Ralph Ellison American novelist and literary critic discusses his life and writing
BROADCAST: 1970 | DURATION: 00:00:01
Ralph Ellison, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for his book "Invisible Man," discusses his early life and education and his life as a writer and lifetime scholar. He speaks on being a musician (trumpet), the joy of music and the Church and how they fit into the lives of African Americans.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Seated somewhere in Evanston, at the University of Northwestern campus, across the table is the distinguished American novelist Ralph Ellison. In 1953 "The Invisible Man", his work, won the National Book Award. I hope we can talk to us tell us about a number of things, the novelist today, and his beautiful pieces I remember in the "Saturday Review" about Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer from Oklahoma City, I believe Mr. Ellison's hometown. And his piece his tribute to Mahalia Jackson, too. But this is all part I believe of the man himself, Ralph Ellison. "The Invisible Man" today, I suppose, is part of the American lexicon. I think in these years "The Invisible Man" has become a bit more visible, no thanks to the man who didn't see him, but to the Negro himself who has found a new sense of pride in himself and militancy. Now I'm assuming a great deal, I'm assuming this is what you believe, Ralph Ellison. Am I, am I off on this?
Ralph Ellison Well, not really, I - as to the last statement though, I would make a qualification. What often appears to be a new-found militancy is not so new, it's the- a question of timing. Sometimes when you have to, being militant means to withhold your forces, reserve, wait for the moment when you can be most effective. I think that the experience of Negroes we've been so aware of the- of our minority numbers, so to speak. Has- and I think knowing this, knowing where the power was, and knowing what the circumstances were, and knowing that that legally, segregation had the blessings of the Supreme Court. There wasn't too much one could do, except not accommodate so much but learn to live within the situation while keeping alive certain goals which are the American goals of equality and freedom.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, Mr. Ellison, this matter of, it has always been there and has never been, say, overtly expressed as today. Wouldn't this help explain what we call double talk or jive or the fact that, you know, throughout the years the jester has always been able to say things that he could not say straight, isn't this so, you know, the double talk involved? It was always there but because the time wasn't- you know the man who said it out would have been one way or another killed or deprived of job.
Ralph Ellison Yes. That's true. But I'm interested in something else, too, in this connection. When you really want a clue as to how mixed the modes were, you look at the blues, you listen to the blues and you heard what people have with great- I guess too much facility spoken of [mainism?] out of laughing to keep from crying was something else. As a blues is full of defiance and full of the desc- of descriptions of just how rugged life could be while at the same time through the the music, through the lyricism, through the verve which they express. They reveal that the people who are singing them were not defeated. Over and over again you read descriptions said "Well, when the Negro had the blues he felt bad, he felt melancholy, and he sang the blues", well this is, this is
Ralph Ellison That's only one part of it. The part of the the resonance of jazz, part of that which isn't overtly stated, grows out of what was considered fear but was really the attitude of men who knew what they were up against and who were still- who but who still hadn't given up. I mean this is the spirit of which has always been there.
Studs Terkel You know, talking as you are about the blues, I'll ask you in a moment about your memories of Oklahoma City, and of course one of the most marvelous blues singers of our time, Jimmy Rushing, who worked so many years with Count Basie's band, "Mister Five by Five" he was known as, but aside from that, and I hope later to ask you about your feelings about the novel, and critics today, and the world in which we live, and the creative man, but the blues. You said the blues also expresses the militancy of protest, also a joy. Blues can be triumphant, too, can't it?
Ralph Ellison Yes. Well, that's it, they are a form of triumph and they were what we had instead of a lot of political and social triumphs. This I think it's very important to understand this, now, so that what's what is being revealed by Negroes today will not be misunderstood. It's often said in the paper "Well, the Negro has lost his fear", well, he didn't have that kind of fear, you see. And and many people, some of them friends of mine, often say "Well, why didn't you rise up and just resort to violence?" So, well, that is too easy. That is too easy. They don't understand that the more heroic thing, the more militant thing, was to sustain oneself, keep alive the values, work until you could find some ways to do something effective about it. It's too easy to die, and Negroes have learned long ago that they could get their heads whipped and survive, so that, that isn't the thing.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, I think I immediate- course, a lyric comes to my mind, I think of Bessie Smith's "Young Woman's Blues", "I'm as good as any woman in this town." I paraphrased now, she said it much more beautifully or in "Backwater Blues", "This is where my house" but nonetheless she survived, a sentiment of survival.
