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ISBN: 978-0-226-87380-0

Chapter One

Ralph Ellison and the Cultural Turn in Black Politics

In proclaiming Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote "the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the bourgeoisie in its war against feudalism and aristocracy," Czech critic Georgi Dimitrov celebrated Cervantes's novel for having "made the vestiges of chivalry the object of universal ridicule." The kernel of truth within Dimitrov's claim makes one want to forgive his hyperbole. Part of the crucial, if sometimes ephemeral, political work that novels do is to transform noble and praiseworthy habits, beliefs, and actions into objects of scorn. A novel's satiric, parodic, and irreverent portraits, even when making up only a small part of a book's aesthetic agenda, can still account for its most striking political and social effects.

How then to assess Invisible Man and its parodic treatment of white liberal philanthropists, black college presidents, and left-wing radicals? Would it be correct to paraphrase Dimitrov and declare Ellison's novel an indispensable weapon of the black bourgeoisie in its war against white racial paternalism? Or did other aesthetic forms prove more central to this cultural and social campaign?

This last question is, of course, a leading one, because it has long been asserted that music rather than literature has been the most politically powerful cultural force wielded by black Americans in the struggle against inequality. No matter how highly scholars have esteemed black novels, most critics of black culture insist that black popular music-whether spirituals, ragtime, blues, jazz, gospel, hip-hop, or rap-has been much more effective than the novel in challenging white societal norms. Langston Hughes argues in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" that the blues of Bessie Smith offered the black artist a weapon against mediocre white bourgeois standards: "Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand." Writers-poets and novelists alike-would do well to emulate musicians and singers. If Invisible Man has been at all successful in helping to undermine the authority of white paternalism, it presumably has done so not by marshaling the stylistic resources of novelistic form but rather by appropriating the resources of black musical culture. "Invisible Man is a jazz text," asserts Horace Porter in his critical study of Ellison's relation to black music, while other critics stress the blues as Ellison's preferred musical idiom. Houston Baker has argued that Ellison "derives his most forceful examples from the vernacular: Blues seem implicitly to comprise the All of American culture."

In accounts like those offered by Baker, the story of the cultural triumph of black music turns out to be a story of political triumph for the black rank and file. The trumping of novelistic tradition by oral and musical forms marked, according to Hazel Carby, "the historical moment of the failure of the black bourgeoisie to achieve cultural hegemony and to become a dominant social force." We are not, in Carby's account, to lament this failure, but on the contrary, to see it as signaling the successes of black working-class resistance to the designs of their would-be middle-class mentors: black migrant women thwarting the efforts of club women and the Urban League "to police and discipline the[ir] behavior," or the capacity of young zoot-suiters to contest "the class-conscious, integrationist attitudes of middle-class blacks." Black middle-class failure would appear to have set the political stage for black working-class success. What complicates this picture of successful working-class cultural insurgency, however, is that it is not quite true. Black middle-class legitimacy has not rested primarily on its success in disciplining the social, moral, and aesthetic behaviors and tastes of a black peasantry and working class. On the contrary, some degree of lower-class unruliness and unaccountability ("Why do they act the way they do?") has tended to work in favor of aspiring black spokespersons in their battle with well-meaning whites for the right to speak on behalf of black America. Although black elites have been sincere in their desire to "uplift" the race, the most visible measure of their success has not been the triumph of so-called bourgeois values among the nonprofessional laboring classes but rather the substitution of black professionals, managers, and intellectuals for their white counterparts within those institutions charged with administering to the needs of black populations. The sought-for prize has been managerial authority over the nation's Negro problem. Indeed, so apparently successful was this strategy that as early as 1940, W. E. B. Du Bois declared, "No longer was it possible or thinkable anywhere in the United States to study and discuss the Negro without letting him speak for himself and without having that speaking done by a well-equipped person, if such person was wanted." By Du Bois's reckoning, the Talented Tenth, the small stratum of college-educated Negroes dedicated to racial service, had been granted crucial recognition to speak in matters pertaining to the race.

