Who Speaks for the Negro?

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Who Speaks for the Negro?
File:WhoSpeaksCover.jpg
Original Random House cover for Robert Penn Warren's book Who Speaks for the Negro?
Author Robert Penn Warren
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Random House; reprinted by Yale University Press in 2014
Publication date
1965
Pages 454 pp.
Preceded by Flood: A Romance of Our Time (1964)'
Followed by Selected Poems: New and Old 1923–1966 (1966)'

Who Speaks for the Negro? is a book of interviews Robert Penn Warren conducted with Civil Rights Movement activists, published in 1965, reissued by Yale University Press in 2014.

Background

In preparation for Random House's 1965 publication of his book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Warren traveled throughout the United States in early 1964 and spoke with large numbers of men and women who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He interviewed nationally-known figures as well as people working in the trenches of the movement whose names might otherwise be lost to history. In each case, he recorded their conversations on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Often, Warren would begin by asking about the speakers' backgrounds, which often prompted them to talk about the inequalities that they had experienced that led to their participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Warren would also often ask the interviewees to respond to works from other writers, mainly W. E. B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folk, Kenneth Clark's essays about the detrimental effects of segregation on children, Gunnar Myrdal's The American Dilemma, and James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name.[1] As well, Warren would ask his interviewees their opinion on a number of key historical American figures, including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Robert E. Lee.[2] While Warren was able to interview an impressive number of people, there are very few women in the collection, as well as some notable figures missing from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Ralph Abernathy, James Bevel, Dorothy Cotton, and Fred Shuttlesworth), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, and Julian Bond), and others.[3]

The published volume contains sections of transcripts from the conversations as well as Warren’s reflections on the individuals he interviewed and his thoughts on the state of the Civil Rights Movement. In the foreword to the volume, Warren insists on the book being a record of his desire to find out more about the Civil Rights Movement rather than an unbiased or comprehensive volume. Warren states in the foreword,

This book is not a history, a sociological analysis, an anthropological study, or a Who's Who of the Negro Revolution. It is a record of my attempt to find out what I could find out. It is primarily a transcript of conversations, with settings and commentaries. That is, I want to make my reader see, hear, and feel as immediately as possible what I saw, heard, and felt.[4]

As an oral history of the Civil Rights Movement, Who Speaks may be compared to, among others, The New World of Negro Americans by Harold Isaacs, My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered by Howell Raines, and My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience by Juan Williams.[5][6][7]

Reception

Who Speaks for the Negro? was reviewed widely by newspapers, cultural critics, and the general public. The tenor of the reviews varied greatly. Many news reviews—including those from the New York Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, the Chicago Tribune, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram—gave the book very positive reviews.[8][9][10][11] Charles Poore, in the New York Times, wrote that "a boon this book confers is to remind us that a main thrust in civilization can never cease to be toward decency and courtesy and justice for all."[12] On the other hand, Warren received hate-mail from writers accusing him of "Communist 'propaganda' [and] advocacy of 'racial mixing.'"[13] A Newsweek article called Warren "paternalistic."[14] More moderately, Albert Murray called Who Speaks the "very best inside report on the Negro Civil Rights Movement by anyone so far" while still acknowledging Warren's segregationist past.[15]

Though widely and for the most part positively reviewed, Who Speaks was not a commercial success, which disappointed Warren greatly. The book was out of print for decades until Yale University Press republished it in 2014 based largely on the traffic generated by the Who Speaks for the Negro? Digital Archive.

Archive

Much of the original material related to the book is still in existence, held at the University of Kentucky and Yale University Libraries. In 2007, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University began a digital archive for this material. The archive consists of digitized versions of the original reel-to-reel recordings that Warren compiled for each of his interviewees as well as print materials related to the project, including the transcripts of those recordings, letters written between Warren and the interviewees, and contemporary reviews of the book.

Interviews

In the Book

Warren grouped his interviews partly by geography and partly by theme. Each of the chapters consists of both narrativized and transcripted interviews and Warren's descriptions of setting, as well as deeper reflections inspired by the intervewees.

Chapter 1: The Cleft Stick

Chapter 2: A Mississippi Journal

Chapter 3: The Big Brass

Chapter 4: Leadership from the Periphery

Chapter 5: The Young

In the Archive

Not all of the interviews made it directly into Warren's book. The original audiotapes and materials for Who Speaks for the Negro? also contained interviews with the following people. The audio and transcripts for these, as well as full interviews from the persons in the book mentioned above, are available at the Who Speaks for the Negro? Digital Archive of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities and the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries at Vanderbilt University.[16]

References

  1. Blight, David W. (2014). "Introduction". Who Speaks for the Negro?. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. xvii-xviii.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Blight, David W. (2014). "Introduction". Who Speaks for the Negro?. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. xx.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Blight, David W. (2014). "Introduction". Who Speaks for the Negro?. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. xx-xxi.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Warren, Robert Penn (2014). Who Speaks for the Negro?. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Isaacs, Harold R. (1964). The New World of Negro Americans. London: Phoenix House.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Raines, Howell (1977). My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered. New York: Putnam.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Williams, Juan (2004). My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience. New York: AARP/Sterling.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Dolbier, Maurice (May 28, 1965). "Review". New York Herald Tribune.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Coughlin, Francis (June 4, 1965). "Review". Chicago Tribune.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "Review". Atlantic Monthly. July 1965.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Nicholson, Joseph (June 13, 1965). "Review". Fort Worth Star-Telegram.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Poore, Charles (June 1, 1965). "Review". New York Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Blight, David W. (2014). "Introduction". Who Speaks for the Negro?. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. xxvi.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Review". Newsweek. June 7, 1965.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Blight, David W. (2014). "Introduction". Who Speaks for the Negro?. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. xxvi.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Robert Penn Warren Center. "Robert Penn Warren's Who Speaks for the Negro?: An Archival Collection". Who Speaks for the Negro? Digital Archive. Retrieved 19 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
Further reading [clarification needed]
  • Kreyling, Michael (2010). The South That Wasn't There: Post-southern Memory and History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Blotner, Joseph (1997). Robert Penn Warren: A Biography. New York: Random House.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links