Dan Dodson, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Stan Opotowsky
Harlem, New York City
VTR Date: April 20, 1958
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THE OPEN MIND
April 20, 1958
Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Stan Opotowsky, Dan Dodson
ANNOUNCER: THE OPEN MIND, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, “Harlem…” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher, and author of A Documentary History of the United States.
HEFFNER: I was going to begin this program today with a reference to the fact that our next three programs are going to be concerned with the press. We’ll be talking about two weeks from today the subject of “The South and a Fair Press”, and two weeks after that, “Our Courts and a Free Press”, two weeks after that a program that we entitle “All the News.” As a matter of fact, today’s program is very closely related to the matter of a free and a fair and a responsible press, one that gives all the news and all the views, too. I think it’s probably true that any subject that’s discussed on or with “The Open Mind” is related to just about every other subject. Our program today I think is a most important one, because it was just last month that a series of articles appeared in New York entitled “Harlem.” This series written by Stan Opotowsky has caused a considerable amount of fuss, and feathers and controversy. It has stimulated much interest in the minds of a good many people interested in what Harlem is and what Harlem really means in this city and in this country, and I think we should now turn to my guests and begin our discussion of this series, and more importantly of Harlem itself. My guests today are first, Mrs. Anna Arnold Hedgeman, who is assistant to the Mayor of New York City, Mayor…My second guest is Stan Opotowsky who wrote the series on Harlem, reporter for New York Post. And my third guest is Dr. Dan Dodson who is the director of the Human Relation Center here at New York University. Well, let me just read this first paragraph that Mr. Opotowsky wrote: “Harlem is a place that is not really a place at all. Harlem is a home that nobody loves. Harlem is a cultural center that cultural leaders flee. Harlem is a haven that refugees grow to despise. Harlem is a ghetto and the walls are crumbling down. Considering the beginning, the 12 part series and the reaction it, I think I’d ask you, Mrs. Hedgeman, because you’ve been quite critical of the series, which has, after all, appeared in the newspaper that has a long reputation for being liberal and for being a friend of the Negro in New York and in the country, what you think the series means and what you think the concern about the series means in terms of a real understanding of Harlem?
HEDGEMAN: Well, could I say first of all that we’ve all been very appreciative of the stand the Post has taken on many subjects, which concern the Negro. Therefore, when we found that there was to be a series on Harlem, we looked toward them with hope. We thought of people like Murray Kempton and Max Lerner, of Oliver Pilot, Ted Poston, and any number of others, and Mrs. Schiff herself, who could, after all, be playing bridge rather than supporting a newspaper, so we’re very much interested and hopeful. When the first of the series arrived saying that we didn’t love Harlem, and some of us love Harlem very, very much, we took that in stride, and then as this series developed we remembered that the statement was made that cultural leaders flee Harlem. Well, I could name 65 or 70 if we had time on the air today, and maybe get into the hundreds rather swiftly, who have not flown Harlem and who have been working rather seriously with Harlem through the years. Finally, lots of people began calling me: “What do we do about this?” “Isn’t this outrageous?” “Would you have believed it of the Post?” “Where do we start?” And after some discussion, I began thinking about that one sentence, “Harlem’s past is ghastly, her present, inglorious, her future, hopeful.” And I think these were the three ideas which caught on in my mind. Harlem’s past ghastly? This is fantastic. I am part of Harlem’s past and have been for thirty-odd years, and other people were saying the same thing. Out of a ghastly past and an inglorious present you just don’t get a hopeful future. But more than that, Harlem is a symbol. Then one of my coworkers walked in and said “You know, if I hadn’t known you, I would have believed this series as perhaps what Harlem is really like.” So this again becomes a symbol not only of Harlem but a symbol of all Negro communities, and therefore we were deeply concerned that the other side of the picture be bought in, in order that the world may know that perhaps, at this moment of history, if American democracy is achieved, it will be because of the Harlems of this nation.
