Revisiting Robert Penn Warren's Civil Rights Interviews

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tags: civil rights, African American history, oral histories

In 1930, a cadre of poet-critics known as the Fugitives—white southern loyalists who were wary of the effects of industrial capitalism and hoped to preserve what they saw as the pastoral lifeblood of their native region—published an essay-collection-cum-manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.” One of the book’s essays, “The Briar Patch,” was written by a twenty-five-year-old Rhodes Scholar from Kentucky named Robert Penn Warren, who had helped found the group. In his essay, Warren argued that African-Americans should focus on forming their own agrarian state, a network of black-owned farms that would promote economic independence and eliminate any motive to move north or come into contact with white society. “In the past the Southern negro has always been a creature of the small town and farm,” Warren wrote. “That is where he still chiefly belongs, by temperament and capacity.”

Years later, in an interview, Warren said that “The Briar Patch” was a product of “that fatalism that was deeply engrained in the Southern mind.” Warren insisted that he had never been comfortable with segregation, but that, at the time, he could not imagine any other system prevailing in the South—and so, in the essay, he dreamed up what he considered a fair, benign version of it. Whatever pressures shaped “The Briar Patch,” Warren, by the time he gave the interview, had gone from one of the South’s most celebrated writers—his novel “All the King’s Men,” from 1946, won the Pulitzer Prize and was quickly adapted into a movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars—to one of its most incisive critics. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in 1954, Warren compiled a short work of oral history titled “Segregation: The Inner Conflict In the South,” in which he bemoaned the region’s resistance to the Supreme Court’s ruling. In 1961, he published “The Legacy of the Civil War,” a powerful study in mythography that cast the Lost Cause as a fiction deleterious to those who cherish it, converting “defeat into victory, defects into virtues.” For Warren, the problem of fatalism was a recurrent one. “We are the prisoners of our history,” he wrote, in “Segregation.” “Or are we?”

Read entire article at New Yorker

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