A Ralph Ellison Essay for the 4th of July

[America, may God thy gold refine.]

If you’re looking for some 4th of July reading to fill the time while you wait for fireworks, I recommend Ralph Ellison’s “Going to the Territory.”

It was published in his 1986 book of essays by the same name; originally, it was a speech Ellison gave at Brown University in honor of Inman Page, the first black graduate of Brown, who had also been the principal of Ellison’s segregated high school in Oklahoma City.

Why do I like it so much? And why should you read it today?

Well, it’s an argument for Ellison’s complicated, sometimes contradictory vision of America, which I would say is the dominant theme in all of his writing. It’s at once a conservative view—fully embracing the “irrepressible force” that Ellison says our Founding Fathers “set in motion over two hundred years ago with the founding of this nation”—and a radical one. “By seeking to move forward,” Ellison writes, “we find ourselves looking back and discovering with some surprise from whence we’ve come.” To know where to go from here, Ellison tells us, we have to look back—but when we do, we need to prepared to be surprised by we see.

“Going to the Territory” surprises us by giving us a glimpse of early-20th-century black culture where we don’t normally expect to find it: the prairies of the American West and Southwest. Ellison lovingly describes his Oklahoma City teachers (including Page and Page’s daughter, his music teacher Mrs. Zelia N. Breaux), and the ways those teachers sought to prepare their students for entry into mainstream society by inculcating them with bourgeois values. At the same time, Ellison describes the fertile, anti-bourgeois jazz community—he went to high school with Charlie Christian and grew up hearing Jimmy Rushing’s voice ringing through the neighborhood—that developed in a sort of (loving) opposition to those teachers.

By focusing on Oklahoma City and the communities that developed around black migration into the West, Ellison takes an American myth—westward expansion—and places black culture at its center. What’s unstated in the essay is that Ellison’s father, Lewis, served in the 25th Infantry Regiment of the US Army, one of the so-called “Buffalo Soldier” units that paved the way for the “taming” of the western territories. In other words, Ellison understood that placing blacks at the center of American myth was no mere conceit: it’s a fact of our history.

It’s dinner time here, but there’s so much more to say about this essay. I love the way Ellison makes jazz into a metaphor for the American experience; specifically, Ellison talks about jazz as “antagonistic cooperation,” a phrase that I think is worth keeping in mind now that half the country is talking about civil war. I love the way the essay expounds on the themes Ellison suggests in “Living with Music” (1955), my all-time favorite piece of Ellison writing; most of all, I love the way Ellison finds a way to be proud of his country while holding it accountable for its flaws.

Reacting to the Obergefell Images & Responses

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[Photo by Tony Jilek via twitter]

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[Photo by Mary Tuma, via The Austin Chronicle.]

Yesterday, as the pictures and stories from courthouses were piling up on social media, a picture from Austin caught my eye. “Holy crap! I know her,” I thought. Someone I know from growing up in Fort Worth was at the front of the line at the Travis County Clerk’s office. Her picture and quotes made it into several articles in the local media.

We went to different high schools, and it would be exaggerating to say Marti and I were friends, but I always liked her and we ran in the same circles. We started UT as undergrads at the same time, and on my first day on campus we ate together with a mutual friend at Kismet—still my favorite lunch spot on the Drag. Since moving back to Austin, I’ve seen her around town a few times, but never said hi. And there she was, gazing at a marriage license with her two children and her partner of fourteen years.

A little further down my Facebook feed, a family member had written: “God have mercy on this godless country.”

That’s where my words fail me. Right there, in the distance between my family member’s reaction to yesterday’s ruling and what I felt on seeing the joy on Marti’s face. I simply can’t understand the one in the light of the other.

I mean, I’ve tried. I think I’ve given it a fair shot on this blog. I’ve read everything I could about the Catholic Right’s reasoning. I understand the arguments pretty well, even if I don’t agree with them. Give me a Turing test about “natural law” or the Theology of the Body and I’ll pass. Believe it or not, I even get the psychological urge to resist same-sex marriage. I have a fairly conservative temperament myself: change makes me anxious, order makes me comfortable, and I like looking up to an authority I can trust.

