The term “negritude” (roughly self-aware blackness) came into common currency in the 1930s and 1940s among a loose alliance of francophone Black poets and intellectuals, most them from France’s colonial empire. It was part of their campaign to destigmatize blackness and to assert the special qualities of their African heritage. The most important figure in this influential movement for négritude was likely Leopold Senghor, a poet and professor of African languages who later became the first president of Senegal.
Jean-Paul Sartre summarized the ideas of negritude in his preface to Senghor’s anthology of Black poets: “Insulted and enslaved, [the black man] stands up straight; he takes up the word nègre, which is hurled at him like a stone, and proclaims himself, in pride, as black, face to face with whites.”
The authors who promoted a positive reinterpretation of blackness argued for the value of traditional African social structures and folkways, which were (so the argument ran) based on distinctively Black intuitions and emotions. Embracing one’s negritude, or taking pride in one’s blackness, involved a kind of mental decolonization whereby people of African descent recognized that their history was not uncivilized or antithetical to civilization, as many Blacks and almost all Whites then believed. Blacks were, instead, heirs to a different kind of civilization. Traditional African cultures reflected African racial traits and should not be judged by the standards of Hellenic logic and reason, which had shaped the various national cultures of Europe and had privileged a restricting Western idea of what being civilized meant. A civilized African was not a contradiction in terms.
In the 1960s the slogan “black is beautiful,” popularized by the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, encapsulated this growing movement for racial pride and racial solidarity among people of African descent. There was beauty in the physical appearance of Blacks, and there was dignity in the African cultures that Blacks had produced on the Dark Continent. Blacks had not discovered electricity or explored the oceans and the skies, but they had their own historical accomplishments and distinctive spiritual qualities of which they could be proud.
These ideas of a positive negritude and of the beauty of blackness, however we may view them, should be kept in mind when interpreting Saul Alinksy’s most infamous exercise in community organizing, a planned Black “fart-in” at a performance of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Since this event never occurred, nor was it likely that it ever could have been engineered, it is best thought of less as a serious proposal for real-world activism and more as a striking fantasy expressing Alinsky’s own racial fixations, specifically his hostility to us and his disdain for the Blacks he organized.
Alinsky, an irreligious Jew with a firm Jewish racial identity, explained the protest, which was ostensibly directed against the corporate paternalism of Eastman Kodak, in a Playboy interview conducted in 1972:
Another idea I had that almost came to fruition was directed at the Rochester Philharmonic, which was the establishment’s — and Kodak’s — cultural jewel. I suggested we pick a night when the music would be relatively quiet and buy 100 seats. The 100 blacks scheduled to attend the concert would then be treated to a preshow banquet in the community consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. Can you imagine the inevitable consequences within the symphony hall? The concert would be over before the first movement — another Freudian slip — and Rochester would be immortalized as the site of the world’s first fart-in.
There is a common assumption in information theory that the less probable an event’s occurrence, the more information it signals: “man bites dog” is more laden with significant information than “dog bites man,” because it is so much less expected. Similarly, “Negro attends high-brow cultural event” signals more than “Caucasian attends high-brow cultural event.” Replace one anomalous Negro at a classical concert with a large gang of farting Negroes and the event becomes still more laden with significance. As Alinsky explained, “the fart-in would be completely outside the city fathers’ experience. Demonstrations, confrontations and picketings they’d learned to cope with, but never in their wildest dreams could they envision a flatulent blitzkrieg on their sacred symphony orchestra.”
Two of Alinksy’s famous tactical rules for leftist radicals are “whenever possible go outside of the experience of your enemy” and “never go outside the experience of your people.” It is easy to see how his flatulent blitzkrieg would have satisfied the first rule; it could have satisfied the second only if Alinsky held a very low estimate of the people on whose behalf he was purportedly campaigning.
The declared political aims of the fart-in were to encourage Eastman Kodak to hire Blacks and to recognize the Black community’s designated spokesmen. It is questionable whether either of those objectives would have been furthered if Alinksy’s fantasy had been realized. On its face a hundred farting Blacks degrading themselves at a performance of the Rochester Philharmonic would have been an argument against hiring Blacks and against taking seriously any suggestions that their spokesmen might make. At the very least it would have made Blacks appear low and vulgar, leaving an impression which a genuine pro-Black activist would hope to avoid.
The planned protest offered, however, an immediate emotional payoff for Rochester’s Blacks. All oppressed people, Alinsky claimed, harbor a desire to defecate, literally or figuratively, on their oppressors. The fart-in would reward Blacks with an approximation of that dream. “Here was the closest chance they’d have,” Alinsky told Playboy.