This recognition was, however, not necessarily acknowledged by its putative beneficiaries, and when such recognition was refused, culture was not the only or even the primary ground of contestation. Despite the common difficulties created by racial discrimination, the differences in the given interests of blacks at varying socioeconomic levels and in different regions could produce competing political and organizational imperatives. To illustrate, Du Bois's famous January 1934 Crisis editorial, "Segregation," clearly scandalized the upper echelon of black and white race liberals by announcing, "The thinking colored people of the United States must stop being stampeded by the word segregation." Coming from the house organ of the NAACP, the nation's most visible Civil Rights organization, Du Bois expected that his words would shock and offend the Talented Tenth, but he also assumed they would find attentive listeners at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic order. Accordingly, he described himself (and most subsequent scholars have echoed this description) as eschewing the intelligentsia in favor of the black masses. He wrote, "The upper class Negro has almost never been nationalistic. He has never planned or thought of a Negro state or a Negro church or a Negro school. This solution has always been a thought upsurging from the mass."

Yet even as Du Bois urged his black readers to focus on building within the race, black tenant farmers in Arkansas were establishing an interracial Southern Tenant Farmer's Union to press their demands. And at about the same time, George Streator, who assisted Du Bois for a time at Crisis, left the magazine to organize black and white workers with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in New York and Norfolk, Virginia. The point here is not that the program Du Bois announced in the pages of Crisis in 1934 led him to oppose these interracial efforts, but that the position he described as sanctioned by the desires of the black masses was not even at that moment universally reflective of their actions.

Almost as if to shore up the uncertain mandate he claimed had been granted him by the rank and file for his pragmatic response to what he saw as the persistence of segregation for the foreseeable future, Du Bois adduced the cultivation of black culture as a model for economic organization. He wrote, "I proposed that in economic lines, just as in lines of literature and religion, segregation should be planned and organized and carefully thought through." And to wrap up his case, Du Bois demanded that the NAACP board of directors declare whether or not they believed "in Negro history, Negro literature and art, in business or in Negro spirituals."

Although such writers as Hughes, Carby, and Paul Gilroy have stressed musical culture as an indispensable tool in the working class's effort to overturn bourgeois leadership, Du Bois's political tussles suggest another function for black cultural forms. In conflicts between and among intellectual elites, the act of aligning oneself with the putatively distinct and relatively autonomous cultural styles emerging from "below" has been brandished as if this alignment guaranteed a proxy from the working class even when no power had actually been ceded to black laborers. So that although Du Bois called for "tactical segregation," ostensibly on behalf of the black masses whom he enjoined to "evolve and support your own social institutions," he had not in truth dispensed with the idea of elite leadership. Nor had his many critics. For it has been the so-called Talented Tenth, beginning with the establishment of the Fisk Jubilee singers in the middle of the nineteenth century and continuing with greater urgency during the Harlem Renaissance, that has linked black political success to the production of a black culture that would include "the emergence of a distinct and credible Negro literature." So, if over the last several decades of the twentieth century we have come to take as given the claim that black cultural production is necessarily central to black politics, it seems arguable that what we have seen is the success of, rather than the failure of, a bourgeois hegemonic project centered in an African American politics of culture.

