Jewish World Review April 18, 2002 / 7 Iyar, 5762

Stanley Crouch

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When it comes to race,
we're all mixed | Fifty years ago, Ralph Ellison's great novel, "Invisible Man," was published. Ellison was never accepted fully then, in the '60s, or afterward, because his position was rejected by the literary world and by black separatists and those who had lost themselves in fantasies about being Africans.

Last week, I had the honor of appearing at New York University in a program celebrating Ellison. It was presented by the Africana Studies Department. We talked about "Invisible Man," and we talked about Ellison's vision of American culture.

I shared the stage with literary scholar Horace Porter, who has written quite well about James Baldwin and about Ellison. The moderator was film scholar Clyde Taylor. The event was important because it made clear that Ellison's thoughts remain revolutionary in the face of any version of segregated thinking about American culture and American identity.

Porter stressed that Ellison, as novelist and essayist, was one of the most brilliant intellectuals to focus on the heritage Negroes share with each other and with whites and Americans at large.

Porter also observed that Ellison would not follow anyone else's line, that he saw life as he saw it and chose to make or break it on his own terms, not those dictated to him by whites or blacks or politicians or movements.

When Stanley Edgar Hyman concluded after reading Ellison's "Shadow and Act" from 1965 that he was America's best cultural critic, no one ever took him up on it. If the literary world had embraced that, writers of fiction and nonfiction would have had to explore Ellison's idea that, by blood or culture, whites are part black and Negroes are part white.

That still hasn't happened.

And black people would have had to see how much more like white Americans they are than Africans. And why.

In short, we would all have to face our actual identities, which are both ethnically specific and culturally miscegenated. We are all part of each other, having drawn from everything available - European, African, Asian, Latin, Indian. You name it. But at the center of the mix is how Protestant Europe and Africa fused into something extraordinarily new.

Manthia Diawara, who is from Mali and heads up Africana Studies, said he finds it odd that so many black Americans are living a fantasy and are so resistant to their miscegenated identity.

All Africans, he said, know that if they are to become modern they must become part European, part American.

"Modernity is not African, democracy is not African. Ralph Ellison understood these things far better than those who critized him," he said. "We are all mixing up faster and faster. As Africans we look to the best of black Americans for the clues because black Americans have created themselves in a modern version. Ellison was far ahead."

Diawara said he was glad that we celebrated Ellison that evening. I, too, was glad because in times like these it is important to understand that even politically opposing sides can eventually give way to a cultural wholeness.

JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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