On the Secret Joke at the Centre of American Identity
- Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison, edited by John Callaghan
Hamish Hamilton, 368 pp, £16.99, December 1999, ISBN 0 241 14084 6
Ralph Ellison wrote his own running commentary on the mammoth fiction he laboured over for the last forty years of his life and failed to finish. When his literary executor John Callahan appended some of these jottings to the end of ‘Juneteenth’, the ‘novel’ he extracted from two thousand manuscript pages, he gave Ellison the last word: the final note reproaches the editor from beyond the grave, along with the readers Callahan has invited into the unfinished structure. ‘Incompletion of form,’ Ellison wrote, ‘allows the reader to impose his own imagination upon the material with too little control from the author. Thus I don’t like to show my work until it is near completion.’ He was responding to an unfavourable reading of portions of the novel which he had shown to two of his friends, Albert Murray and the critic Anatole Broyard.
Ellison had good reason to feel troubled. Juneteenth is a set of fragments masquerading as a whole – a Frankenstein’s monster, Louis Menand called it in the New York Times – and the simple plot line that Callahan imposes for unifying effect violates the form Ellison imagined and failed to achieve in this disparate, untitled, unfinished work, several sections of which had already appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. Putting more of this material into print encourages the reader to consider the project as a whole. From one perspective Juneteenth literalises the death of the author – the alleged determination of the text by readers and critics – by expropriating the posthumous writings that appear under the authorial name. From another point of view, however, it testifies to Ellison’s power. For the essays, interviews and memoirs he published when he was failing to complete his second novel allow the reader to hope that the imagination he or she is now imposing on the material known as Juneteenth owes everything to the control of the author.
Juneteenth turns on the mysterious bond between Alonzo Hickman, former gambler and jazz trombonist turned preacher, and Bliss, a boy of mysterious parentage raised in the black church, who has fled North, passed as white, and become Adam Sunraider, the racist New England Senator. As Callahan has put it together, the novel begins with the failed effort of Hickman and his flock to warn Sunraider that a young black man is out to assassinate him. Organised as a set of flashbacks from the bedside colloquy between Hickman and the dying Sunraider, the rest of the novel fills in the history of the two men. If Callahan is right about the material now called Juneteenth, Ellison envisaged a racial melodrama that would put him in the company of Mark Twain (Pudd’nhead Wilson), James Weldon Johnson (Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man), William Faulkner (Light in August, Absalom! Absalom!, Go down, Moses) and Nella Larsen (Passing) – all of whom examined the meaning of American freedom as flight across the colour line. Like his predecessors, Ellison was entering the culturally charged territory of ‘racial passing’ – the attempt of non-whites to pass as whites. Against the downward pull of these classics of American literature, however, Ellison was looking for redemption. What led the author of Invisible Man (1952) to spend the last half of his life on a fiction about racial passing, and why couldn’t he bring it to an end?
Accused of avoiding his political responsibilities to black Americans, Ellison responded that he was giving his life to the novel. The burden he was bearing was the weight of an unfinished masterpiece, not the guilt of failing to produce political manifestos. But it turned out not to be so easy to separate the literary from the political vision. Between the politics he renounced and the fiction whose single triumph he could not repeat, stand the essays. Originally gathered together in two volumes, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), they were reissued with some additions in the Modern Library Collected Essays of 1995, the year after Ellison died. They return again and again to two intertwined questions: what materials does American history make available for American fiction, and what is the form that might transmute historical chaos into imaginative order?
From Nathaniel Hawthorne on the American romance to Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne to Lionel Trilling and Richard Chase staking out the ground for American exceptionalism in the postwar United States, the problem for the writer of American fiction famously posed itself as a deficit: ‘no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong’ (Ellison quoting Hawthorne in 1957); ‘no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army ... no literature, no museums, no pictures, no political society’ (Ellison quoting Trilling quoting James). But his predecessors saw absence, Ellison believed, only by averting their eyes from the American heart of darkness. Against Hawthorne he cited the ‘gloomy wrong enough both in the crime against the Indians and in the Peculiar Institution’ – the term for slavery. (‘What has cast such a shadow upon you?’ from Benito Cereno, Melville’s novella of a disguised slave revolt, is one of the epigraphs for Invisible Man; the answer to the question Hawthorne refused to ask is ‘the Negro’.) Against Trilling, Ellison quoted what James went on to say after the passage quoted by Trilling: ‘The American knows that a good deal remains: what it is that remains – that is his secret, his joke. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his natural gift ... “American humour”.’ The Jamesian joke played in The Aspern Papers on the intrusive biographer who fails to acquire a dead writer’s secrets resonates ironically through the publication of Juneteenth, but James and Ellison were after bigger game. What secret joke did they have in mind? And how could Ellison imagine making American humour out of the ‘gloomy wrong’ of slavery and Indian dispossession?
