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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 506-529
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E. Franklin Frazier's Revenge:
Anticolonialism, Nonalignment, and Black Intellectuals' Critiques of Western Culture
The truth of the matter is that for most Negro intellectuals, the integration of the Negro means . . . the emptying of his life of meaningful content and ridding him of all Negro identification. For them, integration and eventual assimilation means the annihilation of the Negro—physically, culturally and spiritually.
This is not just a change in attitude which denotes an increase in privileges. It is a fundamental change in attitude even to privileges which could have been claimed five years before. It permeates everything Ghanaians do or say. And here one saw the psychological significance of freedom. It does something to a man's way of seeing the world. It is an experience that is not gained by education or money, but by an instinctive re-evaluation of your place in the world, an attitude that is the logical by-product of political action. And again one felt . . . the full desecration of human personality which is contained in the word: colonial. One felt that the West Indian of my generation was truly backward. . . . For he was not only without this experience of freedom won; it was not even a vital force or need in his way of seeing himself and the world which imprisoned him.
According to his biographer, the African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier spent the last decade of his life, during the 1950s, as a casualty of the Cold War, isolated from the rising insurgency of the black freedom movement. Investigated by the Justice Department for his involvement in black popular front activism during the 1930s and '40s, Frazier was one of the few prominent members of the black intelligentsia who remained unrepentant for his associations with leftists. Frazier was among those progressives who believed that wartime struggles for racial and economic justice would produce a more equitable American society. What followed instead was an intense political backlash against those struggles. Like many others, Frazier was dismayed by the McCarthyite assault on civil liberties, spiraling defense spending and a US foreign policy hostile to an emergent Third World, and the white South's violent resistance to desegregation. Throughout the 1950s, Frazier excoriated the political conformity in the US and the banality and materialism of its cultural life. Frazier vented his frustration with scathing critiques of the African-American middle class and leadership and such institutions as the black church, which Anthony Platt characterizes as cynical, one-sided, and out of touch in light of the ascendant church-based mass activism of Southern blacks (218–21).
Platt and, more recently, Jonathan Holloway inform us that Frazier's reputation has suffered among scholars largely because of his posthumous association with "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" (1965), better known as the Moynihan report. According to this view, Frazier's account of family disorganization and matriarchy among African Americans in Chicago provided the intellectual blueprint for Daniel Patrick Moynihan's attribution of poverty to cultural pathologies. Ironically, many Americans perceived the report's claims of black matriarchy, ostensibly in support of President Lyndon B. Johnson's antipoverty agenda, as a case for national inaction. Later, as an aide to President Nixon, Moynihan himself advised a policy of benign neglect toward African Americans. For many critics, then, Frazier has much to answer for (Platt 1–2, Holloway 123–24).
Against such critics, and in the spirit of Platt and Holloway's important recontextualizations of Frazier's work and career, I contend that Frazier is far more influential than his supporters have claimed, an influence that also surpassed the spurious association with Moynihan and the punitive politics of race and poverty that have prevailed in the US since the 1980s. For all his isolation and despair, Frazier was much more of an intellectual godfather to younger black writers, intellectuals, and activists. Frazier bequeathed...