There was a late 19th-century Mexican intellectual who made a case for the superiority of the mixed-raced mestizaje make-up of the Latin American nations—according to him, their new race, La Raza Cosmica, took in the best characteristics of the world’s races. His theory was surely a specimen of the dismal racialism than ran rampant in those days, but the term he coined had a certain zing to it.
If any people truly deserves or would even want the term, it is we Americans white, black, red, yellow, brown, and mixed. We Americans–as per Barcelona, “North Americans” is no good as a label, since among other shortcomings it denies the Canadians their Canadian-ness–have particular reason to think of ourselves as a “nation of nations” and as “the creators and creations of a culture of cultures.”
Those are quotes from Ralph Ellison, in his essay ”The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” Alongside its meditations about the character of art in democracy, discussed in a previous post, it contained an extended defense of the idea of the melting pot. Ellison welcomed America’s continuing miscegenation, but, unlike the Mexican theorist, the mixing he celebrated was primarily cultural:
…it is on the level of culture, that the diverse elements of our various backgrounds, our heterogeneous pasts, have indeed come together, “melted,” and undergone metamorphosis. It is here, if we would but recognize it, that elements of the many available tastes, traditions, was of life, and values that make up the total culture have been ceaselessly appropriated and made their own—consciously, unselfconsciously, or imperialistically—by groups and individuals to whose own backgrounds and traditions they are historically alien. Indeed, it was through this process of cultural appropriation (and misappropriation) that Englishmen, Europeans, Africans, and Asians became Americans.
Granting the simplification in the final clause, the passage is correct. It describes an undeniable fact about our culture, and one we should be grateful for and patriotic about. Now as I have previously suggested, our understanding of this can take a wrong turn. To the extent we understand our culture as “La Cultura Cosmica,” i.e., as the world-representing-and-blending one, the less we will be able to 1) limit ourselves in foreign policy issues, and 2) keep our officially non-national institutions, such as our corporations and universities, from encouraging “globalism.” That is, the less we will be able to cultivate the needed sensibility I called “Globally-Conscious Americanism that Ain’t Globalist” in the extended essay of that name. At its conclusion I said we Americans must deny that we are, or will become, the world, however much we celebrate our culture’s composite and immigrant-welcoming character. A certain American provincialism, which includes a non-racist desire to maintain the broad outlines of our peculiar ethnic mix, is needed to keep the balance right.
Now if I hold that, why am I offering up Ellison, given what I have quoted above, as a key exemplar of this sensibility? It is because his life-long effort to convey the distinctive qualities of both Afro-American culture, as it was originated among persons of Negro racial descent and yet partly spread to others, and American culture taken as whole, gave him two perspectives from which to reject a “cosmic-democratic” understanding of America’s cultural blending, the sort of understanding we rightly associate with a thinker like Walt Whitman. Ellison, in a sense, gets as close to such an understanding and derives as many true insights from it as one can without surrendering to its core idea, its conviction that America’s destiny is to breed the universal culture which will become the world’s; moreover, he gets close to it not from a grandiose motivation to understand America, the world, and their inextricable future relation, but from a homely motivation to understand the Negro(his preferred term), America, and their inextricable existing relation.
So while Ellison even says that we are a “collage of a nation,” and one with an “irrepressible movement…toward the integration of its diverse elements,” he rejects the conceit that all the world’s cultures are represented in these elements, and any assumption that the blending of these into one another will be complete. America’s cultural collage/melding, although it resists all but the most complexity-conveying efforts to define it and never ceases changing, is nonetheless a particular cultural collage/melding.
As Lucas Morel and I said about the “Little Man” essay for the APSA conference this year, Ellison did not believe American acculturation was simply assimilation on the part of new immigrant groups. Even less could he believe this was what had happened with Afro-Americans. Instead, as he argued in “What America Would Be Like without Blacks” (included alongside the “Little Man” essay in Going to the Territory), the key test of American democracy was the extent to which it fostered “inclusion, not assimilation, of the black man.” To speak of “assimilation” suggests acculturation as a one-way street, with the majority-white society bestowing all that is good and righteous to recipient minority racial groups. Such an understanding would ignore how blacks had been bestowing cultural goods to all Americans.
Begin with the musical case, made by Ellison and his friend Albert Murray, and further developed by Martha Bayles, that nearly all American Music, including country, can be spoken of as Afro-American Music. Its distinctiveness always has to do with a Negro-originated ingredient, even if it might seem a small one. As I put it in a couple of posts, understood in this way, Afro-American Music should not be regarded as essentially “slave music,” but rather as the result of various cultural mixtures, the most important of which is the African/American “world the slaves made” mixing with the blessed-and-burdened-with-freedom world of the larger American “main street.”
