Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and A Jug of Ancestors

An essay by Jerry Ward

It is tempting to agree with Arnold Rampersad (Ralph Ellison: A Biography, page 403) the essay "The World and the Jug" is perhaps Ralph Ellison's "richest apologia for his life as a writer who happened to be black, as well as for the Negro culture that had made him….As such, it also defends all American writing that seeks to move beyond ethnicity and toward national or universal values."

Rampersad's clever choice of words renders the temptation less enthralling. Ellison's apologia is written in a defensive posture, a position which Lance Jeffers clearly described a few decades ago. Read his seminal essay "The Death of the Defensive Posture: Toward Grandeur in Afro-American Literature" in The Black Seventies (Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1970), edited by Floyd B. Barbour. One part of Ellison's essay was published in The New Leader, December 9, 1963. Why 55 years ago did he "happen to be black"? And, as if their minds have never been energized and dignified by a reading of Langston Hughes's classic "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," why do some writers in 2018 "happen to be black"?

Do Bernard Malamud, Martha Nussbaum, and Norman Mailer "happen to be Jewish"? After all, they deserve an equal opportunity to exist in the twilight zone of "happen."

In 2018 it’s convenient to believe we are all "made" of cultural circumstances, which include racial and ethnic identity positioning. Those circumstances are at once American and something that evades a name. When we think of American writers, we ought to note Amy Tan is made of Chinese culture and Rudolfo Anaya is made of a culture best described as Spanish imperialism.

We are made of histories we accept or reject. And Ellison was "made" of cultures that he accepted with remarkable qualifications. Thus, while being "made of" is logical, it is as ideologically problematic as "happen to be."

We need to make use of brutal honesty. A writer does not need to move beyond ethnicity to be universal. Those who yet sleep with ignorance need to be informed that William Shakespeare did not move beyond his Renaissance Englishness or British identity in a vain effort to be national and universal.

Unfortunately, at this late date in the histories of North America and the United States, we find literary discourse afflicts writers with the AIDS or cancer of identities and incarcerates them in jails of double, triple, or quadruple consciousness as it urges them to "move beyond" or transcend themselves. Such crap is out to lunch.

Ellison's rich apology illuminates the dreadful, existential functioning of race in American life and culture(s). The language of his essay, like the language of Rampersad's critical judgment, exposes how unlikely it is that we shall be free of inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic contradictions in an imagined future.

In responding to Irving Howe's essay "Black Boys and Native Sons" (1963), Ellison rejected the Hebraic presumption that informed Howe's attempt to name the criteria for Negro creative writing, the permissible boundaries. Howe thought Richard Wright was the ideal American "black boy" he could pit against James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. (Can you imagine the outrage that would greet a 2018 essay entitled "Jewish Girls and Zionist Daughters"? Would it not occasion a massive barrage of anti-defamation bombs?)

Howe's essay belonged to the declining leftism and ascending neo-liberalism of Hebrews who might check "white" on a United States census form. From the perspectives of Americans married to white supremacy, people of Howe's ethnicity are at best "honorary whites." The sooner they admit as much, the better. Howe's micro-aggressiveness (speaking of a boy when we should have spoken of a man), whether intended or accidental, still haunts all levels of discourses in our nation

Ellison, as far as I'm concerned, is still paying from the lower frequencies of his grave for asserting his right to be an individual who happened to be an American literary icon in full equality with Saul Bellow. Ellison chiseled his fate in a passage that was pointedly addressed to Howe:

“Let me end with a personal note: Dear Irving, I have no objections to being placed beside Richard Wright in any estimation which is based not upon the irremediable ground of our common racial identity, but upon the quality of our achievements as writers.

“Consult the text! I sought out Wright because I had read Eliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein and Hemingway, and as early as 1940 Wright viewed me as a potential rival—partially, it is true, because he feared I would allow myself to be used against by political manipulators who were not Negro and who envied and hated him. But perhaps you will understand when I say he did not influence me if I point out that while one can do nothing about choosing one's relatives, one can, as artist, choose one's "ancestors." Wright was, in this sense, a "relative,” Hemingway was an "ancestor." Langston Hughes, whose work I knew in grade school and whom I knew was a "relative"; Eliot, whom I was to meet only many years later, and Malraux and Dostoevsky and Faulkner, were "ancestors"—if you please or don't please.” (The World and the Jug. The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, New York: The Modern Library, 1995, edited by John F. Callahan. Page 185.)
But it pleases me, as I consider where we are variously located in 2018, to honor the prevarication as well as a truth in Ellison's message to Howe. Wright influenced him along lines sketched out by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence, but he chose to project and represent himself as a quintessential American.

The systemic nature of royal ethnic battles in the USA is immortalized in the message. Let the rainbow tribes of humanity attend however they will to the message. From the vantage of now, of all that assaults us now, I am at peace with saying that black writers (who choose to construct themselves as black and know what is in the jug of ancestors) can come down from the mountain Langston Hughes envisioned.

They can make a gift of new commandments to American people who dare to think, like Irving Howe, that they have transcendent historical identity and color. Black writers can freely donate to Americans who insist they have no color, especially literary scholars and critics, the best advice about moving beyond humanity into the digitized communities of Hell! In that sense, they can truly be universal.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr., author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (2008), The China Lectures (2014), and Fractal Song: Poems (2016), lives in New Orleans, LA.

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