Jack Newfield Interviews LeRoi Jones
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December 17, 1964, Vol. X, No. 9
LeRoi Jones at Arms: Blues for Mr. Whitey
By Jack Newfield
"Do not understand me too quickly" has been the insistent injunction of Andre Gide and Norman Mailer. It might also be the motto LeRoi Jones inscribes on his shield and lance.
Jones has preached an abusive and total indictment of Western culture, with special venom reserved for the white liberal. But his wife is a white liberal, and the white students in his classes at Columbia and the New School marvel at his patience and compassion.
Jones is a slightly built, diffident, rational intellectual. But he is also a blood-must-flow revolutionary who taunts the middle class for its passivity, repression, and femininity.
Jones's latest one-act drama ends with a Negro poet-revolutionary killing a white liberal homosexual in hand-to-hand combat. But he denies his work has any symbolic or ideological content.
Recently turned 30 years old, Jones first assaulted Western culture five years ago, just as the beat ripple was being drowned by the wave of Negro revolt. Western culture reacted to Jones's stabs and kicks in its own quixotic fashion. It gave Jones, the incendiary talent, a Whitney Foundation Fellowship and the Longview Foundation Award. It arrested Jones, the bohemian revolutionary, for sending allegedly obscene material through the mails -- an early Jones play and a William Burroughs burlesque about FDR -- and for demonstrating in support of Fidel Castro.
In the last year Jones has been swept into fashion on a wave of white masochism, curiosity about underground culture, and a gift that is more controlled and complex than Baldwin, hipper than Killens, and more direct in its hatred than anyone else. but Jones is also the victim of a paradox. The wilder, the more obscene, the more jugular his thrusts become, the more he draws acclaim instead of blood.
Jones, whose once-act dramas "The Toilet" and "The Slave" opened last night at the St. Mark's Playhouse, was still asleep when I arrived for our scheduled Monday morning interview. A few minutes later he slouched sleepily and apologetic into a living room dominated by tasteful abstractions and the residue of his two children's Sunday night cavorting. He perched like an alert bird on the edge of a chair. Later, as his responses passed from hostile sloganeering to thoughtful perorations, he would pace the room, lithe and quick, stopping occasionally to stare out the window at the grim, gray landscape of Cooper Square.
He began by denying that the paradox -- personal plaudits vs. ideological rejection -- bothered him. "I don't have any ego hang-up about my ideas. My ideas revolve around the rotting and destruction of America, so I can't really expect anyone who is part of that to accept my ideas. But 90 per cent of the world knows they are true. That's what counts. They know the West is done."
Jones explained he uses "the West" and "America" interchangeably. "America is the West because it owns the West. America is the source of Western culture...a culture whose time has come and which is rotting at the roots. You, the Village Voice, are part of that too, even though you don't want to think so. The Voice is just the downtown Herald Tribune. The most interesting thing in your paper is the ads."
..."Guerrilla warfare by blacks is inevitable," he continued, "in the North and the South. History has neutralized the West. You can't use nuclear weapons against us when we kill a few cops. The same goes for the South. Even SNCC doesn't realize this because they are just a bunch of middle-class vigilantes. Their middle-class allegiances and values may be unconscious, but they lead SNCC to value America's existence, and there is no way of saving America."
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