The Negro Mood: Ethos

Lerone Bennett, Jr.

The Negro rebellion, then, is a cultural as well as a social upheaval. Some demonstrators are marching for a place, in the Establishment, but some are marching to express a vision that Establishments must be transcended in the direction of more expressive forms of human organization. The authentic rebels are not demonstrating for something they lack but for something they have and the feeling is growing that what they have is what America lacks. The old Negro spiritual expresses their yearning:

My soul wants something
That's new, that's new.

Integration and transformation: these two themes the heart of the rebellion which holds enormous possibilities for all Americans. For if the rebellion fulfills itself it will stimulate our creativity which only comes from diversity; it will relieve the drab sameness of our middle-class minds and our middle-class neighborhoods; it will give us an America more concerned about the claims of human personality and less concerned about color and machines.

The rebellion, in short, cuts to the bone of the deepest problems in American Culture. And American culture, in responding to the rebellion, will change—in one direction or another. Camus said that the secret of Europe was that it no longer loved life. Before too many years have passed, America is going to have to make a decision: either for or against life.

This is the core meaning of the Negro rebellion which tells us that we can be better than we are, which tells us that we are a bridge to a better and unknown world and that we must cross that bridge or say goodbye forever to democracy and the American dream.

The whole corpus of the tradition, in fact, is compressed into the folk myth of Soul, the American counterpart of the African Negritude, a distinct quality of Negro-ness growing out of the Negro’s experience and not his genes. Soul is a metaphorical evocation of Negro being as expressed in the Negro tradition. It is the feeling with which an artist invests his creation, the style with which a man lives his life. It is, above all, the spirit rather than the letter: a certain way of feeling, a certain way of expressing oneself, a certain way of being. To paraphrase Sartre, Soul is the Negro’s antithesis (black) to America’s thesis (white), a confrontation of spirits that could and should lead to a higher synthesis of the two.

Our primary interest here is not in the metaphorical myth of Soul, nor in particular manifestations of the tradition it invokes. What holds our attention is the total ensemble and the values undergirding it: a relaxed and noncompetitive approach to being, a complex acceptance of the contradictions of life, a buoyant sadness, a passionate spontaneity, and a gay sorrow.

From the womb of this non-Puritan, nonmachine, nonexploitative tradition have come insights, values and attitudes that have changed the face of America. The tradition is very definitely nonmachine, but it is not antimachine; it simply recognizes that machines are generative power and not soul, instruments and not ends.

SOURCE: Bennett, Lerone, Jr. The Negro Mood and Other Essays (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), pp. 81-82, 89. Extracts are from III: Ethos: Voices from the Cave. By arrangement with: Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1964.

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