Nat Hentoff: Jack Newfield’s Mugging!


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July 9, 1964, Vol. IX, No. 38

The Town Hall ‘Mugging’

By Nat Hentoff

I had been anxious to find out what had happened at Town Hall on June 15 when “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash” was discussed by Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lorraine Hansberry, LeRoi Jones, John Killens, Paule Marshall, Charles Silberman, James Wechsler, and moderator (?) David Susskind. The New York Post was of no help. First came a trivial news account of the evening and then two pained columns by James Wechsler who understood what had happened in retrospect no more than he had while it was going on.

Seeing Jack Newfield’s piece in the June 25 Village Voice, I anticipated some clarification. Newfield’s work for West Side News, New America, and occasionally for this journal has been knowledgeable. Yet his analysis of that night, “Mugging the White Liberal,” turns out to have been one of the very worst reporting jobs I have ever seen in The Voice.

Fortunately, WBAI (to whom I owe $12 as well as appreciation) broadcast a tape of the evening on June 25, and it was incredible to check what actually was said that night against Newfield’s story. (I largely omit Wechsler’s columns because the man simply did not have the capacity to really listen to what was being said. I would have thought Newfield had that capacity, and I expect this outsize goof was a momentary aberration.)

Newfield’s adjectives are remarkably and persistently violent. We are old this was a “fratricidal Armageddon.” We are told that the Negro panelists displayed “corrosive nihilism,” “estrangement from reality,” — and “desperation.” We are told “the Negro is now apparently making the white man the receptacle of all his fantasies of revenge.” Apparently Newfield was lucky to get out alive.

I submit on the basis of the WBAI tape that it is Newfield along with the white panelists — Silberman somewhat less so than the others — who are estranged from Negro reality. But first, let’s look at a couple of Newfield’s “quotations.” He ascribes to Ruby Dee this dictum: “The war of liberation will be a war of races.” Why didn’t Newfield add that Miss Dee happened to be talking about South Africa when she said that? John Killens said, according to Newfield, “Unfortunately, this is not a revolution yet, because in a real revolution we blow bridges up, not stall them.” In the first place, Killens did not start that sentence with “unfortunately,” nor did that word appear anywhere in the particular speech. Killens was, in fact, making the perfectly logical point that we have been caught up in a semantic thicket when we talk about the present existence of a Negro “revolution.” It is NOT a revolution yet. It’s a revolt. In the context of that section of the discussion, Killens was saying that by the usual descriptive criteria of a revolution, a stall-in is not a revolution. And he’s right. Why didn’t Newfield also quote in this regard Paule Marshall’s point: “Revolutions don’t have to be violent, but we do need revolutions”? In any case, I did not understand Killens — as Newfield implied — to be advocating the blowing up of bridges. Killens may want to, sooner or later, but it was Newfield’s responsibility to get the sense of what Killens was saying at that particular time and place…

There is a great deal more to be said about that June 15 evening — including Newfield’s curious misunderstanding of Ossie Davis’s point that Negro leadership has to be responsible to Negroes — but what is already clear is the difficulty all kinds of whites have in listening to Negroes. I’m not surprised when Susskind and Wechsler don’t really hear, but I’m baffled by Newfield’s performance. Anyway, we see again that you can’t trust what you see in the paper — The Voice included.

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