An American dilemma

May 02, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

THE EASIEST and most necessary way to honor Ralph Ellison, the author of "Invisible Man" who died April 16, is to reprint words that remain true a half century after he wrote them. Ellison wrote in a 1945 essay: "For since 1876 the race issue has been like a stave driven into the American system of values, a stave so deeply imbedded in the American ethos as to render America a nation of ethical schizophrenics.

"Believing truly in democracy on one side of their minds, they act on the other in violation of its most sacred principles; holding that all men are created equal, they treat 13 million Americans as though they are not.

"There are, as always, political and economic motives for this rending of values, but in terms of the ethical and psychological, what was opportunistically labeled the 'Negro problem' is actually a guilt problem charged with pain.

"Just how painful might be judged from the ceaseless effort expended to dull its throbbings. . . Not only have our popular culture, our newspapers, radio and cinema been devoted to justifying the Negro's condition and the conflict created thereby but even our social sciences and serious literature have been conscripted -- all in the effort to drown out the persistent voice of outraged conscience.

"The unwillingness to resolve the conflict in keeping with his democratic ideals has compelled the white American, figuratively, to force the Negro down into the deeper level of his consciousness. . .

"It is practically impossible for the white American to think of sex, of economics, his children or womenfolk, or of sweeping socio-political changes, without summoning into consciousness fear-flecked images of black men."

In 1944, Ellison wrote: "In our society it is not unusual for a Negro to experience a sensation that he does not exist in the real world at all. He seems rather to exist in the nightmarish fantasy of the white American mind as a phantom."

He went on: "The solution of the problem of the American Negro and democracy lies only partially in the white man's free will. Its full solution will lie in the creation of a democracy in which the Negro will be free to define himself for what he is."

Ellison wrote that Gunnar Myrdal -- author of "An American Dilemma," a mid-century study of the condition of African Americans -- "sees Negro culture and personality simply as the product of a 'social pathology.' Thus he assumes that 'it is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.' "

"But in the 'pragmatic sense' if lynching and Hollywood, faddism and radio advertising are products of the 'higher' culture . . . the Negro might ask, 'Why, if my culture is pathological, must I exchange it for these?'

"What is needed in our country is not an exchange of pathologies, but a change of the basis of society. This is a job which both Negroes and whites must perform together."

In 1961, Ellison added, "the skins of those thin-legged girls who faced the mob in Little Rock marked them as Negro, but the spirit which directed their feet is the old universal urge toward freedom. . . I see a period when Negroes are going to be wandering around because, you see, we have had this thing thrown at us for so long that we haven't had a chance to discover what in our own background is really worth preserving.

"The South could help. If it had a sense of humor, you know, the South could say, 'All right, we will set aside six months and there will be complete integration -- all right, you don't have to integrate the women -- but there will be complete integration as far as anything else is concerned. Negroes may go anywhere, they may see how we entertain, how we spend our leisure, how we worship, and so on.'"

"That would be the end of the whole problem. Because most Negroes could not be nourished by the life white Southerners live. It is too hag-ridden, it is too obsessed, it is too concerned with attitudes which could change everything that Negroes have been conditioned to expect of life. No, I believe in diversity, and I think that the real death of the United States will come when everyone is just alike."

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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