Yet there is an obvious physical problem here. Unlike defecating on oppressors, farting in the presence of oppressors exposes both oppressed and oppressor to the same punishment. Blacks and Whites, seated within the same enclosed space, would be breathing the same air. Rightly or not, Alinsky evidently assumed that the more refined and cultured a population, the more likely its members are to be distressed by a fart-in. During the blitzkrieg cultured Whites who enjoyed symphonies would endure more than uncultured Blacks who knew nothing of symphonies. The low could defeat the high by their greater ability to tolerate foul odors.
The energy for racial protests in Rochester flowed from Black “hatred of Whitey,” as Alinsky acknowledged; the design of the fart-in, which would harness this hatred of Whitey, was his own invention. Since Rochester was “Smugtown, USA” — smugness being an offense Jews often attribute to gentiles — he hoped to puncture White self-satisfaction by attacking a “cultural jewel” that embodied our insufferable pretensions. Hence he planned for, and fantasized about, an outbreak of Black flatulence disrupting, at Rochester’s “sacred symphony orchestra,” the high culture of Vivaldi and Beethoven.
There can be no doubt that Alinsky saw classical music as a high mark of Western (White) civilization, and there can be no doubt as well that he valued Blacks as a polar opposite of our civilization’s cultural achievements: Blacks are low and Eurocentric symphony orchestras are high. Alinsky fantasized about Blacks degrading themselves while disrupting a performance of the Rochester Philharmonic because he wanted to exploit the lowness he perceived in them as a weapon. Whites with our symphony orchestras were civilization, and Blacks were its primitive absence. The fart-in was designed to collide the latter against the former.
Revealingly, Alinksy did not want his dark-skinned signifiers to be autonomous agents. He could cite as one of the advantages of his plan the physical impossibility that his puppets, who might lack confidence in such alien terrain, could have second thoughts and withdraw their services: “we knew that the baked beans would compel them physically to go through with the tactic regardless of how they felt.” Their color made them essential participants in the blitzkrieg, so it was good that their own agency would be curtailed.
In an additional fantasy, based on the first and owing something to the film comedies of the Marx Brothers, Alinsky envisioned Rochester’s fine society ladies, a day after their precious orchestra’s performance had been convulsed by farting Negroes, demanding of their husbands, “we are not going to have our symphony season ruined by those people! I don’t know what they want but whatever it is, something has got to be done and this kind of thing has to be stopped!”
This imagined scene, which appears in Rules for Radicals, is perhaps as illuminating as the fart-in itself. One important virtue of “those people” for Alinsky was their power to offend the civilized sensibilities of an establishment elite. He saw, with some accuracy, that the gentile desire to preserve civilized decorum could be exploited as a weakness by a clever agitator. It would be easy to defeat an imposing cultural institution, which outwardly seemed so substantial and dignified, and it would be easy to embarrass its patrons, who so smugly thought of themselves as cultured and refined. All that was required, Alinsky concluded, was a low, uncivilized population willing to take directions, and he believed he had found such a population among America’s Blacks.
His confidence in the lowness of Blacks was, of course, entirely at odds with the movement during the last century for positive negritude, which had as one of its main goals the discrediting of the binary opposition that contrasted the civilization of Europeans to the savagery and non-civilization of Africans. Had the fart-in actually occurred, it would not have been an example of the American Negro proclaiming himself, in pride, as Black, face to face with Whites. Instead it would have been, to put it simply, an example of an angry Jew enlisting Blacks to degrade themselves for the purpose of attacking and offending his racial enemies.
There have been many critical treatments on the mainstream Right of Alinsky’s brand of racial agitation (“community organizing”). Barack Obama’s admiration for Alinsky and his own career in Chicago as an Alinskyite racial agitator have naturally made Alinsky a source of interest. Newt Gingrich has numbered him among the “radical left-wingers . . . who don’t like the classical America,” which is true enough. Critics with religious loyalties have focused on his decision to preface his Rules with an epigraph celebrating Lucifer as “the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment.” Others have noted the polarization that his activism always aimed to produce. One of the community organizer’s most important tasks was to “rub raw the sores of discontent,” which in practice often meant working to make Blacks angry at Whites.
None of Alinsky’s conservative critics, as far as I am aware, has discussed the obvious racial structure I described above, though it is hard to believe they could have failed to notice it. The source of this willed myopia is easy to detect. In most of Alinsky’s community organizing the people being organized were Black; the enemies of the community organizer were White; and the organizer doing the organizing was a Jew with a low opinion of the community he was weaponizing. Those features of Saul David Alinsky’s activism, so clearly visible in his planned fart-in, have made the racial anger that marked much of his career a forbidden subject within the political mainstream.