This politics of culture began to take shape in the wake of the collapse of congressional Reconstruction of the south and in varying ways has extended into the present moment, enveloping the Black Aesthetic movement, black literary feminisms, Afrocentrisms, academic vernacular critiques, cultural studies, or transatlantic critiques. What this project entailed, quite simply, was pointing out the failure of available modes of representation to transmit the needs and desires of black populations, and then proffering in their stead a more adequate means of representation, a "speaking for you" that presumably does not falsify or distort the subject represented. This problem finds its roots in the political defeat that ended Reconstruction and that for Ellison formed the ground for understanding the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout his career, Ellison would continually refer to the end of Reconstruction as historically pivotal. Writing in 1945, he insisted, "Since 1876 the race issue has been like a stave driven into the American system of values." And giving testimony before a Senate committee in 1966, where he labeled the "squashing of Reconstruction" as "a political disaster," Ellison drew the Senate's attention to the fact "that during the end of Reconstruction there was mass violence against Negroes who were functioning in legislatures." He pointed out: "In Louisiana, for instance, none of the white legislators appeared at a meeting. The Negroes did appear, and were all killed by the Police Department. This is American history, and it has been kept from us." That this erasure has been effective is beyond doubt-how many school-aged children (or college students, for that matter), black or white, can name any of the black legislators who served in Congress during the Reconstruction era? This ignorance is only part of the problem, however. More troubling is the way white supremacy's violent expulsion of black representation from national and state assemblies and the accompanying rewriting of state laws and constitutions during the 1890s have been subtly if inadvertently naturalized by subsequent "black" political projects in the sphere of culture.

Sixty years before the publication of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South (1892) made the following observation: A conference of earnest Christian men have met at regular intervals for some years past to discuss the best methods of promoting the welfare and development of colored people in this country. Yet, strange as it may seem, they have never invited a colored man or even intimated that one would be welcome to take part in their deliberations.

In making this observation, Cooper was doing two things. First, she was contesting an Episcopal clergyman's claim that the Episcopalian style of worship was "not adapted to the rude untutored minds of the Freedmen" who would be better served by "the Methodists and Baptists whither their racial proclivities undeniably tend." In response, Cooper pointed out that this presumption of incompatibility between blacks and Episcopalians was nothing more than a way of justifying and camouflaging the fact that blacks had already been excluded from the church's councils.

Cooper's second goal was to draw attention to the oddity of all-white assemblies presuming to deliberate over the needs of black Americans. Of course, Cooper knew quite well that in the eyes of most of her readers, there was nothing strange or unusual in such an assembly taking upon itself the responsibility of making decisions on behalf of black people. Indeed, it was only during the all too brief moment of the Reconstruction era that blacks had been included in various legislative delegations of the south. Given the north's abandonment of Reconstruction, along with the purging of black members from southern legislatures and the codification of Jim Crow laws throughout the south, Cooper could not have doubted that the nation as a whole had come to regard the interracial spectacle of Reconstruction and not the all-white spectacle of the "redeemed" southern governments as strange, or, to use Thomas Dixon Jr.'s word from his novel The Clansman, "remarkable."

Against this bleak political backdrop, it is easy to see why Cooper's project at bottom became an aesthetic one. As white reaction in the 1880s and 1890s further insulated state and national assemblies from direct black political action, the task that fell to individuals like Cooper was that of criticizing recurrent attempts by whites, like those in the church assembly mentioned above, to represent and to deliberate on the fate of black people without having first consulted black voices. With no likelihood of integrating the state's deliberative assemblies, Cooper's only hope was to bring to bear the force of religion and literature in an effort to influence moral attitudes.

To be sure, Cooper had no intention of abandoning the causes of suffrage and office holding. She specifically drew attention to the role that black women had played and were playing in keeping black men solidly within the ranks of the Republican Party. Yet nestled in the center of A Voice from the South is an extensive chapter of literary criticism in which Cooper severely censures the efforts of well-meaning white writers-most prominently Albion Tourg��e, George Washington Cable, and William Dean Howells-to render accurately and sympathetically black characters. Even here Cooper proceeded more indirectly than directly, favoring aesthetics over moral rectitude, as indicated by her preference for writers "in whom the artistic or poetic instinct is uppermost" over "writers with a purpose or a lesson." Her "political" aim was to go beyond doctrine and principle into an aestheticized realm where exclusively white efforts to represent blacks could be made to look and feel wrong-as if they were errors in critical judgment or taste-both to her readers and to the white authors of those representations.


Excerpted from SO BLACK AND BLUEby KENNETH W. WARREN Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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