Studs Terkel Well, wouldn't this explain, you know, in jazz, you know, and so often, and this is a truism, there's no- so often the white man takes a certain li- he's hip, but it came from this particular man who was a Negro. Jive talk, for example. Isn't this in a way hidden, a hidden language?
Ralph Ellison It's a hidden language, but a specialized hidden language. I think language, when it's alive, when it's vital, has to reveal a close connection between the actual reality in which the group of people lives, as against the official language. As languages, you know, American fictional prose, as well as the general language, has been much affected by the presence of Negroes, that the music of American speech owes quite a lot to Negroes, to the to the transplanted African, and to the- what he did with the English language in the south, and of course there's a great effect which the Negro had upon the language of southerners. But behind the language, I think, and that is the sense that the words, in certain words in the mouths of white men, did not reveal the reality which Negroes were actually living. And this was part of the impulse toward slang or toward the Negro idiom. I ,sometimes refer to the unwritten dictionary of American Negro usage because there is this great body of of language, much of which has become the property of anyone who is interested.
Ralph Ellison Sure.
Studs Terkel Well, as you're talking, Ralph Ellison, we should know more about the man himself, Ralph Ellison, writer, observer of the American scene. I should say that, we should point out that, this is a weekend, this will be played sometime after the event. Mr. Ellison's in Chicago at Evanston, I should say Northwestern University, part of a symposium on the price and place of order, basically, and his particular evening involved with himself and two colleagues, the artist and the world in which he lives. Who is Ralph Ellison? Oh, I remember that I know you came from Oklahoma City because of this beautiful article on Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer who came from Oklahoma City. Perhaps you can go back now.
Ralph Ellison Well, yes. Jimmy Rushing was a hero of mine from the time I was a young boy when I realized that Jimmy was not such- so old then as he seemed to me. Jimmy had worked for my father, who had a small ice and cold business before I was born. Jimmy's father owned a building which there were businesses, [one of them?] small office building and they also ran a small luncheonette where Jimmy used to prepare hamburgers and some of the best chili I've ever eaten, and his father also sold fresh fruits and so on. And this was located right next to the Aldridge Theater in Oklahoma City, really a Negro movie and vaudeville house. This was a house where I used to see King Oliver and Ma Rainey and
Ralph Ellison Well, not the Rabbit Foot people, but many others, although they might have come there too at some point. Ida Cox, most of the jazz group. You see, it's often said by critics who don't know that most of the musicians of the old Basie band, really the old Blue Devils band because that's where they got started in Oklahoma City in the 20's.
Ralph Ellison Walter Page, 'Hot Lips', Buster Smith, who was referred to often when Charlie Parker's name comes up, because Charlie Parker's style sounded very much like Buster Smith's, oh, any number - Jack Washington, any number of these people were around Oklahoma City in, oh, '29 or '30, including Lester Young. I knew him when he first came down there, Ben Webster was down there. This was one of the rich periods of jazz, not rich in terms of a lot of national publicity, but here were jazz orchestras and there were any number of them traveling regularly between Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston and so on, back and forth. These were what they call dancing towns. Tulsa, of course.
Ralph Ellison Oh, there were dancing towns and dressing towns and some gambling towns. But the- Oklahoma City was a dancing and a dressing town and the bands had real followings there. This was part of a total culture. There was - were any number of people who regularly attended dances at least once a once a week. And the bands were there to supply the music. The Blue Devils were made up of a lot of musicians. Well, any, let's say that about five of those musicians were conservatory trained. That's another thing that isn't understood.
Studs Terkel Could you just, by the way, perhaps you could just- and even though we'll detour a bit, Ralph, in talking, we always think, you know, of traditional jazz men of another period as being head musicians, that is untrained, yet these were conservatory trained
Ralph Ellison That's right. Walter Page and Icky Lawrence and Willie Lewis and 'Bucket' Coleman, to name only a few of these people, they had attended conservatories. They used to go into the pit of the Aldridge Theater and play the scores for the silent movies at sight, and some of these were intricate things, you know, arrangements of the classics. Page could do just about anything with any music, and so could these other people. So that's all a misconception. I once read that Charlie Christian knew nothing but guitar music. Oklahoma City in those days, especially the Negro-
Studs Terkel Perhaps you'd point out just to some of the listeners who may not be aware, Christian, perhaps one of the great, revolutionized the guitar where he worked with Goodman in the early days. Christian from Oklahoma City died much, much too young.