In any case, our music is inconceivable without the cultural input of blacks. As is our very language, which Ellison characteristically extends into our literature, saying that it is impossible to imagine the work of Twain and Faulkner, but also of many others, without the Afro-American influence. It even gets down to how we joke and walk. As he once told a mixed college audience(at 2:40 of this intro to Invisible Man.), “All of you white kids are part colored, and all of you black kids are part white.”
As for what is culturally “black,” it is itself inconceivable apart from America. Perhaps the most moving thing about the mytho-poetic sermon at the heart of Ellison’s Juneteenth novel is the way it portrays the creation of distinctive Afro-American musical genres, and jazz most of all, as partly being a reconstitution of African cultural elements, out of the various once-distinct African cultures decimated by slavery, but also being a new mix, involving both those elements, and new world ones. It is like a resurrection, and also, a birth. It’s the reconstitution of African elements and the appropriation of non-African practices in an American context, and for a variety of purposes communal, commercial, and individual, that matter to Ellison, and not simply with respect to music. While he cannot but attend to the various Ashanti, Igbo, etc. roots that we lump together as “African,” what he really focuses our attention to are the Afro-American beginnings or points of departure, especially ones found in the 1865-1920 window.
(That’s Danny Glover in the John Sayles film The Honeydripper. A film not to be missed, and if you’ve seen it, you know why this particular scene goes with Juneteenth.)
All in all, what or who is culturally Afro-American cannot be separately considered from what or who is culturally American. And in most cases, vice-versa. So as repulsive to Ellison as the racist imagination of an “America without blacks,” would be the globalist imagination of a “world without Americans,” that is, of a world so Americanized and an America so globalized that the two terms blend together. For one thing, a world in which no practices nor persons remained distinctively American would necessarily be one in which none remained distinctively Afro-American.
So by Ellison’s understanding, segregationist racism and oppositional blackness-cultivation are both delusions. As I’ve said before, had leaders stepped forward, the South could have known better than to have tried the segregationist system. But the point to concentrate upon here is that real black pride will not succumb to the temptation to “damn America,” because it knows it cannot do so without implicitly wishing away the very existence of oneself, and of the unique people, call them Negro, black, or Afro-American, that is meant to be affirmed and loved by such pride. However we understand America’s sins of slavery and segregation, and the twisted psychic burdens imparted by them, these did not so outweigh the real and potential blessings of America freedom, and of its democratic/Christian love, that they put the Negro that emerged from slavery in a situation so filled with degradation that it was one having to prefer death to life, or damning to striving. Among many other pieces of evidence for this, we sure cannot say that the blues, despite how wide-open it was to exploring any side of life, was a music of suicides, revolution, and curses. Alas, we sure have to say that about punk and rap.
The “melting pot” was the title of a 1908 Broadway play; the phrase quickly became part of our vocabulary, because its basic idea was so readily understood. Ellison is careful to say that the phrase is a “metaphor” that expresses an aspirational “conceit” or “ideal,” and we have seen that he rejects the idea of total cultural melting. He is also careful to say, however, that the “Little Man” of his essay, whom we are often invited to think of as an obscure black person, would not regard the melting pot idea as a “con.” It is true-enough.
Moreover, outright rejection of the melting pot ideal means a turning away from other core American ideals, and a turning into ethnic and/or cultural insularity that is untrue to our real backgrounds and present conditions. True, certain studies of ethnic minorities, such as the landmark Beyond the Melting Pot by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan in 1963, called the metaphor into question. Various ethnic minority sub-cultures seemed to maintain more of their distinctiveness than many had thought. There remains sociological dispute about whether Glazer and Moynihan framed things correctly, but partly due to the influence of such greater awareness of ethnic distinctiveness, by the 1980s many were recommending a new metaphor, that of the “salad bowl” wherein each ethnic culture remains itself but imparts some of its flavor to the others.
But the decisive factor causing Americans to reject the melting pot metaphor was the impact of the black-pride movement beginning in the mid-60s. By the time of the “Little Man” essay, 1978, its overt influence upon black art, fashion, and politics was fading a bit, but its core ideas had developed in ways that were making them quite entrenched and of broader impact. Black-pride had inspired other ethnic-pride movements, and this, combined with a certain liberal approach to the new situation, began to cause some whites in the colleges, even ones who had no strong connection to anything like Irish-American or Italian-American culture, to toy with talking of themselves as “European-Americans.” The entire theory and institutional apparatus of multiculturalism was rearing its head. In the colleges, filtering soon enough down to the schools, all Americans would be pressured, by way of being suspected of racism or some brand of “Oreo-ism” if they refused, to identify with one of the ethnic elements constituting the salad.
