Nell Irvin Painter


Letter to the Editor:
In Response to "White Blame, Black Silence,"
Unpublished letter to the New York Times, 15 December 1990.

In Response to "Black Silence"
Unpublished Letter

Princeton, NJ 08540
15 December 1990

The New York Times Company
229 West 43rd Street
New York, New York 10036

To the Editor:

In an essay on the Op-Ed page on 13 December 1990 that was entitled "White Blame, Black Silence," Andrew Hacker contrasted white New Yorkers' demand for a black response to recent events with a relative lack of black answers. Very rightly, Hacker explains blacks' restraint as expressions of ambivalence and racial unity. He misses one crucial reason for holding one's tongue, however: the knowledge of certain retribution of a physically or rhetorically violent nature. Blacks who speak up realize that while white supremacists may be more brutal, attacks from the black side can also be hurtful.

Any black person with a public voice discovers (at the very least) that his or her mail is full of hate. Considering the fate of outspoken African-Americans, one becomes an optimist to hope that the abuse stops at merely verbal attacks. A glance into history reveals that autonomous black speech often exacts a high personal price. W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Martin Luther King, Jr., endured years of official surveillance; Malcolm X was assassinated by erstwhile co-religionists; Angela Davis went to prison.

Even when it's not that costly, independently-minded black speech about racial matters is still controversial enough to have its price. Dealing with the attacks and demands generated by just one speech act diverts the black speaker from his or her regular work. It becomes difficult to get anything done but speak and speak about speaking. Wanting to pursue one's own life work is a powerful disincentive against public utterance.


Nell Irvin Painter
Professor of History,
Princeton University

P.S. For corroboration, contact Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., who received racist attacks after he was featured in the Times Magazine.

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