Ralph Ellison Yes, he was from a musical family, his father was a blind string bass and I think a he played a 12-string guitar. And all of the boys played, they used to go out into the white neighborhoods and play serenades and they played the light classics as well as folk music, blues, and so on, jazz numbers. But the school music program in Oklahoma City in the Negro schools had been started by Mrs. Zelia Breaux. And any kid who had any interest in an instrument could go and find out whether he wanted to go through with it. And many of your musicians got their training there. Charlie was one of them, his brother Edward who had many little bands, I used to play with groups, we used to play
Ralph Ellison Yes, I was a musician mainly, I didn't really get as far into jazz as some of the others because I went off to Tuskegee thinking I was going to learn to write symphonies, that's what I wanted to do.
Studs Terkel What did- can we just again, wander within wandering, we'll come back to Jimmy Rushing, Ralph Ellison, the writer, a distinguished man of letters in America. You worked- you knew these jazz men who became celebrated figures later on from this enclave in Oklahoma City. You writing now, you were thinking of being a composer, you were thinking in the world of music.
Ralph Ellison Yes, well this was because there were few writers in my community. In fact I knew of only one and that was Roscoe Dunjee, the editor of the Negro paper, was quite a great editorialist in the style of you know the old individual journalists who knew what the world was like as far as he saw it and who expressed it. And this man of course was ahead of most of us because he was a constitutionalist. And I've heard that all my life, that is, that you went to the Constitution to get your rights and you found ways of making it work for you. But I got my first sense of the artist's discipline not from knowing writers, but from knowing people like 'Hot Lips' Page and Jimmy Rushing and Walter Page and that whole crowd, men who were rehearsing all the time, even when they had no jobs to go to, but who were dedicated to their instruments, and they were making something alive and quite wonderful, and everyone who was interested in jazz, and most of the young kids were in Oklahoma City, and many of the older ones, they just went and they got the idea, "Well, this is a way you made something, by working on it and by doing what you said you wanted to do as though you really meant it."
Ralph Ellison A pride in craft and a pride in the ability to create something new, and through that creation to have an impact upon other people, people who felt better and who felt life, at least for the moment, was more promising.
Studs Terkel Funny as you're saying this, Ralph Ellison, I'm thinking of a very perceptive essay. It's quite a moving one, too, "Society, Morality, and the Novel" that I had read it just to catch up with Ralph Ellison in a paper book called a living novel. And what you're saying as the plight of these jazz men to these artists would apply, indeed I'm sure it does, to the novelist, doesn't it?
Ralph Ellison I think so. I think so. One of the things which was most striking about them is that although each one of them wanted to create something new, that is to forge a new style, as Charlie Christian was able to do, and as they- some of these men, most of them in ensemble did when they got into Basie's band, but the very interesting thing about the musicians of that time was that they wanted to do this not by leapfrogging the tradition, but by mastering it, and they listened to everybody. They listened to white musicians, they listened to classical musicians, they listened to the older Negro bands, they listened to Jelly Roll Morton, they listened to King Oliver, and they were listening to Louie. They were listening to the the Cotton Pickers--
Studs Terkel You know, we're getting latched on to this. There's something you just said, and I'm sure this has implications beyond jazz and I'm sure this applies to all forms of the arts, you said they were not leapfrogging tradition, but rather recognizing the very good of the past. Can you expand on this just a bit, perhaps even concerning the novel,
Ralph Ellison and everything? This [unintelligible]-- Well, I think that this is important. They were- they wanted to do something new and individual, to leave their own impact on it. But they realized they had to do it, not they had to earn the right to do it, they had to work through it. And thus you had the continuity of the tradition, and thus you had the individual musician discovering his own voice, his own way of expressing himself through that tradition. He extends it and realizes this himself, and I think the same thing happens in all arts until the publicity people got behind them and then they start trying to gimmick this thing up. Sometimes it turns around on them when they grab someone like Ray Charles, who just reaches out and and puts it all in a bundle and he makes it all work. But he is here again is one who has mastered the many traditions. What happens in fiction so often these days is that writers want to do something new and startling so they resort to extreme statement. They resort to, they raid the theater of the absurd, for instance, and bring it here where it started, which is most amazing to me. If- we don't have to go to the Europeans for the, to learn what to do with the absurd, we have it in the Marx Brothers, and the Ritz brothers and Charlie Chaplin, we have it in jazz, we have it in vaudeville, we have it in the blackface comedians and the minstrels, we are the people par excellence of the absurd.