But I don’t get it. I don’t get how you can look at the faces of the men and women getting married yesterday, and read their stories—and know their stories—and come up with a reaction like “God have mercy on this godless country.”

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[Photo via independent.co.uk]

So far, I’ve mostly avoided the naysayers and frump-buggers. I’m in a celebratory mood, not really interested in schadenfreude or gloating or arguing. I did let myself scan the First ThingsAfter Obergefell” online symposium: twenty-one writers gathered to bemoan the decision. Only one of them—only one—contemplated what I would say was the characteristic experience for most of America yesterday: joy. Only one writer thought about what it meant that joy that was rippling outward across the country, all day and all night, from gay couples who were finally able to wed. Most dismissed yesterday in terms of a “fantasy of autonomy and self-creation,” in Russell Moore’s words, a “me-centered ideology,” in Caitlin La Ruffa’s, or “the religion of Me and its perverse view of freedom,” as R.R. Reno put it. Only one of these writers—so opposed to selfishness—was able to offer any empathy for the people tearfully promising themselves to each other on courthouse steps across the country.

The exception was Wesley Hill, one of the “new homophiles,” who started his response with a consideration of Jonathan Rauch’s book Denial: My Twenty-Five Years Without a Soul. Hill writes:

When I read Rauch’s book, that last sentence left a lump in my throat. That receiving the word husband felt to Rauch like the relief of a negative biopsy—‘You’re not sick or twisted or crazy; you’re just hindered from giving and receiving love, and now the hindrance is removed’—goes a long way toward explaining the jubilation so many gay and lesbian people feel in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Finally, their loves may be dignified not with the anemic moniker friend orpartner or the clinical epithet disordered or the disdainful slur pervert but rather with the venerable, ordinary, immediately recognizable words husband or wife.

That’s a respectful response. That’s someone with whom you can have a conversation. Why are responses like that so rare?

The Presence of the Past on my Grandmother’s Bookshelf

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“Against the South they planned still darker fates / By bill iniquitous, styled ‘Civil Rights,’ / To force equality ‘twixt blacks and whites.”

I found this book, which seems to have belonged to my great-great-grandfather, while going through my grandmother’s things after she passed in April. It’s Joseph Tyrone Derry’s The Strife of Brothers, an epic poem about the Civil War published in 1904.

It’s a really interesting artifact in light of the conversations flying around the internet about the South and its history. Derry was a confederate soldier; after the war he started a “Select School” for boys in Augusta that enrolled future president Woodrow Wilson and future Supreme Court justice Joseph Rucker Lamar. He was a historian, too–though his epic poem seems mostly forgotten, I did find some citations of his 1898 historical work The Story of the Confederate States. When the poem was released, its New York Times review mercifully overlooked its mediocre verse and focused instead on Derry’s historical knowledge.

I bring up The Strife of Brothers because it perfectly illustrates Adam Serwer’s great column on the legacy of the “Lost Cause” notion in the Southern imagination. Serwer argues that the idea that the Confederate flag is a benign symbol of southern pride comes from a revision—a “propaganda assault,” says historian David Blight—of the historical record that took place in the last years of the nineteenth century, in which a war that was explicitly started to preserve slavery was turned into a fight for freedom. Serwer writes, “In this interpretation, popularly known as ‘Lost Cause’ mythology, the Confederacy was fighting for some vague conception of liberty, not the right to own slaves; its soldiers were unparalleled warriors defending their homeland who were only defeated because of the Union’s structural advantages; and the postwar subjugation of black Americans was a necessary response to lawlessness.”

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Derry’s long poem is part of this propaganda assault, and all of the elements Serwer identifies are there:

-Derry minimizes the importance of slavery to the Southern states, but when he does mention the institution, in Book III, he emphasizes that black slaves stood by their masters during the war:

The master’s home they guarded true and well

And safely did its honored inmates dwell.

The Southern lady walked where’er she would,

As safe as if a queen ‘mid guards she stood.

