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The Negro in New York: An Informal Social History, 1626-1940

“The Negro in New York is an unavoidably sketchy and uneven document, compiled by the Writers’ Program of New York City during that very brief period of the WPA when it was recognized that writers existed in our country and had to eat, and even had a certain utility – though, probably, no real value.  The curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History, Jean Blackwell Hutson, points out that the material in this book has been sitting in the collection since 1940 with “publication deferred and prevented because information contained in it was too startling for conservative taste.”  That the information in this book should be startling is an interesting comment on the conservative, that is to say, the prevailing, attitude toward American history.  If so many people did not find the information in this book “startling,” they might be less at the mercy of their ignorance, and our present situation would be healthier than it is.

The book can be startling only to the brainwashed, in which category, alas, nearly all Americans are presently to be found, and, of course, it would be very hard to use it as a basis for a rousing television series.  It strips the Americans of their fig leaves, as it were, and proves that Eden, if it ever existed, certainly never existed here.  It proves that anyone who contends that the Northern racial attitudes have not always been, essentially, indistinguishable from those of the South is either lying or is deluded.  Of course, one has become deluded when one has believed a lie too long.”

James Baldwin.  Preface to The Negro in New York:  An Informal Social History, 1626-1940.  

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