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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
Ellison also thought that culture is about exchange and interchange, a dialectical and dialogical process in which cultural forms and ideas are utilized freely in an open, pluralistic society. "You are not going to lose a certain way with words because it is built into the way we speak," he said in 1973 to journalist Hollie I. West. "What we call rapping or riffing—you are going to hear your daddy talking or your uncle or your older brothers and sisters. This is preserved in speech and its informed attitudes, which can range from the most explicit to that which is implicit and subtle...What will happen, I think, is that as you become conscious as an artist, you will begin to exploit it consciously. You will work at it in terms of what others have done in other cultures. You will abstract motives from there and impose them within your own scheme.

"But it's a give-and-take human thing rather than a racial thing, and at some point we're going to have to realize that simply by having the same skin we're not all the same people. There are many cultural levels within the Negro group. There are people who are on the folk level in their cultural lives, even though they might be operating computers. And there are people who shine shoes who, in their cultural lives, are on the high level of articulate culture.

Hollie I West: This reminds me of something that Duke Ellington said to me in an interview. He said the pull of American culture was so strong that no one could resist it.

Ralph Ellison: Not only that, but it's in the artifacts, you see...Negroes thought they were going to isolate themselves by putting on an Afro. The Jewish kids, the blonde kids—they're wearing them too. Why? Because it's irresistible. It's a style. It's a new way of making the human body do something; and it operates over and beyond any question of race."


In 1967, three black male writers interviewed Ellison in his Harlem apartment on Riverside Drive for Harper's magazine. The result, "A Very Stern Discipline," is a classic ritual encounter of journeymen with an elder master, who instructs through representative anecdotes, spanning the globe with literary, political and historical insight, relating to the young men—Steve Cannon, Lennox Raphael, and James Thompson—their ancestral imperative within a particular Afro-American moment as it extended to the larger fractal American vibration within a global context. This revealing passage functions as a variation on the themes of this essay:
"Recently we had a woman from the South who helped my wife with the house but who goofed off so frequently that she was fired. We liked her and really wanted her to stay, but she simply wouldn't do her work. My friend Albert Murray told me I shouldn't be puzzled over the outcome. 'You know how we can be sometimes,' Al said. 'She saw the books and the furniture and paintings, so she knew you were some kind of white man. You couldn't possibly be a Negro. And so she figured she could get away with a little boondoggling on general principles, because she'd probably been getting away with a lot of stuff with Northern whites. But what she didn't stop to notice was that you're a Southern white man...'"


By the way, this was a time when the word Negro, signifying U.S.-born and bred blacks, hadn't been dropped by Ellison's generation. They knew of the long struggle to capitalize the "N" and agreed with what the word signified as regards ethnicity, culture and nationality.

"So you see, here culture and race and a preconception of how Negroes are supposed to live—a question of taste—had come together and caused a comic confusion. Such jokes as Al Murray's are meaningful because in America culture is always cutting across racial characteristics and social designations. Therefore, if a Negro doesn't exhibit certain attitudes, or if he reveals a familiarity with aspects of the culture, or possesses qualities of personal taste which the observer has failed to note among Negroes, then such confusions in perception are apt to occur.


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