Her life and honor ev’ry slave did prize,

As if a goddess moved before his eyes.

The mistress’ children were the ‘mammy’s’ pride

Who for these cherished treasures would have died.

-Rather than discussing the actual issue that started the war, Derry dedicates most of the poem to the courage of Southern soldiers. As The Times puts it, Derry weaves in “with the more illustrious names many humbler soldiers whose deeds (perhaps) came under the poet’s own eye–his companions, fellow Georgians.”

-As favorably as Derry depicts blacks living under slavery—trustworthy, loyal—they morph into monsters after Emancipation. In Book VII, about Reconstruction, blacks are “ignorant dupes” who, in voting, “stupidly obeyed” “whate’er the carpetbaggers bade them do.”

Worse, they’re marauding menaces and, probably, rapists. In a section on the virtues of Southern womanhood, Derry relates a shootout between black members of the 136th Infantry Regiment and two white families. In Derry’s telling, it’s a harrowing, Alamo-like siege in which “forty negroes came / Breathing out threats of slaughter and of flame” while “Miss Lizzie Freeman [took] her stand / having a loaded pistol in her hand” and “little Annie Martin knelt and prayed / With childish faith that God would send them aid.” To read the passage, with its lines like “Now to the housetop thwarted negroes climb / Thinking to thus break through in speedy time” is to understand James Baldwin’s description of the “great shock” in watching Gary Cooper killing off the Indians in the movies: “[A]lthough you are rooting for Gary Cooper, … the Indians are you.”

-Finally, Derry positions the book as a gesture towards reconciliation with the North.

But, as Serwer points out, this reconciliation comes at the expense of black citizenship. While Derry does seem to concede that slavery may have been bad (“If holding Africans as slaves was wrong / Then to the North did equal guilt belong”), one issue on which he is unwilling to budge is white supremacy. For Derry, Reconstruction is hell, and he specifies two crimes imposed on the South by federal government after the war: 1) the denial of post-war power to former Confederate officers and 2) the “pretense” that African Americans are equal to whites. Derry treats these crimes as two sides of the same coin, since he argues that the punishment of Confederates never would have been democratically enacted had blacks not been given the vote.

And Derry fully expects to find agreement on this issue from his Northern readers.

Railing about the Reconstruction government in the section titled “The Battle-Storms are Hushed, the Banner’s Furled,” Derry seethes:

Not satisfied with what they’d done to States

Against the South they planned still darker fates

By bill iniquitous, styled ‘Civil Rights,’

To force equality ‘twixt blacks and whites.

Blacks, Derry says, were “made citizens by law of might, / against all principles of sense or right.” This is a recurring theme in the poem. In its first chapter, Derry writes that Reconstruction carpet-baggers “into our temple holy brought a race / That under no condition e’er could grace  / Those honors which to citizens belong.”

Here is how Derry depicts the end of Reconstruction:

At length the mighty North, at heart aye kind,

Knew fear and prejudice had made her blind,

Saw what oppressors she had raised to power

And to our rescue came in needful hour.

In east, in west, in center ballots showered

At last the foes of Liberty o’erpowered,

And brothers’ shouts in Massachusetts heard

With rising hope the joyful Southland stirred.

Then Love began to claim once more his own

And Hate dismayed leapt from his tottering throne.

Note that, in Derry’s figuring, preventing black men from voting is “Liberty” and “Love,” while allowing them to vote is “Hate.”

There’s so much more here, like when Derry praises “white-souled Wade Hampton,” a man elected governor of South Carolina after a campaign of intimidation by his “Red Shirt” partisans, including the Hamburg Massacre, which left seven men dead. Justice and fraternity, amirite? And there’s Derry’s kind words for Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, grand wizard of the KKK, and John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Klan in Georgia.

And that’s just a start—I haven’t made it through all of the poem’s anecdotes and references yet. But the point is, if you want to understand Serwer’s argument that the national reconciliation between North and South  occurred  “on terms that sacrificed black freedom to white supremacy,” The Strife of Brothers is a pretty striking illustration.