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Sunday, May 9, 2021

A 90-Year-Old Speech for Howard University Reflects on Black Writers, Racism and the Past

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In the first week of September of 1927, Toni Morrison, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1974, came to Washington and spoke at Howard University’s Campanile. It was “the most important lecture she has ever given,” then-deputy editor of The New Yorker James Wood has told Time magazine. “She brought down the auditorium like it had been hit by a train. There were some people who were upset, because she talked about the parties and they were racist and Negroes, well, they didn’t care for that.”

The speech has since faded into a remembrance of a long-ago era. The word “white” does not appear in a review of the lecture delivered 40 years ago by an associate of Walt Whitman’s, describing it as an important lecture.

But the irony of this passage, and the century-old syllogism that it invokes, does not go unnoticed.

The lecture is dedicated to “This writing [Mitchell’s] represents the most devastating and poignant proof of the evil of slavery, the all-encompassing essence of that institution.”

In the same speech, Mitchel King, a fellow Howard University student and a future poet, writes about being present during an early segregated lunch counter sit-in led by a student named C.L. Franklin, and the effect it had on him and on others:

“During a few moments of the event I looked around to see what kind of people were there. It was all white and this is the white South, and nobody except the whites around us asked whether we were conscious of race or not … Now I knew, by looking around, as I heard other voices, that I am the one to whom this was personal, and they were to whom the matter was of utmost importance. I was considered not by them, but by them, in that they had not had the benefit of the study of my writing, in which I had summed out what was the intellectual essence of what had already been said by the men before us. I knew, by my race, that I was untouchable.”

If “it was all white and this is the white South,” then why not do the thing that C.L. Franklin wrote about?

Here’s the answer: You cannot really do the work of deciphering what this white man writes about without examining the context in which he writes.

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