The Road From Rentiesville


I spoke to him only once, and that was at the airport in Honolulu. I happened to be there as he was on his way to catch a plane to Japan or somewhere. I have served on the advisory board of the King papers and that sort of thing—very limited in my role. We tend, looking back, to make it more than it was. Some suggested that my book From Slavery to Freedom had been written for the movement, for instance. That’s not true at all. Yet I think the book did play a part in the movement.

Certainly it introduced thousands to black history in this country. How many copies has it sold?

Three million.

Three million!

But the important thing was in the late sixties and early seventies, when there was a drive to increase knowledge about the history of blacks in this country, and that’s when the sales took off. They had been desultory since its publication in 1947. The publisher didn’t want to put out the paperback edition, although they had promised to. They said, “We have a a corner on the market now, and we’re doing well, so we just won’t publish a paperback.” I pointed out that this was a very critical moment, and people were clamoring for some knowledge, and if we didn’t provide this in a paperback to reach a wider audience, somebody else was going to come along and write a weird, highly inflammatory history that would sweep us off the bookstore shelves, because it would reflect the way people were feeling then. So they changed their mind.





In the first edition of From Slavery to Freedom , the subtitle was The History of American Negroes . In the most recent edition, the eighth, it’s . . . African-Americans . Can you say something about the change in terminology? It’s something more than just what’s fashionable, isn’t it?

I guess it’s black consciousness. I’m really not sure. I regard it as almost faddish, in fact. After all, this is a book that has not changed its position very much, but people have changed their attitudes. They have gone from Afro to Colored to Negro to Black to African-American. I don’t know what that does to our position or whether it means that we have a new approach at all. I don’t know. I don’t mind African-American. I didn’t mind Negro-American. But there are people who wrote me and threatened that they wouldn’t touch the book unless I changed the name.

A black preacher in Mississippi, when asked how he would assess the impact of the movement on his state, replied, “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.” Yes, he said, the Jim Crow signs were all gone, no more WHITE ONLY and COLORED ONLY , and blacks voted now and elected blacks to public office. But black politics and desegregation had done little to alter the day-to-day lives of most black Mississippians.

Well, I think I would subscribe to some extent to the part of that statement about economic conditions in Mississippi. But I think things have changed. You can’t say blacks vote and then say nothing has changed. That’s a very, very significant change. The fact that I can buy this house here in Durham, which I couldn’t do when I lived here before, makes a difference. My next-door neighbors are white on both sides. I don’t know whether I should make a judgment as to whether or not they want me here or don’t want me here. The vote can’t make them change their feelings. But I can make the law give me my rights to be able to live here. And if they wanted to go on for the rest of their lives ignoring me, there’s nothing I could do about that. What I can say is that they’ve been very friendly and welcomed me, but I don’t know how much you can ask of the law or of people. You can ask the law to give you equality, even of opportunity and of treatment. But you can’t ask the law to make people change their reactions. Only experience can do that.

But you have said, and I’m quoting you now, “The litigation and the legislation and executive implementation did not wipe away three centuries of slavery and segregation and discrimination.”

That’s right.

Again, you’ve said that racism is far from dead, but that it assumes very different forms and is no longer measured by police dogs and fire hoses. That those who insist that we conduct ourselves as if a Utopian state, meaning a color-blind society, already existed have no interest in achieving it and indeed would be horrified if we even approached it.

I’ll buy that.

That’s a very harsh judgment.

Yes. But I think it’s true. Let’s take that next-door neighbor of mine. I don’t think she’d live there 20 years without having some opportunity to see that maybe some of the beliefs she harbored might not be all that accurate. Then she might be willing to readjust her views. My point is that experience is a great teacher, and when we have the experience, we tend, even if we resist the effort, to shift our attitudes.