Studs Terkel I want to ask you about this American tradition history of the absurd and also about the minstrel shows in Philadelphia recently, the why of this, and I think the audience should understand this fully. But you spoke of this seeking I think of this phrase 'seeking newness for newness' sake.' I remember some of these young jazz musicians not Charlie Parker or Gillespie who respected the past--
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Ralph Ellison Yes, yes. Well, it's just a misunderstanding and it comes out of, I mean, when we leave off the people who are just trying to forge gimmicks to make a lot of dough, it comes partially through the American tradition of not being tied to the past because this can happen, too, you're so busy trying to measure up to what has been done, or to reproduce what has been done, that you forget that your obligation is to make something which will reflect your own times and your own emotions with as much freshness as you can bring to it.
Studs Terkel Much freshness. And yet I remember this phrase, I know I'm paraphrasing, I don't remember your phrase in this essay "Society, Morality, and the Novel" you spoke somewhere toward the end. I'll ask you about this too, and critics, but the novelist, he tries somewhat to express the universality of man. I know I'm saying this wrong, and yet, toward the end you were speaking of the tradition of the novel, the 19th century, today, of how the critic categorizes and the novelist works out of the "fires of chaos"
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Ralph Ellison Yes. Well, I still stand by that. But I think that for the novelist, he must reach that universal statement through the specific, through reporting, through careful attention to the details, the emotions, the moods of his own time, and of his own particular place of origin. This is so often misunderstood by writers, they think that the only way to be universal is to go over and write about somebody else who has- who is of a higher station in life, or of a group which is politically freer or economically more affluent, but that isn't what I mean. I mean that once a writer really looks at human experience in all its specificity, then he begins to see wherein the human quality of man is expressing itself in particular forms. And when he can do that, when he can convey it, for the reader, then the reader begins to identify with it, he feels he has a way into experience which he might have been denied in actual living, but because the writer has been so true to the details and has seen them, believing, and I guess this is part of the writer's morality, that he must believe that all human life is sacred and that all human expression, all human uses of language is potentially useful, and that all human desires are basically the same, despite the ability of some individuals to achieve these desires and others having a total lack of the ability to do so, that the humanity, the common humanity is there, and his role is to make us aware of our common humanity within all of the diversity of the universe, of society.
Ralph Ellison Yes, yes, yes, I think so, that you don't just get this out of the air somewhere and say, "Well, this is it." You work through to it yourself. Only by putting your vision to a test by projecting it into into symbolic figures which are based, as I say, upon real situations, upon your sense of what it means to be a man in the world and through that as you test your vision through plot and character and atmosphere and dialogue and all the elements which go to make up a fiction. You decide what you are because you by testing your vision of reality you arrive a little closer to what actually is. You break through the illusion which you are bound to accumulate as you live.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, Ralph Ellison, I think I'm [early?], I want to return to some other subjects we were just touching - we will. It's five paths and devious routes but back - come - I want to stick to this essay, your feelings about the novelist and what you just said. At the beginning of this essay, I remember you spoke of critics who, by virtue of their work, categorize and seek form as ways of, this is their way, they describe, they label, these are the novelists, the creative works, and this phrase used "in the fires of chaos."