HEFFNER: Well, I think that maybe I would ask you, Mr. Opotowsky, in terms of what has happened since he finished this series, whether you think you have seen something more about Harlem? I don’t mean the other side or anything like that, but in terms of the reaction to the series, whether this makes Harlem more symbolic or more symptomatic of something to you?
OPOTOWSKY: I don’t think there has been any change. I have attended a number of meetings such as this one, and I think the chief criticism I have heard, when you get down to hard facts contained in the newspaper, is that “So these things may be true. It doesn’t help to expose them; you only hurt them.” There has been much said about the fact that if you write these things in the New York Post, which is the Negro’s friend, just think, these will be picked up by southern newspapers. It is not our view that we are to hide anything from southern newspaper or anyone else; it is the view of the Post, and should be the view of every newspaper, to print the truth. If it hurts your friends you are sorry, just as if you offend a personal friend at a party you are sorry, but if it is basically true, if there are evils that are exposed by these things I feel you have accomplished something, because you can at least point them out and if someone wants to do something about them, there they are. If someone wants to whitewash them or ignore them or pretend they are not there or which is more in this case to go around looking for exceptions to the rule, there is nothing much you can do about it but at least you have performed the service of presenting the situation as it exists. Much has been made about Harlem’s past; actually this was not intended to be a history of Harlem in that the historical facts were merely brought in when they seemed pertinent. However, the fact remains that in every technical sense, Harlem generally is a slum area. At a city meeting about schools, there will be delegations from Harlem protesting the poor schools. At any housing conference, there will be delegations from Harlem protesting poor housing conditions in Harlem. These things have been going on. We all know them—and so all of a sudden when they are wrapped up in one newspaper series, you just cannot deny them.
HEFFNER: Let me, before we exchange a little more freely, ask Dr. Dodson how he sees this, and not just sees the series, but sees the meaning for Harlem.
DODSON: Of course Harlem is a symbol in so many ways of the Negro America. Harlem is the psychological capitol of what is the 49th state of the Union, I suppose. Sociologically and politically, ti seems to me it is the symbol of all the unfinished business America has and the progress that has been made in the struggle to do something about our unfinished business. The criticism of the series would be that because so often we seem to rely on stereotypes that much of it seemed to be written out of the head rather than out of the facts. I can take the first article and go through it. I just did this morning to indicate some of the kinds of things, such as, the man riding the mule in Harlem. I never saw a man riding a mule in Harlem. I’ve been up there an awful lot and it’s possible of course, you can ride a mule on Fifth Avenue. But this I think isn’t the place where we want to discuss that kind of thing, but rather we should cover the bigger significance. Out of this struggle have come some of the keenest interpreters of what our problems in a democratic society are. And some of the most, well – I think I can do it better by relating a kind of feeling I have which has come out of my experience. I came here from Texas in 1936. I came from a background where they said Negroes didn’t learn after the 6th year, that something closed in their heads or something, and I was signed to work with Dr. James Weldon Johnson in a class called Racial Contributions to American Culture and was catapulted into what I think is the greatest spurt of creativeness in American society since the flowering of New England culture. Countee Cullen, Rosamund Johnson, Dr. James Weldon Johnson, Jesse Phillips, Langston Hughes, Alene Wack, Ethel Waters, Richard Harrison in drama, Barte in sculpture and on down the line. Here was this great spurt of creativeness at a point at which a minority group in America had an opportunity and had a chance to really become self-conscious and to begin giving interpretation to the minority group. I think this is the kind of thing that I would raise. Of course they are there in the series in a way but they are not put into perspective, it seems to me. That would be the kind of thing I would say.
HEFFNER: Well let me ask this. I think this point is well made. Let me ask you, Mr. Opotowsky… how you feel about this criticism that there were very positive things. Dr. Dodson talks about a spirit of creativity in this very area that you have written about and he talked about that rather than the blight.
DODSON: I wouldn’t overlook the blight. I don’t mean to be misunderstood.
OPOTOWSKY: Well, Dr. Dodson, then proceeds to run off a list of names and by the very names, you know these are exceptions. The series was not meant to be a series on exceptions. It was meant to be a series on the whole.
