When Malcolm X Met Robert Penn Warren

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you have a moment, check out this interview between two of the more interesting minds of the 20th century. In 1965, Robert Penn Warren published a book called Who Speaks For The Negro? in which he interviewed a number of prominent African-Americans. Warren was one of the giants of 20th century literature, and a reformed white supremacist who came to regret his views.

I can’t really be so objective about Malcolm X—no one else did more to help me ground the problem of white supremacy in concrete terms. At his best, Malcolm was the ultimate anti-sentimentalist. He was uninterested in the “moral nature” of white liberals, and unconcerned with unknowable matters of the “heart.” This is the spirit I felt in James Baldwin. This is the spirit I feel in Tony Judt. In Edith Wharton. Perhaps that sounds odd. I can’t call it. I can only tell you how it hits me. When Ellen Olenska says to Newland Archer, “Oh my dear, where is that country?” I hear so much about what is familiar to me in Baltimore, in New York, in Paris. The things we revile can’t merely be wished away.

Warren is searching for the possibility of white innocence—for “that country”—but Malcolm won’t give it to him:

Warren: Can a person, an American of white blood, be guiltless?

Malcolm: Guiltless?

Warren: Yes.

Malcolm: Well, you can only answer it this way, by turning it around. Can the Negro who is the victim of the system escape the collective stigma that is placed upon all Negroes in this country?

And the answer is “no.” Because Ralph Bunch is an internationally recognized and respected diplomat can't stay in a hotel in Georgia, which means that no matter what the accomplishment, the intellectual, the academic or professional level of the Negro is, collectively he stands condemned. Well, the white race in America is the same way. As individuals it is impossible for them to escape the collective crime committed against the Negroes in this country collectively.

Warren pushes harder:

Warren: Let us say a white child of three or four, something like that, who is outside of conscious decisions or valuations ... Is the reaction to that child the same?

Malcolm: The white child, although he has not committed any of … the deeds that have produced the plight that the Negro finds himself in? Is he guiltless? The only way you can determine that is to take the Negro child who is only four years old—Can he escape though he’s only four years old? Can he escape the stigma of discrimination and segregation? He's only four years old.

There are very few people who would make this argument, and the reason isn’t because it’s a bad argument. In fact it’s a beautiful argument—an argument against “that country” of thin and disposable innocence. In this country, our country, where black four-year-olds are demonstrably not innocent, it is impossible for white four-year-olds to be innocent. Racism condemns that black child to toil as surely as it condemns that white child to the unearned fruits of that same toil. In this, Malcolm recognizes the true monstrosity of racism. The point is not that the white four-year-old is a bad person, immoral, or even personally corrupted. The point is that the system of racism, one way or another, eats its young—all of its young.

Guilt and innocence are not reducible to mere knowledge. And past ignorance is not an excuse for presently doing the wrong thing. In every era of American history there have been some human beings who understood this, and many more who worked hard not to.

In 1808, Edward Coles acquired slaves through inheritance, not through any action of his own. And yet, in opposition to his family and society itself, he worked for years toward manumission (and reparation). You can be born under societal guilt—I suspect most of us are. You then are faced with a choice—sit with it or try to get clean. I don’t think this a particularly American, or even “white,” problem. One might make the same analysis of all Americans and actions across the world. I did not order the drone strike on a wedding. But it was done in my name. To deny this is to slip into the same desire for innocence that Warren sought. It is it is to be sentimental, to seek, as Oscar Wilde put it, “the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.”

Give the tapes a listen. There’s a lot there.

Also, for a retort to Malcolm’s own sentimental nationalism check out this debate with Bayard Rustin.