People often say that all Americans distrust politicians, and Baldwin suggests that African Americans distrust them the most. Although black people may feel excited over the possibility of change, they are also accustomed to expect that nothing will come of a politician’s promises. Black liberals tend to argue that the black community’s cynicism and apathy about electoral politics will fade with increased education, but Baldwin contends that education will do nothing to change what black people have learned from experience: that “our people never get anywhere.” Black people also tend to care little for black politicians, who simply by virtue of being politicians are distanced from the reality of most black people’s lives. Both the Progressive Party and the Communist Party have failed to live up to the promises they made to black communities.
Baldwin indicates that white people tend to blame black people themselves for their lack of engagement with politics, suggesting that black people’s political “apathy” is their own fault. Even black liberals hold this view, blaming a lack of education for the dearth of enthusiasm for party politics among African Americans. However, Baldwin points out that it is misguided (and deeply unfair) to place blame on black people. The fault surely lies with the individual politicians, parties, and entire political system in the United States, which was not built to accommodate black interests or respond to their needs.
Baldwin notes that recently two of his brothers traveled to Atlanta with their vocal quartet as musical support for the Progressive Party’s tour, and that the younger of the brothers, David, kept a detailed account of the trip, which had been arranged by a black merchant seaman called Mr. Warde. The quartet was to sing at churches throughout the south, after which party representatives would make speeches and hand out literature. However, when they arrived in Atlanta, a white party member named Mrs. Price told the quartet that they would be canvassing, despite the fact that none of them knew or cared about the Progressive Party or were even old enough to vote. Yet they were sent out to canvass anyway, each of the black quartet singers paired with a white person to symbolize “brotherhood.” During the three days of canvassing, their expenses were paid but they earned no money. The quartet eventually began to make their own singing engagements.
The story of the quartet’s trip to Atlanta highlights the way in which black people are used and exploited by politicians in order to earn votes. As a white member of the Progressive Party who commandeers the quartet’s time in the south, Mrs. Price symbolizes the seemingly well-intentioned white political class who manipulates and mistreats black people for their own gain. Mrs. Price clearly has little respect for the quartet, changing their duties at will and refusing to let them earn money by singing as they were promised. At the same time, she uses them to make it appear as if the Progressive Party respects black people.
Eventually the quartet was asked to sing at an event hosted by the Party, but after too much time singing in the open air they were hoarse. They refused to sing, which infuriated Mrs. Price, who sent a group of black policemen to prevent the quartet from singing at their own events. Although the quartet was terrified, David also found it amusing that the Progressive Party should send black policemen after them, as this seemed to be in keeping with the party’s promise of racial equality. They didn’t see Mrs. Price again, and after buying them some food and bus tickets home, Mr. Warde left them to visit his family. The quartet had only made $6, not even enough to feed themselves on the journey home. Baldwin notes that they laugh about it now, and that the four men surprisingly feel no resentment toward the Progressive Party. He concludes with a quote from David, who says that all political parties are the same, adding: “Ain’t none of ‘em gonna do a thing for me.”
David’s amusement at his encounter with the black policemen highlights the farcical aspect of political parties’ claims to represent the interests of black people. His casual reaction to the quartet’s mistreatment at the hands of the Progressive Party may seem like an indication that the entire series of events was not such a big deal. However, Baldwin emphasizes that David in fact reacted this way simply because he is so accustomed to being lied to, disrespected, and exploited by politicians (and white people more generally). This has led David—and many black people like him—to develop an overarching cynicism about politics.