by Ralph Ellison
It isn't anything surprising to observe, once again, that race relations in America are as bad as they've ever been. Racial animus courses through our political discourse like termites through moist balsa wood. No, this isn't new in the past couple of years. The dog whistles are louder and more obnoxious than ever, perhaps, but, really, it has been a bumpy ride for a couple of centuries. A close look at any era of our history will turn up one disturbing event or racist movement or another. Every new wave of immigration brings out the worst in us. Today, it's Muslims and Mexicans. Last century, it was Italian and Irish Catholics, Eastern Europeans and Jews. Before that, the Chinese. We banned entire nationalities and we're doing it again. We interred the Japanese and we're now interring Mexican children (god help us). Throughout this history, African Americans have almost always ended at the bottom. It's been said that with every new wave of unwanted immigrants, no matter how low, they still ended up on top of the African-Americans. Black Lives Matter. And what makes that phrase more important, more relevant and more true than "All Lives Matter" is the depth of our racist history. African-Americans have a valid grievance. And whatever you may think of the cult of personal responsibility, we have ever been and are still a systemically racist country. This will not be solved by any strident posturing or sloganeering. It won't be easy.
And so, in a culture in which it has become commonplace for the police, armed as heavily as any army platoon, to shoot and kill unarmed black youth, is it any wonder that anger and resentment seethes through our racial discourse? That none of this is new is highlighted upon reading Ralph Ellison's epic award-winning 1953 novel. It is based upon his own experiences growing up in America and his disillusionment with progressive and left-wing white-dominated politics. That the book's key triggering event is the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white New York police officer emphasizes how little has changed. That it triggers a vast and destructive riot looks tragically familiar.
Before this, though, we join our unnamed narrator as he grows up in the American South, attends a black college run by white donors, and enters a world remeniscent of Franz Kafka crossed with Albert Camus. The motivations of white America are opaque, mysterious and arbitrary. Why, he thinks, is a well-intentioned man not given the benefit of the doubt? Why do white-dominated forces work against his aspirations? Why, with the best of intentions, playing the game by the rules he finds, obeying the laws imposed upon him, why does he still find himself ground beneath the bootheels of an inherently unequal culture? It's a mystery and a frustration. As readers, we want to see him come through the trees into the light, we want someone, anyone to realize the purity of his intentions, someone to guide him to success, because the system is rigged against him doing it for himself. And now, 65 years on, we, as readers, are also haunted by the fact that this book could easily have been written last week as in the middle of last century.
But, what is the answer? Racial harmony feels as distant as ever, despite some progress. Working within the system? Our first African-American president still faced persistent denials of his humanity. A man who denied he was even an American succeeded him in the Oval Office. But, hey, we still had a black president, right? The anger still simmers. Black Lives Matter. The Black Panthers are memorialized. Black kids are being shot on the street. Some of this is the tragic result of inequality. Some of it is systemic brutality. Ralph Ellison's novel is here to remind us there is ever more that can be done.
(For this book, Ellison was awarded the 1953 National Book Award for fiction.)
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