. The open faces do not seem fixed on some invisible point in the future but reflect the world as it is given at that moment, under this sky. There is nothing frightening in all this, and I even feel a new kind of relaxed gaiety that New York hasn’t yet given me. If I suddenly came upon Canebière [in southern France] at the corner of rue de Lille or Lyon, I would have the same pleasure. But the shift from my usual surroundings is not the only vivid aspect. Nothing is frightening, but the fear is there; it weighs on this great popular festivity. Crossing the street is, for me, like crossing through layers and layers of fear filling those bright-eyed children, those schoolgirls, those men in light suits, and those leisurely women.

One Hundred Twenty-fifth Street is a border—there are still few whites in evidence. But on Lenox Avenue, not a face that isn’t brown or black. No one seems to pay attention to me. It’s the same scenery as on the avenues of [downtown] Manhattan, and these people, with all their indolence and gaiety, seem no more unlike the inhabitants of Lexington Avenue than the people of Marseilles seem unlike the residents of Lille. Yes, one can walk on Lenox Avenue. I even wonder what it would take to make me flee, screaming, toward the protective entrance of the subway. It seems to me I would have as much difficulty provoking such an attack as I would provoking murder or rape in the middle of Columbus Circle in broad daylight. There must be some image of orgies going on in the heads of right-thinking people; for me, this broad, peaceful cheerful boulevard does not encourage my imagination. I glance at the small side streets: just a few children, turning on their roller skates, disturb the lower-middle class calm. They don’t look dangerous.

I walk on the big avenues and in the small side streets; when I’m tired, I sit in the squares. The truth is, nothing can happen to me. And if I don’t feel entirely secure, it’s because of that fear in the hearts of people who are the same color as I am. It’s natural for a wealthy bourgeois to be afraid if he ventures into neighborhoods where people go hungry: he’s strolling in a universe that rejects his and will one day defeat it. But Harlem is a whole society, with its bourgeois and its proletariat, its rich and its poor, who are not bound together in revolutionary action. They wan to become part of America—they have no interest in destroying it. These blacks are not suddenly going to surge toward Wall Street, they constitute no immediate threat. The irrational fear they inspire can only be the reverse of hatred and a kind of remorse. Planted in the heart of New York, Harlem weighs on the conscience of whites like original sin on a Christian. Among men of his own race, the American embraces a dream of good humor, benevolence, and friendship. He even puts his virtues into practice. But they die on the borders of Harlem. The average American, so concerned with being in harmony with the world and himself, knows that beyond these borders he takes on the hated face of the oppressor, the enemy. It’s this face that frightens him. He feels hated; he knows he is hateful. This thorn in his conciliatory heart is more intolerable than a specific external danger. There are fewer crimes in Harlem than on the Bowery; these crimes are only symbolic—not symbolic of what might happen but of what is happening, what has happened. Minute by minute the men here are the enemies of other men. And all whites who do not have the courage to desire brotherhood try to deny this rupture in the heart of their own city; they try to deny Harlem, to forget it. It’s not a threat to the future; it’s a wound in the present, a cursed city, the city where they are cursed. It’s themselves they’re afraid to meet on the street corners. And because I’m white, whatever I think and say and do, this curse weighs on me as well. I dare not smile at the children in the squares; I don’t feel I have the right to stroll in the streets where the color of my eyes signifies injustice, arrogance, and hatred.

It’s because of this moral discomfort, not timidity, that I’m happy to be escorted this evening to the Savoy by Richard Wright; I’ll feel less suspect. He comes to fetch me at the hotel, and I observe that in the lobby he attracts untoward notice. If he asked for a room here, he would surely be refused. We go eat in a Chinese restaurant because it’s very likely that they wouldn’t serve us in the uptown restaurants. Wright lives in Greenwich Village with his wife, a white woman from Brooklyn, and she tells me that every day that when she walks in the neighborhood with her little girl, she hears the most unpleasant comments. And what’s more, while we are looking for a taxi, men dart hostile looks at this black man with two white women. There are drivers who deliberately refuse to stop for us. After this, how could I claim to mingle peacefully in the life of Harlem? I feel myself stiffen with a bad conscience. While Wright buys tickets at the door of the Savoy, two sailors speak to Ellen and me, the way all sailors the world over speak to women at the doors of dance halls. But I’m more embarrassed than I’ve ever been before. I’ll have to be offensive or ambiguous—my very presence here is equivocal. With a word, a smile, Wright sets everything in order. A white man couldn’t have found just this world, this smile, and I know that his intervention, so simple and natural, will only aggravate my embarrassment. But I climb the stairs with a light heart: this evening Richard Wright’s friendship, his presence at my side, is a kind of absolution.”

[cross-posted at the Ratio Juris blog]