Arts & Culture

Black, Jews, and Seymour Krim

"Oh, not another article on Black-Jewish relations!" is what anyone has the right to feel when the production of books, articles, seminars, and conferences on the subject over the past decades has amounted to what one scholar called an industry. … Read More

By / March 9, 2010

"Oh, not another article on Black-Jewish relations!" is what anyone has the right to feel when the production of books, articles, seminars, and conferences on the subject over the past decades has amounted to what one scholar called an industry.

But before we close up the factory and lay-off all the workers, can we spare a moment for the overlooked Beat writer Seymour Krim? Like an eccentric tech pioneer tinkering alone in his garage, Krim practically started the whole black-Jewish thing in the late 1950s in his Greenwich Village studio apartment. Then, years after his death in 1989, this highly talented flake gets mangled in the official history of the whole period.  A little justice, please.

Buddy, can you spare some tikkun olam?

I mean it would be one thing if Krim was mistakenly dismissed in one of the many doomed-to-the-stacks volumes on the subject, but Eric J. Sundquist’s Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America, published by Harvard University Press, won the 2007 Weinberg Judaic Studies Institute Book Award and was called the "definitive study."

In other words, this might be it.

And what happens? In a discussion of Krim’s 1957 Village Voice article, "Anti-Jazz," and his 1959 follow-up, "Ask for a White Cadillac," two of his earliest I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-that essays on black life and its white imitators, Sundquist gets it wrong.

He just goes ahead and assumes that James Baldwin, the black novelist and uncontradictable authority on black anger at that time, would have dismissed Krim the way he did Mailer. Baldwin condescended to Mailer’s controversial 1957 essay, "The White Negro," by calling the writer a "real sweet ofay cat." Sundquist adds, "Baldwin might just as well have directed his ire at Seymour Krim."

But Baldwin did not. In fact, in Baldwin’s Village Voice review of Krim’s 1961 Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer collection, which included his essays on blacks, Baldwin called Krim, "God bless him, almost the only writer of my generation who has managed to release himself from the necessity of being either romantic or defensive about Negroes." And Krim’s "Anti-Jazz" made Baldwin exclaim, "Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, King Oliver, and my mother and my father thank you, baby."

Let’s find out why.

lIn 1957, Krim’s "Anti-Jazz" and Mailer’s "White Negro" both treated the same subject of black influence on white behavior. Mailer clearly won the marketing contest. "The White Negro" was a brilliant formulation. But Mailer took the romantic view that the influence was profound, that white hipsters "had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro." Krim saw a lot of ignorant white people playing dress-up.

These people, the white jazz-lovers, hear only the extract of the kind of life that produced this music; its sensuality, rhythm, humor, passion, even closeness and intimacy. It is especially attractive to young people who are disillusioned with the values of white society. But no matter how beat they are themselves, the majority have literally no idea of the conditions of life that lie behind this music.

What did the white listeners have no idea about? Well, Krim spelled it out. And these lines are what made Krim, as Baldwin noted, neither romantic nor defensive about black life.

Does the reader think that jazz, that great beat, those beautiful melodies, the way a blues singer belts a song, the way a sax man raises up on that platform like an athlete and lets the combinations fly and flow from his horn are anything but Negro in their central heart? They are the Negro in America thus far, the humor, wit, easy stride, subtle rhythm, great power; but also, which is harder to accept, the awful ignorance, poverty, violence, lack of constancy, me-firstism, and all the other facts that open-minded people who know Negro life well-the inner lower-middle-class communities of Harlem, or Newark, or Durham, North Carolina-see all too often. And that too is part of jazz.

It’s not hard to see how politically incorrect this would be if written today, but it also turned out to be politically incorrect in 1957. Even Baldwin’s defense did not quiet Krim’s critics in the Village. So in 1959, Krim revisited the topic in "Ask for a White Cadillac," which appeared in a little magazine called Exodus, published by Greenwich Village’s very hip – and still impressively progressive – Judson Memorial Church.

But if Krim’s Village detractors were hoping for an apology, they did not know Krim. In fact, in 1959, nobody did. He was 37 years old that year and still just starting to turn out the personal, subjective, proto-New Journalism articles that would win him his scattered but passionate and sturdy fans. Even Krim did not know Krim. The excitement of his essays is in traveling alongside him as he discovers his own mind; undaunted if not unafraid to follow his thoughts wherever they led him.

They led him into some dangerous mental neighborhoods.

In "White Cadillac," Krim recounts his own youthful admiration, infatuation, and eventual disillusionment with 1940s Harlem. Like an excited tourist who experiences a personal liberation in a new land Krim felt that, yes, this is my true home! This is where I belong. "Here was the paradise of sensuality (to my thirsting eyes) that I had dreamed of for years," he writes. "The streets hummed and jumped with life right out in the open, such a contrast to the hidden, bottled-up phobias that I knew so well."

But his time in Harlem also revealed to him his participation in American racism and how it transformed him in ways that were uncomfortable to discover. He even saw that racism released him from certain problems of Jewish identity that confronted him elsewhere.  "For the first time in my adult life I felt completely confident and masterful in my relationship to both sexes because society judged me the superior, just as in a different,

Irish-bar-type scene it made me stand out unto myself because of the Yiddish bit," he wrote.

In Harlem, the Jewish Krim was simply white, and he briefly experienced life "like a southern white, understanding for the first time the tremendous psychological impregnability to the cracker (every white man has a built-in colonel-kit!) in having an "inferior" class beneath him. It was an astonishing revelation to realize that you could be a better person-more attentive, calmer, happier, and that last word is the truth-for the wrong reasons."

These revelations about himself, and equally uncomfortable revelations about black life in Harlem, ended Krim’s sojourns there.  But they are exactly why we should give Krim a job on the dayshift of the black-Jewish relations industry.