Just at the time when civil rights leaders are making an enlarged public outcry about undiminished segregation and discrimination in this country, the Public Broadcasting Service has assembled a quartet of programs that, each in its own way, explore the problem of white racism. The most important of these programs -- a first-ever televising of James Baldwin's first novel, ``Go Tell It on the Mountain'' -- doesn't air until mid-January, and it will be reviewed at that time. More immediate to our interest are these:
The Homefront (PBS, Sunday, Jan. 6, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for all three programs) is a documentary dealing in large terms with the experiences of those who lived out World War II here in the United States. Strange Fruit (PBS, Monday, Jan. 7, 10:30-11 p.m.), fleshes out the grisly imagery of the depression-era song about black bodies hanging from Southern trees. First Contact (Wednesday, Jan. 9, 9-10 p.m.) tells of the discovery in 1930, by three Australian white men, of a race of black people who had no idea that a white civilization lay beyond the mountains which ringed their world.
These three offerings may seem, on the surface, to inhabit quite different worlds. But the issues they touch upon are as close as any hometown in the nation: questions about the culpability of white society in exploiting black people.
The main concern of ``The Homefront'' is not by any means American racism. But this may make it an even more persuasive document on the subject. The one-hour program takes in the whole social fabric of America right before and during the war; and it does so with laudable objectivity.
Consequently, we see countryfolk being urbanized, marriages thrown together almost at dockside beside ships bound for war, women who learned to manage their lives on their own (only to be told by their returning husbands that they had better stick to housework, because they weren't qualified to negotiate in the world at large).
We also see, at the heart of American life, a large paradox: that our rhetoric about ridding the world of fascism was matched by an openly tolerated fascism at home.
This fact was not lost on blacks in America, one of whom proclaims here, ``Fascism is not a monopoly of Hitler.'' This man was talking about the people in Philadelphia who got on streetcars, saw the black engineer sitting there by government order, and got off, saying ``I don't ride with no niggers.'' He was talking about those lynched in the South for trying to register to vote, as well as the black servicemen whose blood might be shed equally, but whose living bodies could not be housed equally with white boys.
It is with particular poignance that one watches all this and recalls that it took another decade and a half before blacks began to acquire the right to arrive at Southern polls, without taking their life in their hands.
As if to underscore this memory, ``Strange Fruit'' -- a powerful, if occasionally artless retelling of portions of Lillian Smith's novel -- focuses closely and relentlessly on the story of one young man, Henry Brown, in the South who tried to exercise that right. The photo of Franklin Roosevelt on the wall of the municipal courthouse, where this man is working as a painter, places the tale squarely in the epoch of ``The Homefront.'' But whereas that large-scale documentary had been cool and objective, this little 1978 film, an Academy Award nominee, blows its hot, angry breath in one short blast.
``First Contact'' is far more diffuse and phlegmatic as it relates the remarkable tale of three brothers who pushed into the unexplored wilds of New Guinea in 1930 in search of gold.
What they found was in its way more valuable: an entire people who had lived, since the Stone Age, in ignorance of the world at large. The million or more black people living in this wild world represented an anthroplogical find of immeasurable significance.
But this significance had almost no value to the gold prospectors. To them, these people represented either an impediment to be cut down or an opportunity to be exploited. ``We made a very good living from them,'' one of the two living brothers comments candidly. ``It's no good saying I went up there for the good of the natives,'' the other adds. ``Because I didn't. I went up there for the sake of [myself]. And I didn't do badly.''
Apparently, the natives could not make the same boast. Many were shot dead by the intruders, who explain their actions by saying they were defending life and property, without reference to the fact that they were indeed intruders, here.
The black men worked for shells and trinkets, while the white men took their gold. For one shell, they would do a month's work. Beautiful black girls were ``given to the white men for shells.''
Eventually, mingling with the white men taught these primitives that they were indeed only dealing with mortals. But that lesson, according to many who talk here, was quite costly. Not the least costly element of the lesson was the loss of tribal innocence and their way of life.
These black folk were shoved unceremoniously into a white world; and what they encountered there, the film tells us, was not so different from the reality which met African blacks who were brought in chains to this brave new world.