The Reading Room
America without Black Americans
On April 6, 1970, Time magazine published a special issue devoted to “Black America 1970,” which provided a sweeping survey of contemporary Black life in terms of residential patterns, medicine, psychological and sociological issues, the treatment of race in the press, religion, sports, business, education, and the arts. The issue’s final item was a riveting essay by Ralph Ellison, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.” The “vision of a lily-white America” was a ”fantasy” that Ellison linked to its twin, “the illusion of secession.” What ties these two ideas together for Ellison is that they each “become operative whenever the nation grows weary of the struggle toward the ideal of American democratic equality.”
Susan Love Brown argues in a recent post that race is a “social construction” and “does not exist in nature.” Ellison suggests something similar when he says that the desire to “purge the nation of blacks” is akin to a “primitive reflex . . . which we rationalize and try to make respectable by dressing it up in the gaudy and highly questionable trappings of what we call the ‘concept of race’.”
Ellison offers a brief overview of the idea of exporting all Blacks from America from the early eighteenth century up into the twentieth. Although never particularly successful in encouraging black migration to Africa, the American Colonization Society operated from 1816 until its dissolution in 1964. Proponents of colonization included both white politicians (including both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln) and Black businessmen and social leaders (ranging from Paul Cuffe in the nineteenth century to Marcus Garvey and his adherents in the twentieth).
The thrust of Ellison’s essay to explain why the idea of “getting shut” of Blacks is so fantastic. From the time slaves were brought into the colonies of the New World, they “had been transforming it and being Americanized by it.” Ellison notes that some social science literature argues that America was never the “melting pot” of cultures some thought it was, but he suggests that many of these social critics don’t really understand the ways in which culture works. Few members of ethnic groups, “or at least the children of these groups—have been able to resist the movies, television, baseball, jazz, football, drum-majoretting, rock, comic strips, radio commercials, soap operas, book clubs, slang, or any of a thousand other expressions and carriers of our pluralistic and easily available popular culture. It is here precisely that ethnic resistance is least effective. On this level the melting pot did indeed melt, creating such deceptive metamorphoses and blending of identities, values, and lifestyles that most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it.”
On the other hand, social science may fail to see Blacks clearly because of “the continual confusing of the black American’s racial background with his individual culture.” A comment Ellison makes in another essay, “The World and the Jug,” illustrates what he means by “individual culture.” He writes, “So, in Macon County, Alabama, I read Marx, Freud, T. S. Eliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. Books which seldom, if ever, mentioned Negroes were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities. I was freed not by propagandists or by the example of [Richard] Wright . . . but by composers, novelists, and poets who spoke to me of more interesting and freer ways of life.” Returning to our primary essay, Ellison concludes that political, social, and economic injustices “have failed to keep Negroes clear of the cultural mainstream; Negro Americans are, in fact one of its major tributaries.”
Near the end of his Time essay Ellison writes, “There is no point in complaining over the past or apologizing for one’s fate.” By this, Ellison is not suggesting that it is the lot of Black Americans to suffer their fate quietly, rather, he is suggesting that Blacks should start steering their own fate. Ellison would likely answer the question “What should we do with the Negro?” much as Frederick Douglass did at a meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society shortly after the end of the Civil War. Said Douglass, “I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. . . . All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! . . . Let him fall if he cannot stand alone. . . . If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live.”