01 March 2006


Looked at historically, there is no question but that this society started out with a divided mind, if not with a divided conscience. Its founders asserted the noble idea of creating a free, open society while retaining slavery, a system in direct contradiction to their rhetorically inclusive concept of freedom. Thus, from the beginning, racism has mocked the futuristic dream of democracy.

[...] They declared themselves the new national identity, "American," but, as social beings they were still locked in the continuum of history, and as language-users they were still given to the ceaseless classifying and grading of everything from stars and doodle bugs to tints of skin and crinks of hair, they had to have a standard by which they could gauge the extent to which their theories of democracy were being made manifest, both in the structure of the new society and in the lives of its citizens. [...]

What you're observing, in many instances, is the effort on the part of many white intellectuals to deal critically with aspects of American culture that haven't been given adequate study. In doing this, they identify themselves with the values native to older, more stable cultures in which race plays no immediate role (many know more about Europe than they do about the United States), and since they're moving upward in social status, many tend to identify with the values of older, more established Americans.

In an essay, I've termed this a form of "passing for white." That was naughty of me, but the pervasive operation of the principle of race (or racism) in American society leads many nonblacks to confuse culture with race and thresholds with steeples, and prevents them from recognizing to what extent the American culture is Afro-American. This can be denied, but it can't be undone because the culture has had our input since before nationhood.

It's up to us to contribute to the broader recognition of this pluralistic fact. While others worry about racial superiority, let us be concerned with the quality of culture.
~ Ralph Ellison, born on this day in 1914

I was already in college when I read Ellison for the first time--the prologue to Invisible Man--a piece of writing that flooded me with ineffable thoughts and then wrung me out to dry. Monopolated Light & Power, those 1,369 lights, and this:
There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue"--all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.
By the time he "descended, like Dante" into the depths of the music and the surreal waking dream of the "cave," I felt as if secrets to the very nature of existence had been handed to me in the form of this awe-inspiring novel. And this was only the first few pages!

As John Callahan reminds us,
There is a kind of prophetic quality to Ellison's work. It's amazing to think that Invisible Man was written and published when "separate but equal" was the law of the land, before Brown vs. Board of Education, before integration. What you have, it seems to me, is a certain kind of prophetic quality of his work, about the 60's, about the fight over integration on both sides of the color line. Black power movement, women's movement, even identity politics, a "rainbow" in America's future, 35 years before Jesse Jackson's "rainbow coalition."
I soon carefully worked my way through Shadow and Act, attempting to absorb the wisdom saturating the pages, understanding (for the first time?) that it was not arrogance for a bicultural "white" girl from Northern California to think that she could attempt to understand the complex labyrinth that is race in America. Ellison's style is such that the reader feels included, let in on a dialogue where her thoughts can be of value.

As much as I adore Ellison for those stories of how he and his brother learned how to hunt by reading Hemingway when they were living in Ohio, his frustrated dream of becoming a musician, and his epiphanic way of thinking about "The Wasteland" in terms of Armstrong's trumpet playing, I think I was affected most by the sense that as a reader, I was being treated as an equal. He threw those latched windows open for me, and so has my eternal gratitude.

Visit the Ralph Ellison Project at Jerry Jazz Musician.

(And I would love to own this!)

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