Robert Penn Warren
Yale University Press, 2014
describes witnessing a white man beating a black teenager with a belt outside of a Baton Rouge movie theater.
stayed in his
car and considered intervening, but never did.
hesitation wasnâ€™t from fear, â€œit was something worse, a sudden, appalling sense of aloneness.
I had never had that feeling before,â€� he
recalled, â€œthat paralyzing sense of being totally outside my own community.â€� Eventually, a white LSU football player intervened.
calls him a â€œhero,â€� but not because he
helped the black teenager.
is a hero because he
the trouble of having to â€œget â€˜involved.â€™â€�
, like those who may have felt more for characters on The Wire than they did for Freddie Gray, can only bear to look at the scene from a distance.
Rather than taking action, Warren
interprets the beating of a black teenager as an event that sheds light primarily on his
own psychological and emotional complex.
Even 50 years after it was published, Warrenâ€™s volume offers an important, but ultimately flawed case for how white Americans come to feel about and act on representations of black life: When confronted by the realities of aggressionsâ€"micro and macroâ€"against people of color in the United States, much of white America becomes paralyzed, and expects a similar passivity even from those afflicted.
What Iâ€™ve just described is not, of course, the book that Warren
set out to write.
For him, Who Speaks
is a chronicle of his
attempt to understand the Civil Rights Movement first hand.
attempt to write a direct history, Warren
reduces racial inequality of the 1960s to a narrative of the rise, fall, and circulation of a number of metonymsâ€"symbols that substitute for the actual thing.
In doing so, he
reads the world as if it were the object of literary criticism.
Practicing the criticism he
searches for the coherent voice that unifies the ironies and paradoxes of the Civil Rights Movement.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bookâ€™s titular theme: to identify a particular â€œwhoâ€� speaking for the entirety of black America.
Of course, Warren
is more interested in finding a voice at the center of the movement than he
is in finding a person, an approach that resonates with his
emphasis on identifying and accounting for a poemâ€™s â€œspeakerâ€� in his
In 1960, he
and Cleanth Brooks added a paragraph to their important Understanding Poetry textbook in order to clarify the relation between a poemâ€™s tone and its speaker:
There are, however, many shadings off from this kind of literal identification to a merely fictitious â€œI,â€� and for present purposes the degree of autobiographical identification is not necessarily important.
We are concerned with the fact that the speaker of the poem, whether historical or fictional, is expressing an attitude through his
particular use of language.
Warren and Brooks point to the separation of the voice of the poet from the voice of the poemâ€™s speaker.
For example, Warren
seems to compliment James Baldwin after describing The Fire Next Time : â€œHe has become a voice.â€� Similarly, when introducing his interview with Martin Luther King Jr., Warren positions King as capable of giving the movement what it needs most, â€œa voice to explain it to itself.â€� The disembodiment and simultaneous fetishization of the black voice has long been a privileged site of white appropriation and exploitation of black aesthetics and performance.
somehow makes being singular plural, and plural singular.
Such a move obscures the living conditions of black people and limits the purview of any action that could be taken to disassemble those conditions, because Warren
interprets the struggle as symbolic rather than social or material.
Who Speaks for the Negro? is a work of literary criticism disguised as a work of history.
Because of this, the book falls prey to a category error, scrutinizing life as literature.
Yet mistaking life for literatureâ€"or literature for lifeâ€"becomes possible only when literature is understood to be separate from the world.
It is no coincidence that Warren
was among the â€œNew Criticsâ€� who made this distinction a pivotal part of literary studies in the US academy.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the New Critics extensively promoted the idea that the work of art is ontologically distinct and separate from the world, even though they didnâ€™t come up with this idea themselves.
Aside from Warren
, fellow New Critics Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom brought the enclosed literary object (and the â€œclose readingâ€� method necessary to decipher it) to the center of literary studies in predominantly white colleges and universities in the United States.
In Understanding Poetry, in fact, Brooks and Warren
suggest that literature can be part of history, but with one important caveat:
More broadly, however, Warren
and Brooks opened up the possibility for literary critical methods to be used on â€œdocuments.â€� With this subtle expansion, literary criticism becomes much more capacious and, as I mentioned earlier, allowed for the expansion of the canon.
When the entire world becomes a literary text, any empathy, comprehension, or political change must circuit through interpretation.
Rather than taking action, Warren
interprets the beating of a black teenager as an event that sheds light on his
own psychological and emotional complex.
Reading documents through the lens of literary criticism may not seem like a big deal, but this idea is foundational to Who Speaks
for the Negro? and Warrenâ€™s approach to reading the Civil Rights Movement in it.
To do so enforces a demarcated distance between the critic and the â€œobjectsâ€� being observed, even if the critic is not, in fact, separate from the events.
Warrenâ€™s anecdote about the beating in Baton Rouge stages a separation between the event itself and the passive observer.
Warren plays the latter role, which leads him to the conclusion that the LSU student who intervenes is saving Warren instead of the black teenager being whipped.
What the student saves Warren
from is the possibility that Warren
would have to become part of the world.
protected position as â€œevent critic,â€� Warren
concludes that this event is really about his
own psyche instead of the conditions of black life.
A beating is abstracted into an internal and seemingly universal existential wound, the unavoidable condition for the intellectual, the poet, or the writer.
Who Speaks for the Negro? doesnâ€™t stop there.
At the bookâ€™s close, Warren
interviews as evidence of a transhistorical truth: â€œthe white man must grant, of course, that Western civilization, white culture, has â€˜failed.â€™â€� For the Warren
of Who Speaks
, the failure of white culture isnâ€™t rooted in industrialization and advanced forms of capitalism as it was for the younger Warren.
never claims to be doing a literary critical analysis of his
In fact, he
hopes to do exactly the opposite.
A loose and modified form of Warrenâ€™s critical approach, however, bears on his
â€œsettings and commentariesâ€� throughout the book.
It is tempting to take Who Speaks as a redemptive book for Warren in that it shows he was able to put his Agrarian days and Southern upbringing behind him.
Such a reading focuses, as Warrenâ€™s book does, not on the struggle of black people living in an anti-black society, but on the white struggle to be a good, moral, anti-racist person.
That struggle is important, at least to white people.
But so is the fact that black people are both incarcerated and killed by police at an alarming rate.
To claim feeling and understanding for The Wire, and not for the black residents of Baltimore, is to privilege the white moral struggle, a struggle that has always been privileged.
attempted to show how those struggles are intertwined, but the way he
read the world as if it were akin to The Wire, unfortunately, didnâ€™t get him all the way there.