Friday, July 06, 2007

What happens when minorities talk off script?

They get lynched. Biographically speaking that is ...

Here are the opinions, or absence of acceptable opinions, for which [Arnold] Rampersad holds [Ralph] Ellison at fault:

He gave insufficient credit to the influence of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance on his own career. He had a low view of all-black colleges. He held to a line of "liberal cosmopolitanism," which meant that he remained committed to the grandeur of high modernism in art and cultivated friendly contact with whites. In a letter about Vermont to his friend Ida Guggenheimer he failed to mention "the tragic fate of the Algonquin and Iroquois nations." He tended to be optimistic in matters of race. Sometimes he spoke as if there were things more important than race: "Here's to integration," he wrote in later years to one of his teachers at Tuskegee, "the only integration that matters: integration of the personality." He even claimed that "my problems are not primarily racial problems, that they are the problems of a writer." The developing countries, those in Africa prominent among them, meant little to him, or at least he failed publicly to voice his concern about them; he never even had an African in his and his wife's home. He "refused to blame [the poverty and squalor of Pakistan and India] on European colonialism." He was not for affirmative action, even thought it in fact likely to be deleterious to young blacks.

The list goes on: He didn't care for the dark, often drug-driven Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker strain in jazz, preferring the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He didn't think Norman Mailer much of a writer, and thought that he and the Beats were "all trying to reduce the world to sex." He never opposed the Vietnam war, having felt indebted to Lyndon Johnson for his civil rights legislation and for his personal courtesy to him, Ellison. His response to the death of Martin Luther King "would remain muted." He preferred to be called "Negro." He argued for the need for a solid black middle class. Once a member of the Century Association in New York, he put forth no fellow blacks and opposed the membership of women when it was up for a vote: "No women, and especially young black women," were among his inner circle of friends. The only black artist that he praised without qualification was the painter Romare Bearden. And to complete the checklist, though he was generally liberal, "exuberant gay culture offended him."

With such ghastly opinions as these, is there anything that could redeem Ellison? Redemption isn't Rampersad's game; instead he sets out to nail his subject more firmly to the cross by filling us in on all his personal peccaddilos. [...]

[...] This biography is, in short, a lynching, and the coarse rope used to hang the victim is political correctness.

The full text of Joseph Epstein's review can be found here.