Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

Introduction

Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. --Ralph Ellison, 1946

Ralph Ellison launched a remarkably eloquent appeal for desegregation of America's cultural heritage at a time when the nation's intensely self-conscious literary critical establishment was incapable of heeding him. At the heart of Ellison's critique was an insight into American cultural identity, an insight that is as fresh, as relevant, and as controversial today as it must have seemed irrelevant to the majority of Americans in the years immediately following the Second World War. "Materially, psychologically, and culturally," Ellison intoned to a segregated America, "part of the nation's heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro's presence." That which is "essentially American," he wrote, "springs from the synthesis of our diverse elements of cultural style." The white American artist or cultural critic shields himself [sic] from this self-knowledge by enclosing African Americans within a limiting and dehumanizing stereotype, while "on his side of the joke the Negro looks at the white man and finds it difficult to believe that [he] . . . can be so absurdly self-deluded over the true interrelatedness of blackness and whiteness."1

To neglect the shaping effect of "the Negro's presence" upon mainstream culture, Ellison went on in essay after essay during the forties, fifties, and sixties, is to misrepresent American identity and to cheat the nation as a whole of its ethnically dynamic cultural heritage. The price of maintaining a critical illusion of ethnic purity in American expressive life is simply too high, he argued, for those who "ignore the Negro . . . distort their own humanity. It is as though we dread to acknowledge the complex, pluralistic nature of our society, and as a result we find ourselves stumbling upon our true national identity under circumstances in which we least expect to do so." To a Cold War critical establishment impervious to African American culture, Ellison impertinently exclaimed that "the whole of American life" is "a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds." By refusing to acknowledge the "blending and metamorphosis" of European and African cultural forms throughout American life, he concluded, "we misconceive our cultural identity."2

The evasive "dread" Ellison first described on the eve of the Civil Rights movement was, of course, rooted in historical guilt, for to acknowledge the presence of African-American culture in shaping American identity would have been to entertain a devastating affront to the nation's founding principles. From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century through the period of Ellison's

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