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Ralph Ellison Well, chaos because when you start really thinking about any form of experience which is- has abided for a while, when you take it into your mind, into your imagination, you're breaking it down. You are abstracting it. There's no doubt about it, you're taking it out of context and you're throwing it into the world of your own emotions. That is chaos. But as you do this, you are apt to be asking, "Well, what really, what do people really feel? How do they really act? How do I really feel about events? How do I really feel about these values? How do I feel about, how do these slogans, these ideals which we talk so much about, really look when we examine them as they are made real or not made real, in our conduct?" And once you do that, then you've got it in the old fire. The critics can't help you there because you are trying to create an image of reality which they will have to confront. They can offer you suggestions and so on, but they cannot descend into that fire with you. It's a kind of, somebody has said, "a reason to madness", I forget who it was. But when you think of a [writeup?], of a- well, now we know about Hemingway, don't we, after his brother and his sister have written these books of what his life was like when he was a young boy and a young man, the conflicts with the family. We know that he was living through a kind of chaos, that the impact of his falling out with his parents cost him a lot of pain. And we might say that they were as dramatic or even more traumatic than his being shelled in Italy. And he goes in the early stories and some of the first novels, he went back to that experience again and again, back into that chaos of emotion and lostness and pain which which gave him his sharpest feeling about what it meant to be a man. And through that chaos, by shaping it into form, by projecting it into characters, by building it, by attaching it to the tales of reality which lay outside of himself and then- and I guess the way that he did this most effectively was by attaching it to the forms which the great masters of literature had forged for dealing with chaos.
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Studs Terkel made. Yet today, now we come to today, and this probably, even though this is, this program will happen, it will take place- be heard by you a week or so after the event itself, on the night after this particular interview, Ralph Ellison, Dwight Macdonald, Harold Clurman will speak of the artist in the institutionalized society. Yet today, because the world is so impersonal, or seems to be so impersonal, this personal statement is more and more difficult to make, isn't it?
Ralph Ellison Well, I don't think so. I think that it's- I think that this is one of the stances that writers have fallen into, and it doesn't really hold, because we know that the moment that a book comes along which effectively describes some of what people actually feel, and which gives them, which depicts symbolically life as they actually feel it, they respond to it, because it orders the chaos of the world, of society, for them, and they say, "Well, this defines my situation. This defines exactly how I feel." And we see this happening all the time, that some writers feel that their personal worlds are all that counts, and I'm saying something else, I'm saying that their personal worlds plus the world outside of themselves, and they mediate between these two worlds, and when they do it effectively, I'm not talking about perfect forms, I'm talking about a certain basic grasp of the tonalities of a time, of the personality types of a time, of the basic issues of a time, when this is done, people will come to it.
Ralph Ellison I feel it myself. I feel it myself. And when I read a writer who has actually gotten a bit of it, I don't read him analytically at first, I'm taken along because this is a desperate thing. We all have a stake in reality. We really want to know what it's like. I think that this is why we honor certain jazz musicians or musicians of any kind, but especially those who improvise, who finally hit something that's it, I mean this is life-giving!
Studs Terkel You said why we honor certain jazz musicians, though I don't know if you knew him, a friend of mine who died a few years ago, Big Bill Broonzy, the blues singer. A comment made about him by again a mutual friend. It was a eulogy for Bill, he says, "Bill revealed himself." This phrase he said--
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Ralph Ellison Yes, he must be, must reveal himself in rendered forms and there is a mystery there and it's no point in going to him said, "Oh, God, this guy hated his mother" or something because that isn't what's happening. Whatever caused the impulse toward creation, it only works when it has been impersonalized becoming- by becoming literature, by being reduced to form. And this is what we like so much about a jazz musician. And as we were saying about the blues earlier, the guy who was singing the blues might be feeling bad, but on the other hand he might be feeling very good, but what stands between us and his private emotions is what he makes of those private emotions.
Studs Terkel Texas, and says he learned so much from sitting outside of churches, Negro churches. I'm sure this is true with- by process of osmosis. But in his case, he too, you knew when he felt kind of bad or good. At the same time, there was the artist's detachment.
Ralph Ellison Surely, artist's detachment, the artist's technique, the artist's knowledge of tradition. When these things work, I don't pretend to know all of the mysteries of them, I certainly don't, but he is most effective himself when he is able to project into the great forms, and this is another thing which I think might be interesting to mention at the moment, is that the one reason why the musicians who are closer to the tradition become bigger musicians and make a greater impact than a lot of the more recent jazz where one man is trying to do something totally new as as a gimmick or as a thing in itself, is--
Ralph Ellison That's right. When you have a great master of the tradition who is also a rich human being himself and who through his experience and his art when he speaks he is speaking on, he's standing on the shoulders of other men who were doing, who had done the same thing. So he, you don't simply hear Jimmy Rushing when you hear him sing "How Long" or "Goin' to Chicago"; you hear Leroy Carr, you hear you hear Mamie Smith, you hear Bessie, you hear Ma Rainey, you hear a lot of those old country blues singers who used to be blind men, tired women walking along the streets with bundles of clothing on their heads, you hear a lot of people, you hear a lot of experience rendered by an individual who has passed it through his emotions and through his study and and out it comes. So he has a chance to be more authentic than a guy who does not have the rich personality, or if he does have a rich personality, an interesting personality, I'm speaking of the younger man who's trying to do that thing for itself, but he doesn't have enough to put into it. And you can only get that by living and by getting it- the lives of other people as passed down through styles and through tradition.