For James the answer to the first question was simple: an apparent American social freedom, the ability to change identities and create new selves, ends – from Daisy Miller to Portrait of a Lady to The Golden Bowl – in confinement. Against all the evidence, Ellison proposed that James had grasped the basis of that paradox in white freedom and black servitude. Although there may seem to be nothing amusing about this racial division, the United States created the first mass culture in the world, blackface minstrelsy, to have fun with it. Minstrelsy – originally whites masquerading as black – was the obverse of racial passing (blacks masquerading as white). In a country where the ‘one drop rule’ of racial descent legalised white hysteria about the mixing of bodily fluids, blackface gave whites the liberty to play with a fixed black identity, allowing them access to real and imaginary black emotionality and performance skills without, at the same time, freeing blacks. Blacked-up white men staged the grinning blackface mask as if it represented the authentic black, and Ellison’s friend Stanley Edgar Hyman was among those who were taken in. He thought that ‘the “darky” entertainer’ was an invention of black folklore rather than white supremacist fantasy; worse, he detected the influence of minstrelsy in Invisible Man. For Ellison, on the contrary, ‘this black-faced figure of fun is for Negroes a symbol of everything they rejected in the white man’s thinking about race, in themselves and in their own group.’
The blackface trickster turned racial confinement back into freedom, but only by restricting African Americans to the Jim Crow side of the colour line, for he played with minstrel caricatures rather than emancipating black people from them. When Brer Rabbit’s greed sticks him to the farmer’s tar baby trap, he persuades his captor to throw him back into the briar patch. One of ‘those old Negroes’ who ‘never left the old original briar patch’ was the hero of the novel Ellison was writing, he told his friend Albert Murray in 1959. ‘You can’t understand Lincoln or Jefferson without confronting them.’ Faced with a group of comically violent white-in-blackface clowns, the old Negro Hickman assures his light-skinned young charge Bliss that ‘when we laugh at them we can laugh at ourselves,’ but the boy wants ‘to make all the blackness go away’. What Ellison wanted was to free his people from ‘tar baby’ racial stereotypes without making all the blackness go away. Although he revealed in 1979 that a black-in-black-face comedian’s joke about a baby so black his mother couldn’t see him triggered the famous first sentence, ‘I am an invisible man,’ Ellison insisted that ‘the white stereotype of the Negro minstrel tradition’ was bad for black writing and black life. So Invisible Man’s black activist Tod Clifton, betrayed by the white revolutionary organisation in which he has placed his trust, sells dancing Sambo dolls on Fifth Avenue; he plays Sambo himself, ‘the darky entertainer’, until he successfully challenges an arresting officer to kill him.
Blackface was not confined to mass culture. Just as blacked-up whites imagined they spoke for blacks better than blacks could speak for themselves, so Ellison accused Irving Howe of ‘appearing suddenly in blackface’ when he claimed to know black experience better than the author of Invisible Man and lectured him on the sort of (protest) fiction he ought to write. Ellison also conducted a long-running battle with social science, which shared its blackface stereotypes with popular entertainers and literary intellectuals. Sociologists who thought they were repudiating the American roots of their discipline in biological racism nonetheless believed, according to Ellison, that white supremacists had successfully created Negroes after their own image of them. Liberal social scientists looked at slaves and their descendants and saw nothing but deficit and pathology; for them the Negro (Ellison’s word of choice in the face of Black Power and then of Afro-centrism) was an invisible man. That was his 1944 brief, which the Antioch Review refused to publish, against Gunnar Myrdal’s assertion, in An American Dilemma, that slavery had emptied out black men and women and left behind only failed imitations of white people; it was also his quarrel with Stanley Elkins’s Slavery (1959), which took the Sambo mask put on to protect slaves and mock masters as an accurate indicator of black inferiority; it was the source of his anger at Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Report on the Negro Family (1965), still an influential guide to public policy, which claimed that a black ‘matriarchy’ deprived young black men of paternal role models and drove them to crime.
