As these United States of America stagger toward the end days of empire, I read in these Tea Party leaves less a cataclysmic future than an outlived past that refuses its closure, a point you made, perhaps in vain, repeatedly. Everyone who remembers your work remembers your vitriolic criticisms of Civil Rights integrationism but few remember that your target was actually premature integrationism. And who remembers that your other major target was black nationalism, against which you pitched cultural nationalism. Perhaps only someone of my generation, Civil Rights babies, can still defend and see merit in your work. Despite the criticisms directed against your ad hominem attacks on individual activists, thinkers and writers, your distortions of the actual history of the Communist Party of the United States, I still find value in your essential points from The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: integration only makes sense from a position of power, not weakness. It took me a long time to figure out why I sympathized so completely with the basic arguments of your book.
When I was on the high school newspaper staff, I wrote an editorial criticizing school busing as a means to integration, seeing in the strategy only justification for the erosion of inner city public schools and, at best, erosion of black dignity (now that white kids attend your school you will receive more state and federal funds). Those were not the only arguments I mounted against forced busing as a means of integration. I also pointed out that as the focus was primarily on blacks moving into white domains of the public sphere (I didn’t use that now fashionable word, of course), the strategy seemed less like integration than assimilation, if not acculturation. Perhaps I was still thinking of my visit out to Cranbrook Academy outside Detroit, that all-white prep school I could have attended if I’d wanted to do so. Or the fact that I passed on the invitation from the Ford Motor Company engineering school after mailing them some of my ideas for solar car batteries. When I started at Wayne State University I was intimidated by the sea of whiteness in which I was immersed, but despite the time I put in in at the “black table’ in the cafeteria I gradually made friends with my teachers and my white peers at the school newspaper. I remember thinking, where were all the black kids as I took one English class after another, not realizing that the black table was primarily representing the social sciences and medical schools.
I think what I most admire about your intellectual agility is that second book, Plural But Equal, where you move on from the lost opportunities of black empowerment as depicted, however problematically, in The Crisis. In the second book you accept the fait accompli of black capitalism and its thorough absorption of black popular culture. With little hint of bitterness Plural But Equal ponders the problem of black power within—not against—white capital and its attendant political, economic and social structures. Along with Ralph Ellison you remain one of my twin towers, buckling but still erect.
Letter to Tony Hester
We never met, and so you never knew me, never knew how much your songwriting meant to me in my teens and early twenties when I dreamed of becoming a songwriter along the lines of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford & Simpson, and, more grandly, Smokey Robinson. Just as I was able to identify Hanna-Barbera cartoons long before the credits appeared at the end of a show, so I became adept at recognizing your signature lyrics and melodies before confirming my hunches by peering at those little names, often abbreviated, between parentheses on 45s and 33s. I have no doubt that among the typical baby-I-love-you filler that constituted so much Sixties and Seventies r & b music I found your literate, not to say literary, metaphors and images captivating. And so I began telling people I wanted to be the next Tony Hester, but of course, no one knew who Tony Hester was. I’d have to mention one of your songs you wrote for The Dramatics before some, not all, would nod, yeah, I think I’ve heard that one. When I started hanging out at Groovesville Productions with my partners in music, Williams-Malik (Karl)-Hester (Major—a relative?), our version of Holland-Dozier-Holland, I hoped to run into you at some rehearsal or recording session. It never happened. It would be years before I found out you were strung out on dope most of the time, unable to do much other than compose some of the most compelling lyrics and melodies I’d ever heard. And by the time I heard you’d been killed in a drug deal gone bad I’d long surrendered my dreams of songwriting fame to the exigencies of life. Still, though you never knew it, perhaps couldn’t even imagine it, you were one of those angels, however bedeviled, that made me think, yes, I can.
— Tyrone Williams