DODSON: But you picked the exceptions. The man riding a mule in Harlem and so on is much more of an exception than the fact that there has been a great creative element in the Harlem community.
OPOTOWSKY: No, no, no, for example, if you take the mule as an exception, this pretty much plays into my hands because it just so happens it is not a very important thing. It was just thrown in for color. It just so happens that I worked in Harlem for about three and one-half months on this series and there is some routine in this man’s life where he rides that mule every day past the Sugar Ray Robinson Restaurant and so if you want to say that that is very significant, very well, it is, he does. He rides it every day. Where he is going, where he comes from, I have no idea. It’s not really important.
HEFFNER: That’s really the problem in the question of the mule or the question of naming some names or naming other names. But let me ask this question now. When…began talking about doing this series—about doing a program on this series, it was a matter of something that had been very much in the news in an important newspaper and doing a program on this subject matter, which we have done very frequently. And I don’t think I ever dreamed that there had been as much concern about the series as there has been. It never occurred to me that there had been as much fierce feeling. I wonder if it shouldn’t be a matter of our concern. Why this reaction? Do you think, Mrs. Hedgeman, that the Negro community feels that this is a pattern? That its cultural progress has been ignored? That we have constantly put our emphasis on the negative rather than on the positive?
HEDGEMAN: Yes. This has been a part of the pattern and one we are watching very seriously now. Of course this is part of the American pattern too, and the question of newspaper responsibility comes in here. And the question of our belief that the Post was perhaps a little different all enters here. But the pattern is to present all of the bad in the picture. I would not want to whitewash one single problem Harlem has. I never have. I have said many of the things that have been said in these articles. But they have been so presented that it’s called Harlem as it Really Is, you see – it would make you think that this would be the total of Harlem.
HEFFNER: And you would want 12 more articles.
HEDGEMAN: I want 12 more, which tell the true story of a magnificent struggle for freedom. I want the quality of that struggle to appear here. Our well… i1literate laundress; I want to be given her proper focus. This is the thing that I plead for. No whitewashing. I know Harlem better than most people. I have been in all of the churches and the storefronts and all of the kinds of experiences that one has there. I’ll even grant the mule, although frankly I haven’t seen him and I go around Harlem an awful lot. I’ll even grant the mule. Take every bit of it you wish. But please let’s put it in perspective. Here is the most dramatic struggle in the world today. For here are the most deeply rooted Americans, you see, more deeply rooted than any other except the American Indian, struggling to achieve their role, their place in society; and not having the positive end of this struggle presented as just ought to be, most of the time.
HEFFNER: Well one thing is certain. On this program I have noted very, very frequently in the nearly two years I’ve have been on the air, unpleasantness is usually something that we don’t want to deal with, and we don’t admit. And that’s why I think I would ask Mr. Opotowsky the sort of question I have asked many times on this program when someone has said: “well this can’t be.” And I really wanted to ask them: – “but suppose it is, suppose this is this way and that’s all there is to it, then what are you we going to do?” Therefore, I would really ask you, Mr. Opotowsky whether you think you could write another 12 chapters to this series.
OPOTOWSKY: Well, we are getting away and Mrs. Hedgeman particularly, is getting away from the subject at hand. The subject at hand in this series was not the struggle of the Negroes, either for freedom or for success. The subject at hand was a picture of Harlem and the living conditions, the working conditions in Harlem. You could go off on many, many tangents about the wonderful things Negroes have done. You can go off on many tangents about many horrible things Negroes have done. You can pick and pick and pick, but that was not the subject. The subject was simply Harlem.
HEDGEMAN: As it really is.