Social scientists, literary intellectuals and blackface entertainers, Ellison believed, saw only imaginary Negroes, their own projected shadows. Their freedom to cross the colour line was obtained at the expense of blacks. Ellison wanted to use ‘the tradition of American literature’ to turn racial crossover inside out. If blackface was the wrong way to cross the colour line, was there a right way? As Ellison retold it, the joke that blackface played on Negroes, confining them to a primitive existence bereft of tradition, rebounded against all Americans, for minstrelsy put black people in the place that the United States occupied for Europe. In ‘Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke’ (1958), Ellison transformed the masquerade from a tool for denigrating racial division into a vehicle for liberating commonality, from a joke played on black Americans to one they shared with immigrants and natives, Yankees and pioneers. Since the Jamesian ‘joke at the centre of the American identity’ was that Americans replaced a stable sense of place with mobile assumptions of roles, then, instead of offering apparent freedom to whites and entrapping blacks in minstrelsy, the ‘joke’ could only be ‘the confounding of hierarchical expectations’ for both peoples: ‘America is a land of masking jokers,’ where ‘the “darky” act makes brothers of us all.’
On the one hand, role-playing was a protean form of freedom, which pointed up to Emersonian moral optimism about individual possibility and down to the Melvillean confidence man. (The protagonist of The Confidence-Man appears in blackface before taking on his other manipulative roles. He reappears in Invisible Man – Ellison was explicit about the genealogy – as Rinehart, the black hustler whose different disguises allow him to move freely around Harlem.) On the other hand (Ellison was writing under the influence of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Yeats, subtitled ‘The Man and the Masks’), the mask reached a substrate of common being, allowing the movement from ‘stereotype’ to ‘archetype’ (here Ellison invoked Faulkner), from ‘malicious reductions of human complexity’ to ‘abiding patterns of human existence which underlie racial, cultural and religious differences’. Far from confining the black novelist to his folk culture or demeaning misrepresentations of it, the mask gave him access to world literature. It allowed him to add to the ‘relatives’ like Richard Wright, to whom he was historically connected, the ‘ancestors’ like Eliot and Joyce whom he could choose for himself. ‘The Negro’s masking is motivated,’ Ellison wrote, ‘by a profound rejection of the image’ – blackface – ‘created to usurp his identity.’ Masking, then, was a resource for black creative freedom.
How should we understand the intertwined history of white and black in the United States in a way that, unlike minstrelsy, does justice to what black people made of the toxic and liberating mixture of slavery and freedom, equality and white supremacy? Underneath ‘our recorded history’, as Ellison put it in 1980, ‘our unwritten history looms as its obscure alter ego ... questioning even when not accusing its acclaimed double.’ The first ‘our’ in that sentence identified an American collective, the second one shifted to Ellison’s particular people. The difference between what he had thirty years earlier called America’s ‘ethical schizophrenia’ and the version offered in An American Dilemma was that while Myrdal and his collaborators wanted to extend what they called ‘the American creed’ to the damaged victims of white supremacy, Ellison knew that an unwritten struggle had already shaped his community, and that what had been repressed was the history of black achievement as well as black subjugation.
‘Going to the Territory’ laid claim to that history by challenging the myth that restricted frontier freedom to whites. Ellison was also alluding to Huckleberry Finn’s desire to ‘light out for the territory’ to escape racial dehumanisation, but although he admired Twain’s novel and found it symptomatic that Hemingway identified Huck’s language, but not his subject, as the origin of American literature, and although he was imagining Bliss and Hickman, the two protagonists of his own unfinished novel (we are getting there), as avatars of Huck and Jim, he could scarcely ignore the fact that Huck did not imagine taking Jim with him. Ellison’s parents, the children of ex-slaves, also went to the territory: Indian territory, Oklahoma, the frontier Ellison was sure Huck had in mind. They called their son after Emerson, and Ralph Waldo Ellison devoted an essay to the meaning of the name that his father, already dying when Ralph Waldo was only three, had given him. Growing up with the future jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and listening to the big band blues singer Jimmy Rushing, Ellison started to learn classical music at school and South-western jazz in the dance halls. It was in Oklahoma that he aspired to become a professional jazz trumpeter; there he would set Juneteenth.
