Reading for the Counter-Revolution
I like black history because I like American history. Black History is American history, and conservatives ought not to be defensive about it. Lots of good stuff there that will surprise you, amaze you, make you weep with happiness and shake with rage.
If you don’t know it, you don’t know your own country.
Where to Start
Where to start? Pick up Ralph Abernathy’s And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, which is really the best biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Technically it’s an autobiography of Ralph Abernathy. But he was King’s right hand man, the one who knew him best, and his immediate successor as head of King’s organization, the SCLC.
The standard biographies really don’t capture the life of black ministers. This one does. It also sheds more light on the centrality of the black church to the civil rights cause than the standard histories.
I hate the story floating around my newsfeed that suggests we shouldn’t read books on race by white people. Check out Nat Hentoff’s writings on race. Check out his essay on how the jazz great Louis Armstrong was not allowed to use a bathroom in a restaurant in Connecticut in 1960!
Hentoff was a left-wing Jewish atheist civil libertarian jazz-reviewing pro-lifer who wrote beautifully on race and the civil rights movement. It behooves pro-lifers to know the movement of which we rightly claim to be the successor. If all you can do in response to events like the killing of George Floyd is parrot Candace Owens talking points, you are falsifying what we pro-lifers claim about ourselves.
I don’t mean this in a “everything is a pro-life issue/seamless garment way. I mean it in a “Fr. Richard John Neuhaus marched with MLK and said pro-life was the new civil rights movement and let’s not disgrace that legacy” way.
Read the Sources
Read the primary sources on the topic. Read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Read, yes, Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power” speech. And then read the “10 years later” essay on the ways in which it backfired. Read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the greatest African-American novel of them all. Read Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Harlem Renaissance writers. Read about and listen to jazz, the blues, and gospel music.
You should know all this work. As I say, if you don’t know it, you don’t know your own country. (I’m still trying to learn it myself, have been for years.) And yes, some of the staples of a black history reading list are (like any other literature) cheesy or worse. It’s not all on the level of Ralph Ellison. The trick is to distinguish the good from the bad, not to avoid a central part of the American experience.
And yes, a lot of this will not be to our political liking. But about that.
When Hillary lost the last election, her running mate quoted Langston Hughes’ long poem “Montage of a Dream Deferred” (sometimes called “Harlem”). Paul Kengor, whose work I otherwise love, reacted with an article in Crisis calling out Langston Hughes as a communist.
And he was. Probably gay, too. But he was still Langston Hughes. He has important things to tell us. Americans need to know that poem. They need to know it and Claude Brown’s novel Manchild in the Promised Land, and many other books.
Because the Black Experience is the American Experience. Even if you’re not black. One way or another, the good and the bad is all part of our shared heritage as Americans.
A Plea to Conservatives and Liberals
I don’t say this because I buy into the asininity of those who claim America is irredeemably racist. If that was true, there would be no Juneteenth, no Brown v. Board of Education, no Harlem Renaissance, no Civil Rights Act.
Back during the Ted Cruz vs. Donald Trump fight, Trump supporters rightly said they were done with “checklist conservatism.” Consider this a plea from me to my fellow conservatives to exercise a similar wisdom in the matter of race.
Yes, I know that “the issue is never the issue, the issue is always the revolution.” I know a lot of these guys were commies. But, honestly, if you and I were black guys back then, we might have been commies too.
Likewise, to my virtue-signaling friends on the Left, you need to reconsider your own checklist liberalism. Yes, African-Americans have legitimate grievances. Yes, you are on the side of the angels in supporting their just cause. Yes, many of my fellow conservatives have spectacular blind spots on the topic. But if you claim that America is irredeemably racist and you condone riots, you’re a nitwit.
King and Sharpton and Where We’re At
The thing I hear most from well-meaning but uncomprehending white people is, “What do they want from us?” They don’t ask that question because they don’t know Martin Luther King. They ask that question because they do know Al Sharpton. King has been dead for fifty years and Sharpton has been the face of the movement for the last thirty.
That’s where we’re at, friends. For some, it’s just about the Revolution. The rest of us need to know each other and talk to each other. For that, we need to know and better appreciate our own history — and that includes black history. Those of us who are white need to crack open the books.
Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut Action. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed on The Stream are solely his own.