OPOTOWSKY: That’s right. We picked a number of general subjects. I think I started out with about 15 and we came down to about 12. We went into each of those subjects. There are many things left out. Many subjects left out. You can bring up Langston Hughes, for example. No one can deny that Langston Hughes is both a success and a splendid fellow, but Langston Hughes is the one top Negro writer living in Harlem. He is mentioned in the series as such and there is his focus. The fact that Langston Hughes has succeeded at the typewriter is incidental when you are talking about a few hundred thousand persons. You can mention him as an exception, but you must always remember that he is an exception and simply that. There has been some talk about stereotypes in this series and perhaps I should point this out: that although I cannot tell the sources of the material in Harlem, some of the most prominent Negro leaders are behind many of the most unpleasant facts in this series. They realize they were speaking off the record that is in the manner that they would not be identified. I think a good deal of the hue and cry would be eliminated if the criers knew the source of the information involved.
DODSON: I wouldn’t say that. I think all of us would be aware of that mention of it. The question raised itself with me as I look at the series—I have worked with this kind of problem over the years– is it possible for one to write the kinds of articles that do the other things? I ask this because of the difficulty of getting people to believe facts which don’t fit the stereotypes. There is ambivalence in the Negro community’s leadership as there is even here; because on one hand is the problem the eternal need to overcome the kinds of stereotypes which there are; to eradicate the ghetto aspects of Harlem, and yet there is on the other hand the necessity of exposing these problems if you are to get anything done about them. So it’s this eternal thing you are caught in. And it seems to me that this is some of what the community is asking for now.
HEDGEMAN: This leads right into the heart of what we are talking about, really. And that is – it would be presumed that a series done by a responsible newspaper would want to be factual and at the same time analytical enough to be useful to the outside of the community as well as the inside. Anybody who knows my record and the people I have worked with know that I have never ducked any evil. This is no whitewash request. This is a request that this be put into proper perspective. I was just reviewing a series on Israel this morning. Beautifully done. But a positive series, because the basic understanding of the struggle appears all the way through. Now here there is no basic understanding of the struggle and no basic appreciation of the fact that this minority group may yet save these United States. For two thirds of the world, you see, want exactly what we want. Two thirds of the world is going through this same struggle. And this has not been comprehended in this series. Furthermore, the question of who is a leader always needs a definition. Anybody who gave this material ought to be quite willing to stand up and be counted and believe me you haven’t heard from them. I know endless numbers of people who have been real leaders, that is, they have been at work with the community through all the years, who weren’t even touched. I made out a list the other day of 70 of them. I started to bring it down here; 70 of them, just writing as fast as I could write, people who work in the community.
HEFFNER: Now, Mrs. Hedgeman, you say that if they said these things they ought to be ready to stand and be counted. I wonder whether what is in here is, as far as it goes, correct as part of a picture.
HEDGEMAN: I made no objection to the series if you notice. I did not object to the series although I could take the articles line by line. I am terribly embarrassed by their lack of insight. I could take them line-by-line, but I didn’t do this because it seemed to me it was much more positive to present the things which needed to be said and said swiftly.
DODSON: Well, could I take just a second to illustrate what I think is a problem. I won’t take but a minute. “Harlem is the home nobody loves.” “Harlem is a ghetto.” “All the businesses there exist because it is a ghetto.” The men have grown rich selling… solace for their misery.11 I think of some of these fellows downtown, I mean, the context they could be put in. “The tattered man riding the mule”; “the saloon turns into a whopping frenzy.” I’ve seen several in the Village that I- well you know—only outside people own houses.” “The politics are for outsiders.” “All the successful Negroes pull out.” “Only three creative persons left up there.” These are stereotypes reinforced in the mind. The mixed race is brought in. There are very few people not of a mixed race. “Supermarket sells chitterlings.” I never saw chitterlings in a supermarket.
HEDGEMAN: Oh they do sell them, but so what? I have not objected to the series in terms of that.
DODSON: I didn’t say they didn’t sell them. But anyway what I am saying is that when you get through with it the net effect of it is a stereotyped conception of a community that you say, yes, here are a few exceptions but here’s the community, a stereotype.
HEFFNER: Let me ask this. If you were to go into another community, Middletown, let 1 s say, wouldn’t you come out with a number of stereotypes, ones that others like yourself in this situation might say are not entirely true because there are exceptions to them, and I wonder if this isn’t what Mr. Opotowsky is trying to say.