Ralph Waldo Ellison rode the rails east to Tuskegee Institute and in 1936 went north to Harlem. Thanks to the American joke that confounds even the caste status which is meant to be the country’s one fixed point (its ‘lodestar’, as James Baldwin called it), the mystified young Ellison heard an educated argument about opera divas issue forth in black Southern vernacular from a basement in a Harlem tenement; what he discovered there were coal-heavers who played Egyptians in the chorus of a Metropolitan Opera production of Aida. (When Ellison told that story, he did not mention that his father had sold coal.) Falling victim to the American joke, the young Ellison embarrassed himself and his host Langston Hughes by laughing loudly and uncontrollably – stopping the Broadway show of Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre – at the sexual grotesqueries of white trash; the shock of seeing the blackface stereotype of physicalised excess transferred to poor whites tricked the elegantly controlled young man into re-embodying it. His first story, ‘Hymie’s Bull’, transformed his own frightening encounter with railway police into a tale in which he and other young black men remain safe inside a boxcar while a white boy named Hymie stabs a brutal ‘bull’ (railroad detective) to death. The writer was undergoing the apprenticeship which would lead him to change the American joke of race-mixing based on black confinement – slavery, minstrelsy, Jim Crow, lynching, forced sexual congress, residential apartheid, literary and political appropriation – into a cultural miscegenation that engendered black imaginative freedom.
As if the invisible man were ‘surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass’, those who approach him ‘see only ... themselves, or figments of their imagination’. He is the phantom these sleepwalkers want to destroy, and in order not to awaken them from their collective nightmare, the invisible man hibernates under the New York City streets. Tapping into the electric source of Monopolated Light and Power, he can illuminate his ‘hole in the ground’, listen to Louis Armstrong playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue’, ‘slip into the breaks and look around’. We are barely five pages into one of the great openings in the modern novel.
Invisible Man is, as James Wood has recently written, a negative Bildungsroman in which the protagonist imitates and rejects one identity after another. In spite of Ellison’s non-fictional celebration of the American Negro past, Invisible Man is his declaration of independence from all the models of black leadership (except musical) on offer during his coming of age. The Protestant philanthropist early on in the story and the Harlem ‘Brotherhood’ (Ellison’s name for the Communist Party) at its centre also discredit the enlightened white investment in black.
Looking back and around on his own odyssey is supposed to free the invisible man, prepare him to surface at the novel’s conclusion. But an enormous chasm separates the clear-sighted, bleakly funny, cool, nay-saying black-and-blue Prologue from the Epilogue’s forced affirmation. Even as he comes to realise that ‘one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming dull and grey,’ even as he sees that the ‘cream of the joke’ may well be that he was ‘part of them as well as apart from them’, the race relations in the body of the book offer no ground at all for propelling the invisible man into the light of day. Add race, and doesn’t the postwar cry of existential freedom – Malraux was a big influence – sound particularly hollow?
Yes and no. The burning and looting of Harlem that writes finis to the invisible man’s life underground, though it is based on the actual Harlem riot of 1935, pays homage – whether deliberately or not – to the burning of Los Angeles that had ended The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, which was published a dozen years before Ellison’s novel. Whereas West makes fun of the aesthetic object – in the form of ‘The Burning of Los Angeles’, the canvas that the painter Tod Hackett wants to preserve from the wreck – Ellison brings forth Invisible Man. Was he sanctifying art at the expense of politics, as Irving Howe charged? Or was negativity clearing the way for the black freedom struggle, in which he was, as he told Howe, ‘enlisted for the duration’?
Even if the end of Invisible Man does not quite carry conviction, there was no reason for Ellison to look back on his first novel as insufficiently political. Awakening from the nightmare of history, the invisible man goes forth to forge the uncreated conscience of his race; variants of Joyce’s words appear in Invisible Man and in the essays before and after it. But having written his portrait of the artist as a young man, Ellison could not produce his Ulysses. With its instant and long-enduring status as the most important postwar American novel (Ellison thought it praised beyond its merits), the first book came to bar the door to a successor. Only politics, too, was now getting in the way.
Ellison wrote against a pervasive theme in American black and immigrant fiction: the worry that successful upward mobility left one’s former self and people behind. Passing was one version of that negative identity in American literature; its double was ghettoisation-by-recognition, as when Time called the author of Invisible Man the ‘best of US Negro writers’. Then in the 1960s Ellison’s effort to marry black with American came under siege from the New Left. As the civil rights movement brought him closer to the ‘flawed white Southerner’, Lyndon Johnson, Ellison condemned those who, as he saw it, minimised the progress towards racial equality at home to protest against a distant war in Vietnam. Criticising writers like Lowell who refused Presidential honours during the war, he accepted an invitation to speak at West Point. Insisting on the American history of his people, Ellison attacked Black Power nationalism and anti-imperialist internationalism, and the adulation he received from white students on college campuses in the late 1960s contrasts with the challenges he faced from black militants. He had been close to the Communist Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but his Cold War trajectory had differed from that of other New York intellectuals because of his clearsightedness about race. What he did not want to pass as was the white man’s Negro.
