A 76-year-old essay teaches us how to be free

A 76-year-old essay teaches us how to be free

Ralph Ellison, noted author and professor.

By United States Information Agency staff photographer - Stephen Winick (June 2, 2017). Ralph Ellison, Invisible Folklorist. Folklife Today. Library of Congress.https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/files/2017/05/Ralph_Ellison_photo_portrait_seated.jpgThe image is originally from NARA (reference number 306-PSA-61-8989)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=654328

I think we need to think about the meaning of freedom, and how the meaning is so often colored by the right-flank of history.

I think we need to think about it, because the fact that we don't is why all of us, including liberals, spend so much time talking about "positive" versus "negative" freedom, as if an "active" or "passive" government were really on the minds of ordinary citizens.

It's also why we all of us, including liberals, spend so much time talking about freedom as if it's doing whatever I want to whomever I want and whether doing whatever I want to whomever I want is good or bad.

I think we don't think about the meaning of freedom for a couple of reasons. One, those who have inhabited the right-flank of the history of the United States have tended to be white elites with the most money to spend and the most time to spend the most money on influencing how the rest of us think, about freedom, but much more.

The other reason is more subtle. Most people in America are white. I think whiteness has a kind of pacifying effect on many of us such that problems appear to be problems when and usually only when someone somewhere, usually non-white, brings white people's attention to it. In ways large and small, these forces conspire to create conditions in which freedom is conceived so narrowly as to be virtually invisible.

This is bad for nonwhite people. Their suffering ends up constituting the "freedom" white people feel. But it's also bad for white people. I think many of us don't feel free, because we have not used the feeling of being free to pursue more sophisticated feelings of freedom. We haven't pursued those feelings because white elites would rather we didn't. (Thinking is dangerous to the political order.) We haven't pursued those feelings, because whiteness pacifies many of us.

I don't think one must be nonwhite to see my point here, but I do think one must have been at some point on the receiving end of some variety of political violence. And given that most nonwhite people are on the receiving end of America's most visible variety of political violence, we might find among them examples of cultivating a sensibility of freedom despite living or having lived in conditions no one would call free.

How would that sensibility begin? In the beginning, Ralph Ellison said:

Human life possesses an innate dignity and mankind an innate sense of nobility; that all men possess the tendency to dream and the compulsion to make their dreams reality; that the need to be ever dissatisfied and the urge ever to seek satisfaction is implicit in the human organism; and that all men are the victims and the beneficiaries of the goading, tormenting, commanding, and informing activity of that imperious process known as the Mind.

This is from Ellison's essay "Richard Wright's Blues." It's about Wright's 1945 autobiography, Black Boy. I have read and reread and reread this essay. I profit each time. He does so well what I like to think I do only modestly well, which is getting his audience to see something familiar in new ways for the purpose of ennobling everyone. That familiar thing is Black suffering. What's new is how Black suffering led a young Richard Wright to forge a future for himself. Not only as a novelist. (He's the author of Native Son.) But also as a free man. "Wright's early childhood," Ellison writes, "was crammed with catastrophic incidents.

In a few short years his father deserted his mother, he knew intense hunger, he became a drunkard begging drinks from black stevedores in Memphis saloons; he had to flee Arkansas where an uncle was lynched; he was forced to live with a fanatically religious grandmother in an atmosphere of constant bickering; he was lodged in an orphan asylum; he observed the suffering of his mother who became a permanent invalid, while fighting off the blows of the poverty-stricken relatives with whom he had to live; he was cheated, beaten, and kicked off jobs by white employees who disliked his eagerness to learn a trade; and to these objective circumstances must be added the subjective fact that Wright, with his sensitivity, extreme shyness and intelligence was a problem child who rejected his family and was by them rejected.

His mother, however enfeebled, gave him a great gift. Wherever there's darkness, there's sweetness. Wherever there's horror, there's light. And so on. She seems to me to have been a mother who understood the suffering her young son would endure as a young Black man in the American South in the 1920s, as she had endured it, too. She seems to me to have been a mother who understood joy isn't something to relieve boredom. Joy is something to relieve pain. "The influence of his mother," Ellison said, "taught him … to revere the fanciful and the imaginative." How many people do you know who do that?

So despite Black Boy's "almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by a brutal environment," Ellison said, "it also presents those fresh, human responses brought to its world by the sensitive child:

There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road … the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun … the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks … the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi … the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese … the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks … the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun … and there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earth-ward from star-heavy skies on silent nights.
from Black Boy by Richard Wright (italics Ellison's).

An "almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by a brutal environment" means Wright's personal project is a political project. We cannot recognize what he has achieved — "the very essence of the human" — unless we remember "the full extent to which the Southern community renders the fulfillment of human destiny impossible."

I'll close with what I think is the high point of Ellison's essay. This political project — this cultivation of the sensibility of freedom, as I'm calling it, is a "human heritage," Ellison writes. It is "the right and the opportunity to dilate, deepen, and enrich sensibility — democracy. Thus the drama of Black Boy lies in its depiction of what occurs when Negro sensibility attempts to fulfill itself in the undemocratic South."

White, Black, North, South, free, unfree, democratic, undemocratic — these are America's binaries, because they are the binaries of Black suffering. Whiteness is quite literally whitewashing it from the view of most white people, however. If the white world saw it clearly, maybe many of us would not balance the feeling of freedom on broken Black backs. Perhaps many of us would learn something. Like how to be free.

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