DODSON: We have the problem of the role of the stereotype in journalism because meaning is conveyed through stereotypes. Do we just perpetuate the stereotypes or is there some hope that we begin to say, Negroes move out of Harlem like everybody else does and that they have moved out faster simply because now there are some places for them to go to.
OPOTOWSKY: There you are simply not remembering what you read. That particular statement is in the series. When you start attacking stereotypes I think you are getting on pretty flimsy ground because a stereotype can’t be true, I think you will concede.
DODSON: There is an element of truth in most of them but…
OPOTOWSKY: It is without question a fact that most of the businesses, especially the major businesses in Harlem not only are owned by outsiders but until comparatively recent times the Negroes of Harlem couldn’t even get employment, must less own a share in these businesses.
HEDGEMAN: But you might have said why. Why they couldn’t?
HEDGEMAN: Yes. Mortgage loans unavailable, you know?
OPOTOWSKY: That was in the series.
HEDGEMAN: I know but it does not give us the story as it ought to be given.
OPOTOWSKY: This is what I have been going through in discussions of’ this series in the past weeks. Any time the discussion boils down to facts rather than just broad words like stereotypes, someone will bring up a fact and I will say well that was in the series and the person will say I don’t remember it or I know but I think the whole series pretty much boils down to that.
HEDGEMAN: Well now, is this the kind of approach that the Post plans to take on this kind of material?
OPOTOWSKY: Well this I think is probably not our concern at this moment, whether the Post—
HEDGEMAN: I’m sorry, I should have said you as a reporter. Is this the sort of thing that any community can expect? I would be just as disturbed.
OPOTOWSKY: You mean the stereotype? Yes. This is a fair question.
HEDGEMAN: I would be just as disturbed about this if it was done about any other community. If this is the sort of reporting, we might just as well be reporting from some of our more bigoted communities across the nation.
OPOTOWSKY: Well of course you are involved and I am not, for example, in Harlem. For any reporting I will do, I will simply go in, get all the facts available to me whether the person is willing to stand up to them or not, I would rather they would as you would.
HEDGEMAN: But you will go for all the facts this time?
OPOTOWSKY: I will every time.
DODSON: There’s this difference, though. A fact is what you see when you look, and I would have wished you had seen the significance of some other things, that you had put it all a little more in perspective. Then I would not care at all. I don’t mind saying for some people that you can buy chitterlings in the stores and so on. This is obviously a part of a folk culture pattern that is brought in.
HEDGEMAN: That’s all you could buy in some areas.
HEFFNER: Well why don’t we ask Mr. Opotowsky, we have a minute left, whether, if he were rewriting this, whether he would add the perspective that seems to be required or whether he feels there is sufficient for his purposes?
OPOTOWSKY: No. I will tell you this. Yesterday afternoon in anticipation of the program, I read through that series for the first time since it was written and just personally asked myself would I change any word? My answer was no. I would not change a word, bearing in mind that my assignment was my assignment and not the assignment that other would like me to take on. The Doctor has an assignment he would like me to take on. It’s an entirely different assignment. If he wants me to do a series on the progress of the Negro that could very well be done by the New York Post or anyone else. This assignment was not a series on the progress of the Negro, it was Harlem as it is.
HEDGEMAN: We want only Harlem as it is. We want the rest of Harlem, which is not here. We want the implications of this clarified because America stands at the crossroads around the world and she may be saved by us, by our struggle to make democracy work. This is not here, and I am sorry.
HEFFNER: Thank you very much for joining me on this subject, in which I don’t think anyone has agreed but I think we have brought out some important facts, Mrs. Hedgeman, Mr. Opotowsky, and Dr. Dodson…Will appear next week at this time on April 27 will have Representative Edna Kelly, Democrat of Brooklyn. We will be back with The Open Mind on May 4 when we begin or continue our series on the press when we will have the New York Post Editor, James Wechsler and Congressman John Bell Williams of t1ississippi for a discussion of “The South and a Fair Press.” See you then, May 4.