Although the novelist rooted himself in Oklahoma City and Kansas City jazz, the popular sound of black America when he was coming of age, Invisible Man’s style is closer to bebop and cool, the music Ellison listened to in New York while he was writing the book. What is sure is that Ellison had no time at all for rock’n’roll and the ghetto culture that blacked up white America in the 1960s and beyond. Originally sustained by what he shared with his black community of origin, Ellison was becoming estranged from the contemporary forms of Afro-American expression. Invisible Man pointed to the modern future, but already in the 1950s its author was returning to his South-Western past. Unwriting his first book, he gave his new protagonist what the invisible man lacked, a traditional black authority. And whereas the invisible man’s identity is hidden behind his black face, Bliss/Sunraider changes the joke and slips the yoke by passing as white. Somewhere along the line Ellison imagined dedicating the unfinished novel – shades of Henry Adams in blackface – ‘To that Vanished Tribe into which I Was Born: The American Negroes’. The cool anger that powered Invisible Man was giving way, at least in the segments we have, to elegy.
Callahan decided on the title Juneteenth after the annual celebration commemorating 19 June 1865, the day on which, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the commander of the Union troops landed in Galveston, Texas and told the slaves they were free. Each subsequent year finds, as Hickman puts it, ‘a bunch of old-fashioned Negroes celebrating an illusion of emancipation, and getting it mixed up with the Resurrection, minstrel shows and vaudeville routines’. The showman Hickman stages his own Juneteenth commemoration, a call-and-response sermon in which the minister and his apprentice, Bliss, echo each other’s words. The ceremony climaxes with a special effect, the resurrection of the boy preacher from out of the coffin in which he has been hidden. It is an extraordinary piece of religious theatre, interrupted when a white woman rushes into the church, seizes Bliss from the coffin and claims that Hickman has kidnapped her child.
Although Hickman discredits her story, she initiates in the boy a longing for whiteness that intensifies to the point of hallucination when he sees Mary Pickford on the motion-picture screen – an epiphany which eventually leads him, by the route of small-time movie-making, to Washington. Musing on ‘the joke implicit in my being me’, the dying Sunraider asks himself: ‘what is this desire to identify with others, this need to extend myself and test my most farfetched possibilities with only the agency of shadows? Merely shadows. All shadowy they promised me my mother and denied me solid life. Oh yes, mirrors do steal souls.’
‘The Shadow and the Act’, the 1949 review of four race relations films that gave its title to Ellison’s first collection of essays, is a pun on the idea of shadow both as the motion-picture image and as the Negro phantom in the white psyche that motion pictures circulated to every community in the US. Juneteenth wants to explore the shadow of whiteness that takes Bliss through movies and away from Hickman. But the sermon at the centre of the novel achieves an intensity that the rest of the book cannot sustain. ‘How could he’ – Bliss – ‘have been my child, nephew and grandchild?’ Hickman wonders towards the end of the story, and the question seems to promise a Faulknerian revelation of mixed-race blood in the family, of interracial incest – Jefferson as the father of the Declaration of Independence, the inventor of a pseudo-science that denounced the ‘stain’ of black blood, and the progenitor of his wife’s half-sister’s mulatto slave children: the original sin at the founding of the United States. Instead, we learn a different myth of Bliss’s origins: his white mother had accused Hickman’s younger brother of rape to protect the actual father – white or black, Bliss and Hickman never ascertain – of the child she was carrying. Having borne the false witness that led to the lynching of Hickman’s brother and the death of his mother, she demands that Hickman act as her midwife and then raise her child as his own. Accepting the burden and giving up his trombone for the pulpit, ‘Daddy’ Hickman becomes the grandfather to the child who is not his brother’s, instead of siring any offspring of his own.