Now I don’t deny that all of this came with a necessary greater awareness and appreciation of the insights to be found in minority ethnic cultures. Much of this followed paths Ellison had blazed; and, granting his artistic strictures and suspicions regarding sociological accounts, he was for such greater awareness. It also came with a necessary ramping-down of demands for one-way assimilative acculturation by minorities. (To be clear, some such assimilation by immigrants remains necessary, and must go beyond speaking passable English in public–one might turn to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns to see how such an expectation was also applied to rural Negro migrants to Northern cities by the Negroes already there.) But insofar as the emergent multiculturalism amounted to an insistence upon distinct ethnicity-rooted cultures, Ellison opposed it.
What else could he have done if he were to remain true to what he had labored to show about America’s complexity? Now in “The Little Man” essay, Ellison’s most explicit opposition to the emerging multicultural theory actually jumps off of his brief presentation of the “Tall Man” character. If you recall from my previous post, he was a cat who Ellison witnessed, sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, adorned in a collection of contradictory styles—dashiki, riding boots, big afro, homburg hat, and driving a VW bug outfitted with a Rolls-Royce grill—as a way of humorously representing his own cultural identity of various elements, which apparently included black pride, radical sympathies, English heritage, classy aspirations, and common-man realities. Ellison also noted his mixed biological ethnicity—he had blue eyes and light-brown skin.
So here was the undeniable reality of what the metaphor of the melting-pot was attempting to convey. The Tall Man could never think of his culture as clearly claim-able, or as being a simple ingredient tossed into some salad! Rather, the salad, collage, and collision of multiple cultural inputs was inside of him. While the Tall Man was himself aware that it was in some ways an absurd mix, Ellison suggests that such mixtures can sometimes result in genuinely new, we might say “melted,” cultural patterns or arts. He also suggests that what the Tall Man displayed in an exaggerated way, is in fact the cultural reality for nearly all Americans of whatever ethnicity.
Ellison sketches a theory of identity-anxiety to explain both the classic white racism, and the black-led turn to ethnic pride and the theory of multiculturalism. Segregationism, black nationalism, overdone Irish pride, etc., all reject the idea of the melting pot, and are efforts to avoid the difficult task of comprehending the complexity of the national culture, and especially one’s own inheritance from it, by tightly holding onto the part of the culture most familiar to oneself. The proponents of “ethnicity” avoid having to define American culture as a whole, and instead stake their claim to a specific part to set their minds at ease—what Ellison calls “psychic security.” They would have the American individual cover-over, with strained affirmations of Africa or what-have-you, the restiveness and homelessness he is subject to when confronted by the actual multiplicity of his heritage.
In Invisible Man, the narrator’s novel-long difficulty in “finding himself” is partly due to this—it is not simply a function of racism blinding others to his individuality. Various secure identities are offered to him, such as the Tuskegee model of the upstanding race-man, or the communist model of the community activist—even the attraction of an America-cursing Afrocentric identity is displayed. But all such identities that the narrator tries fail him. One thing this suggests is that the urban Afro-American uprooted from the South might be the person best placed, at least in that era, to fully see the unsettled reality underlying all modern American life. It is the “invisible man’s” curse, i.e., the truly self-aware Negro individual’s curse, to feel modern American homelessness more than most of us, and yet it is Invisible Man’s purported blessing to make all of us aware, on our “lower frequencies,” that this homelessness is also ours.
We might judge Ellison’s emphasis upon the modern democratic man’s identity search and self-discovery as overdone or otherwise flawed. Although less would be at stake, we might say something similar about his valorization of blues-jazz or the faith he put in American literature. But I hope no-one fails to see how practical and honest Ellison’s life-long effort to comprehend and express America’s “unity within diversity” truly was.
And yes, precisely to the extent Ellison’s understanding were to become widespread, to that extent black politics would become subject to radical shifts. For one, the lies and social pressure enforcing the limited menu of correct black identities, a limitation so necessary to the electoral chances of the Democratic Party as presently constituted, would collapse. In my judgment, the resultant shifts would be in large part be those that Shelby Steele, himself a careful reader of Ellison, recommends.
Ellison’s importance goes far beyond the coming of that day, however. He models a way to attend to all the peculiar facts and developments that our “multiculturalists” and “globalists” do when at their best, without succumbing to their hard categorizations and simplistic reductions, and without endorsing their larger agendas. And he models so much more. I don’t for a second hesitate to put his writings on any short list of what all Americans, and all persons anywhere who seek to learn from America, ought to read.
Here’s a photo of a most telling scrap found in his papers—his notes there speak of his grand unfinished novel Three Days before the Shooting:
To conclude, let us admit that “melting pot” is but one image and phrase. If even now you bristle at it, fine, but do remember that Ellison gave us dozens of his own fascinating images and hundreds of his own involved sentences to help us better grasp the reality that the simple metaphor can only points towards. They are scattered throughout his writings, but some of the most potent ones are to be found in “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” an essay I again recommend to one and all.