Letter to Arnold Rampersad about His Ralph Ellison Biography

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Since Arnold Rampersad sent me a copy of his Ralph Ellison biography (Random House, 2007) in which he credits me among his editorial helpers, I'm disqualified from reviewing his book. However, I can raise some questions, initially directed to him, perhaps of wider interest.

Didn't anyone tell you that Ralph as an African-American didn't much like West Indians? Did he identify your South Asian surname as West Indian, in fact popular in Trinidad (where you were born), rather than African-American, notwithstanding your mainland American accent? Recall the characterization of Ras the Exhorter as a Caribbean loony in Invisible Man.

That Ellison prejudice might account for why he treated you so haughtily, as you report with awe and glee, when you interviewed him in the early 1980s for your Langston Hughes biography. African-American objections to the economic acumen of West Indians sometimes reminds me uncomfortably of anti-Semitism, while a gay black friend of mine finds West Indians lamentably homophobic. For more familiar analogies, consider the distaste of many American Jews for Israelis or even intellectual Puerto Ricans for Dominicans.

I remember Ralph dismissing the future mayor David Dinkins as a lackey for J. Raymond Jones, the Virgin Islander who headed the George Washington Carver Democratic club that developed Dinkins. (When I lived in the Harlem low-rent projects in 1966, around the rime I first met Ellison, a white neighbor of mine, likewise a Columbia University graduate student, invited me to join the Carver club, which opposed Adam Clayton Powell's, with the promise its colleagues would put me on the board of directors. Huh? He explained that he was on the board; but once he would be moving upstate to teach, they needed "a token white.") I can't think of any Caribbean-American writer or musician that Ralph liked, either in print or conversation. Was Ralph's dislike something you felt but didn't want to acknowledge (much as you refused to acknowledge Langston Hughes's secretive sexuality)?

Take seriously Ralph's claim that he felt fortunate to go to Tuskegee to study with William L. Dawson, the greatest classical musician in the (American) South at that time, as I recall his judgment. That such a superlative was indeed true. Remember that Dawson's Tuskegee Choir had opened Radio City Music Hall in NYC a year or two before Ralph went there and that spirituals are a highly formalist classical art, in contrast to gospel music, say, which is expressionist. (The same distinction separates classic African-American blues from expressionist jazz.) In music as in literature, Ralph preferred formal art.

Reading Ralph's claim, in his rebuttal against Irving Howe's complaint about Ralph's reluctance to protest segregated education, turned me against Howe, whom I'd briefly admired before. Working under Dawson, at NYS All-State Choir fifty years ago, was among the great experiences in my teenage years. We did a sixteen-part arrangement of "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" that prompted so much applause that Dawson turned around and, for an encore, had us do it again. Never again was I on a stage when the audience's applause was more than gratuitous. Not only do I still treasure the long-playing recording made of our concert, from which I made a CD, but to this day I can even sing some Dawson parts.

When I heard the Morgan State Choir at the Brooklyn Academy of Music here nearly two decades ago, I noticed it performed Dawson's sort of repertoire of Renaissance music in the first half and Negro spirituals in the second, the implicit theme being that they have equal cultural status, as indeed they do. Someone recently told me that the historic black college choirs still duplicate that repertoire (and thus its implicit theme). Even though Dawson's own arrangements are scarcely heard on radio now, I know that they are still popular with amateur choirs in New York City because I've seen them in friends' hands. …