Juneteenth replaces the Faulknerian racial-Oedipal doom with an American uncertainty of origins, the dream of starting over and being a self-made man, the aspiration to become the father of oneself: ‘For Bliss the riddle of the Sphinx takes the form of his recognising that Americans are actors,’ Ellison noted. He was imagining ‘a novel about the rootless American type ... who become actors and confidence men’. Bliss ‘runs away from those who have provided him with completion’; ‘his scam ... has to do ... with the American’s uncertainty as to his identity as an area exploited by the movies and politics alike.’ Hickman reminds himself that he had ‘sought the end of the old brutal dispensation in the hope that a little gifted child would speak for our condition from inside the only acceptable mask’. But Bliss turned into Sunraider instead; like the narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. ‘Maybe it was all His plan,’ the preacher muses, ‘and little Bliss was the father to the man and the man was also me ...’ (The ellipsis is in the original.)
‘America remains an undiscovered country,’ Ellison said in 1967; it needs the novel to tell us ‘who we are’. Yet even as a writer who counterposed the expansive literary imagination to the confining sociological explanation, he could not give novelistic flesh to a vision so far from the society that called it forth. On the one hand, the Senator’s racist persona is largely absent. On the other, Ellison weighs Hickman down with a burden of virtue few fictional characters can bear. ‘Hickman, are you a ministerman or a minstrel man?’ Ellison asked himself, but the trickster who would have complicated the preacher’s character is barely hinted at in Juneteenth. Whatever might have been the effect of the Modernist panorama that Ellison failed to achieve, the reduction to a two-character relationship – though it produces some fine tension between Hickman and the young Bliss – fails to establish any convincing connection between Hickman and Sunraider. Too often hortatory or sentimental, their flashback monologues talk past rather than to each other. Ellison was aspiring to set down Bliss’s odyssey, ‘provide him with completion’, and have the old preacher bring him back home. But he knew he had not done the job.
When asked how the novel was coming along, the New York editor Ted Solotaroff reports, Ellison would answer that he was working on the transitions. But the jazz phrase reminds us that Invisible Man was also episodic, and that it was not the breaks so much as the overall conception which blocked Juneteenth’s completion. Ellison would surely have rejected the alibi that America’s racial history had proved too much for his fiction. One wonders, though, what he made of a minor eruption of that history into his creative life. Shortly before the appearance of Invisible Man, Anatole Broyard had published two articles in Commentary magazine celebrating Negro primitivism at the expense of black self-awareness. Broyard praised New Orleans jazz as the ‘spontaneous, unself-conscious tribal activity ... of the Negro reveller in his primitive stage’, a Sambo caricature worlds apart from the black-and-blue Louis Armstrong of the novel’s prologue. ‘The cool man,’ he went on, ‘moved from kinesthesis into dissociated consciousness.’ ‘Freezing up against the desire to be white,’ he explained, ‘the Negro musician as immigrant in white society’ played bebop ‘gibberish’ instead of hot jazz, and his ‘cool attitude has spread like a crop-killing frost through Harlem’.
‘Since the Negro usually cannot conceal his identity,’ Broyard continued, ‘he often hides from himself.’ But the author identified in an editorial note as ‘an anatomist of the Negro personality in a white world’ was busy concealing his own. Born black in New Orleans, Broyard was passing as white when he confined black jazz musicians to their origins. These diatribes helped launch his career as a prominent New York critic, for many years the daily book reviewer on the New York Times. If you want to understand Anatole, Solotaroff says, read The Confidence-Man. Broyard wanted to be known as a writer, not a Negro writer, but because he blocked off the truth about his past he could never complete the autobiographical novel on which he worked for decades. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr, he and his friend Ralph Ellison failed to complete the two most eagerly awaited books in New York.
Like Ellison, Broyard published fragments. Without revealing his racial secret, he wondered in one memoir whether his children would find him as embarrassing as he had found his parents, or whether they would ‘understand that, after all these years of running away from home, I am still trying to get back’. Yet even on his deathbed, Broyard could not bring himself to tell those children that he was born an American Negro – neither his son Todd, who bore the name of the character in Invisible Man who dies playing Sambo, nor the daughter whom he called Bliss. When ‘Anatole’ told Ellison he disapproved of the ‘proliferation of dreams’ with which Ellison tried to give his racial passer an interior – the objection to the unfinished Juneteenth with which Callahan ends the novel and I began this review – did Ellison suspect that his critic was imagining himself as Ellison’s double, the model for Bliss? Or am I hiding behind Broyard’s whiteface to evade what Ellison would actually now be thinking: that John Callahan has exposed him to yet another Irving Howe?
Vol. 22 No. 5 · 2 March 2000 » Michael Rogin » On the Secret Joke at the Centre of American Identity
pages 12-15 | 5486 words