Look back in shame

The cover of the Oxford American magazine now on newsstands shouts, “America, Look at Your Shame,” but the shameful incident took place in the streets of Detroit — nearly 60 years ago.

In one photograph, an African-American man lies on the ground while another tries to clamber to his feet to face a mob of waiting whites. Another photo captures a black man trying to block the blows of a white attacker, and a third shows an African-American child and a woman looking out fearfully from the car they sit in. “The woman’s husband has just been dragged out of his auto on Cass Ave., Detroit, by a mob of white hoodlums who beat him up,” reads the caption.

The pictures were originally published by PM, a left-leaning New York daily, as part of its coverage of the June 1943 Detroit riot. That upheaval was a seminal event in the city’s history that claimed 34 lives.

One small ripple from the riot, though, was an essay by the late James Agee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Unpublished at the time, and eventually misfiled with the author’s poems, the essay has gone unpublished until now. It’s part of the much-touted relaunch issue of the Oxford American, a sort of Southern-fried New Yorker, which was founded in 1992, foundered last year and is making a comeback.

Agee, who died in 1955, writes of the obvious shame stirred by the riot coverage, his shame at PM’s handling of the pictures (hoarding them as exclusives), and his more complex reaction to a picture in which a bleeding black man is rescued by two young white men, their faces a mix of terror, nausea, sympathy, selflessness, “a terrific, accidental look of bearing testimony.” Finally, Agee writes of his own feelings when, shortly after, he’s confronted with a less cataclysmic — but still shameful — racial incident involving several soldiers on a bus; the incident calls for courage Agee imagines but can’t muster.

What Oxford American doesn’t explain is why the piece was heretofore unknown. Hugh Davis, a University of Tennessee doctoral student, is one of the scholars currently working with Agee’s papers. He e-mailed News Hits to say that the piece was “clean” by Agee’s standards, evidence of having been revised several times.

“My guess is that it was unpublishable not only because of its rambling style and less-than-glowing portrayal of U.S. servicemen, but also because of its indictment of the New York intellectual class — Agee’s circle and the very people who would have been most likely to support something along these lines, as long as it didn’t require too much self-examination.”

News Hits agrees with the folks at Oxford American, that 60 years later there’s no excuse for dodging the self-examination.

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Metro Times Staff

Since 1980, Metro Times has been Detroit’s premier alternative source for news, arts, culture, music, film, food, fashion and more from a liberal point of view.
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