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.

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