Was Ralph Ellison Integral?


 

The best way to answer the question posed in the title is to read more of Ellison's work, his essays in this case. Although he is best known for his 1952 literary classic, Invisible Man, in my view his essays sparkle with insights into the interaction of the Big Three (I, We, It), so almost anywhere you land in his essays, speeches and interviews, you'll find an Integral awareness.


But in a modern and post-modern world, we need evidence, some proof. While I do not claim that the following passage proves conclusively that Ellison was swingin' from an Integral teal-turquoise altitude, I do think it gives a good starting point to consider the issue.


One of the most important interviews in the essential
Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (Modern Library) is "Some Questions, Some Answers." (This Q&A was originally published in Ellison's first essay collection, Shadow and Act, in 1963.) My late, very good friend Michael James, (who was a nephew of Duke Ellington) pointed out to me some years ago that this interview gave Ellison (in 1958) a way to clarify some fundamental issues as regards race, culture, American identity and values, and, as you will see, much more.


The civil rights movement in the late '50s was picking up steam, and Ellison puts this budding movement into larger frames, contexts. He even presciently describes, fifty years before this actuality manifested, what the office of the Presidency of the United States would require from a "black" man. 


But enough supposition and introduction. Here are the final two questions and answers from this interview in 1958.


Q:
What do you think of the future of "Negro music"?


A:
I know only American Negro music, in this sense of the term. This music consists of jazz and the spirituals, but as with all things cultural in the United States these forms have been and are still being subjected to a constant process of assimilation. Thus, although it was the specific experience of Negroes which gave rise to these forms, they expressed and gave significance to feelings and sounds so characteristically American that both spirituals and jazz have been absorbed into the musical language of the culture as a whole. On the other hand, American Negro music was never created in a vacuum; it was the shaping of musical elements found in the culture--European, American Indian, the Afro-American rhythmical sense, the sound of the Negro voice--to the needs of a particular group.


Today jazz is a national art form, but for me personally, the source of the purist stream of this music is the Negro community, wherein the commercial motive in popular music is weaker, and where jazz remains vital because it is still linked with the Saturday night [function] or Sunday morning breakfast dance, which are still among the living social forms functioning within the Negro community.


Nor does this in any way contradict the fact that some of the leaders in the modern jazz movement are Negroes; we still move from the folk community to a highly conscious acquaintance with twelve-tone composers and their methods in less time than it takes to complete a course in counterpoint, and these modern methods are quickly absorbed into the body of classical jazz. A man like Duke Ellington remains a vital and imaginative composer precisely because he has never severed his tie with the Negro dance, and because his approach to the world's music is eclectic.


Nevertheless there is the danger that the rapid absorption of Negro American musical forms by commercial interests and their rapid vulgarization and dissemination through the mass media will corrupt the Negro's own taste, just as in Mexico the demand for modern designs in silver jewelry for export is leading to a dying away of native design. Thus I say that much of the future depends upon the self-acceptance of the Negro composer and his integrity toward his musical tradition. Nor do I exclude the so-called serious composer; all are faced with the humanist American necessity of finding the balance between progress and continuity, between tradition and experimentation. For the jazz artist there is some insurance in continuing to play for dance audiences, for here the criticism is unspoiled by status-directed theories; Negroes simply won't accept shoddy dance music, so the artist has a vital criticism danced out in the ritual of the dance.


Since the spirituals are religious music, it would seem that their future is assured by the revitalization of Negro American churches, as is demonstrated in the leadership which these churches are giving in the struggle for civil rights. The old songs play quite a part in this, and they in turn throb with new emotion flowing from the black American's revaluation of his experience.


Negroes are no longer ashamed of their slave past but see in it sources of strength, and it is now generally recognized that the spirituals bespoke their birth as a people and asserted and defined their humanity. The desegregation struggle is only the socio-political manifestation of this process. Commercial rock-and-roll music is a brutalization of one stream of contemporary Negro church music, but I do not believe that even this obscene looting of cultural expression can permanently damage the vital source--not for racial reasons but because for some time to come Negroes will live closer to their traditional cultural patterns. Nor do I believe that as we win our struggle for full participation in American life we will abandon our group expression. Too much living and aspiration have gone into it, so that, drained of its elements of defensiveness and alienation, it will become even more precious to us, for we will see it ever clearer as a transcendent value.


What we have counterpoised against the necessary rage for progress in American life (and which we share with other Americans) will have proved to be at least as valuable as all our triumphs of technology. In spilling out his heart's blood in his contest with the machine, John Henry was asserting a national value as a well as a Negro value.


Q:
What do you think of the attempt of Brazilian and American Negroes to adopt "white values" in place of "Negro values"? Is this only an illusion on their part or will it be a source of creative development?


A:
I am unqualified to speak of Brazil, but in the United States, the values of my own people are neither "white" nor "black"; they are American. Nor can I see how they could be anything else, since we are a people who are involved in the texture of the American experience. And indeed, today the most dramatic fight for American ideals is being sparked by black Americans.


Significantly, we are the only black peoples who are not fighting for separation from the "whites," but for a fuller participation in the society which we share with "whites." And it is further significance that we pursue our goals precisely in terms of American constitutionalism. If there is anything in this which points to "black values" it must lie in the circumstance that we really believe that all men are created equal and that they should be given a chance to achieve their highest potentialities, regardless of race, creed, color or past condition of servitude.


The terms in which the question is couched serve to obscure the cultural fact that the dynamism of American life is as much a part of the Negro American's personality as it is of the white American's. We differ from certain white Americans in that we have no reason to assume that race has a positive value, and in that we reject race thinking wherever we find it. And even this attitude is shared by millions of whites. Nor are we interested in being anything other than Negro Americans. One's racial identity is, after all, accidental, but the United States is an international country, and its conscious character makes it possible for us to abandon the mistakes of the past.


The point of our struggle is be both Negro and American and to bring about that condition in American society in which this would be possible. In brief, there is an American Negro idiom, a style and a way of life, but none of this is inseparable from the conditions of American society, nor from its general modes or culture--mass distribution, race and intra-national conflicts, the radio, television, its system of education, its politics.


If general American values influence us; we in turn influence them--in speech, concept of liberty, justice, economic distribution, international outlook, our current attitude toward colonialism, our national image of ourselves as a nation. And this despite the fact that nothing which black Americans have won as a people has been won without struggle. For no group within the United States achieves anything without asserting its claim against the counterclaims of other groups. Thus, as Americans we have accepted this conscious and ceaseless struggle as a condition of our freedom, and we are aware that each of our victories increases the area of freedom for all Americans, regardless of color.


When we finally achieve the right of full participation in American life, what we make of it will depend upon our sense of cultural values and our creative use of freedom, not upon our racial identification. I see no reason why the heritage of world culture, which represents a continuum, [emphasis added] should be confused with the notion of race. Japan erected a highly efficient modern technology upon a religious culture viewed the Emperor as a god. The Germany which produced Beethoven and Hegel and Mann turned its science and technology to the monstrous task of genocide; one hopes that when what are known as "Negro" societies are in full possession of the world's knowledge and in control of their destinies, they will bring to an end all those savageries which for centuries have been committed in the name of race. From what we are witnessing in certain parts of the world today, however, there is no guarantee that simply being non-white offers any guarantee of this. The demands of state policy are apt to be more influential than morality.


I would like to see a qualified Negro as President of the United States, but I suspect that even if this were today possible, the necessities of the office would shape his actions far more than his racial identity. 
[emphasis added]


Would that we could but put the correct questions in these matters, perhaps then great worlds of human energy could be saved, especially by those of us who would be free.