Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Playing the Dozens and Consuming the Cadillac: Ralph Ellison and Civil Rights Politics

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Playing the Dozens and Consuming the Cadillac: Ralph Ellison and Civil Rights Politics

Article excerpt

In a 1966 speech, Stokely Carmichael describes a shift in the rhetorical tactics of white racism since the advent of the Freedom Movement: "they couldn't say we were lazy and dumb and apathetic and all that anymore so they got sophisticated and started to play the dozens with us" ([1966] 1970, 471). The dozens is a black vernacular speech ritual in which participants invent dueling insults, often of a sexual nature and often about each other's mothers. Central to the game--and to the meaning of Carmichael's metaphor--is that the participants understand the imaginary, nonreferential nature of the insults. Evoking the dozens, Carmichael characterizes what he sees as a new form of racist fantasy: liberal sociology's attribution of black inequity to the allegedly matriarchal structure of the black family and the supposed cultural deviance of the black community, and President Lyndon Johnson's adopting that explanation in his rhetoric about civil rights. (1) In doing this, he undercuts the empirical pretensions of sociology, whose claims, however creatively articulated, are ultimately just a set of imaginary insults against black mothers: "They called conferences about our mamas and told us that's why we were where we were at. Some people were sitting up there talking with Johnson while he was talking about their mamas. 1 don't play the dozens with white folks. To set the record straight, the reason we are in the bag we are in isn't because of my mama, it's because of what they did to my mama" (471-72). Answering the insults of sociology is a waste of time, as absurd as playing the dozens with Lyndon Johnson and the liberal establishment.

Carmichael extends his critique of the dozens as a political practice to other forms of black expression, like literature and consumer culture: "We have to say, 'Don't play jive and start writing poems after Malcolm is shot.' We have to move from the point where the man left off and stop writing poems. We have to start supporting our own movement. If we can spend all that money to send a preacher to a Baptist convention in a Cadillac then we can spend money to support our own movement" ([1966] 1970, 472). Carmichael here offers a strict dichotomy--the practical political work of himself and Malcolm X, on the one hand, and, on the other, sociology, literature, jive, and conspicuous consumption. In this view, the former practices work upon real social conditions, while the latter amount to playing the dozens. What black vernacular expression, literature, white sociology, or buying a Cadillac share, Carmichael implies, is a failure to engage US sociopolitical reality and, thus, to affect the terms of that reality. The meanings produced by these practices are in excess of the social situation and thus politically irrelevant. They are at best distractions from activist priorities, and at worst ruses that diffuse black political strength.

The dichotomy between political utility and creative signification Carmichael poses continues to inform academic discussions of black cultural or symbolic politics, and an important case in point is the reception of Ralph Ellison. Ellison's postwar work diverged from the dominant model of black politically constructive literature: the protest tradition of African American writing, which generally sought to collapse the distinction between literary form and extraliterary imperatives through mandates of social realism and didacticism. Black radical critiques of Ellison during the civil rights era cited the absence of clear reference and protest from Ellison's writing, arguing that it thus eschewed political application altogether. His work was seen, like Carmichael saw the dozens or buying a Cadillac, as irrelevant to African Americans' sociopolitical needs. Larry Neal, for instance, dismissed Invisible Man as so removed from black reality in 1968 as to be little more than a fantasy of "Kafkaesque creatures stumbling through a white light of confusion and absurdity" ([1968] 2000, 78). …

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