Studs Terkel I think, Ralph Ellison, that at this moment to me, certainly to me, at least, you're saying this is the secret of the artist's training no matter what the field he is in, you used the phrase earlier "those who would leapfrog tradition", Jimmy Rushing never leapfrogged tradition, tradition was, he's part of the very continuity of--
Ralph Ellison I used to talk with Jimmy about that. And of course his parents were religious and business people, his father was, and they didn't look too kindly on some of his blues work. His playing for dances, he was doing this when he was in kneepants, I understand. But something real was speaking to him through the music and he went where that music was because this was alive. I've always admired him for that and long before I really got so that I could talk to him as a, as an equal of a kind, when I was a little boy and he was the man who came to town once in a while from junkets to California to Kansas City, nevertheless this symbolized that kind of independence and a kind of freedom and, yes, a kind of integrity, because he did what he wanted to do within all of the pressures of the community, of his particular part of that community. This is very important for any young kid who is living in a community and he sees people of various kinds and many types of values are being pushed toward him and recommended. [Whap?] The sound of authenticity, the sound of life was always with Jimmy Rushing. Now the other thing to be said about him I did touch some of this in my book, I mean in my little piece on Jimmy, is that Jimmy was a lyrical tenor. He was a ballad singer as well as a blues singer. There was not this easy marking off of tradition. America is a pluralistic society and its culture is usually pluralistic when it's richest when it's most vital. And he was singing love ballads--
Ralph Ellison That's right, all of this stuff was coming in and he was listening and he said he used to listen to the people playing the records in the alley, he used to listen to them playing the pianos and guitars across the street from where his father had his business. He was absorbing all of this but he was also, remember, at the same time he was listening to the classics. These were all around. It sometimes- critics who don't think too much got the impression that American Negro life is absolutely segregated and that we aren't allowed to listen to anything except jazz or maybe the blues or maybe the spirituals.
Ralph Ellison That's right. Here they are. At Tuskegee I was handling Prokofiev manuscripts. And I'm sure there were very few Prokofiev manuscripts in the United States but because Hazel Harrison who used to be in Chicago years ago was studying with Patrie. I mean with, yes, with Busoni in Germany and got to know Patrie, got to know Patrie and Prokofiev and she had their manuscripts.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, you were talking earlier about Jimmy Rushing and his family, parents who were devout people probably objected to his blues. These were considered sinful songs, secular songs that come to the other aspect that we- as you point out, many Negroes were conversant with the classics and were there with serious music and symphonies and concertos. But we think of the two main streams, if you will, of Negro- Negroes' original contribution to America and that has made our own country so, in fact our only contribution really original is, would be jazz, and it's two roots, blues and the spirituals. We spoke of Jimmy and this was true, isn't it, in many homes, I suppose, the- Bill remembers that his guitar was not al- his sister was not allowed to bring the guitar in the house.
Ralph Ellison There was a split, was there not? Well, there was a split, you had people who were quite devout, and this had become a, well, in reacting to the stereotyped idea of Negro morality and so on, that we were not quite human and that we were hedonistic and given toward physical excess and so on, a lot of people, Negroes, denying this became quite defensive about it. That's one thing, but on the other hand they were afraid of what was released in jazz and in the blues. It wasn't simply that it was associated and maybe it was only associated with prostitution and so on in New Orleans, it wasn't simply that, but that this opened up possibilities of life which were chaotic in themselves because there was no particular promise guaranteed to the blues people, to the blues singers and the people who loved jazz, and who lived a non-religious life. They just took life as it was. But the others had this guarantee of heaven, and to listen to this music and to go into the, I should use a Greek term here, but I won't, not that it's, 'Dionysian' physical exaltation of jazz was rather frightening, and it was not only frightening to Negroes, it was frightening to most white folks.
Studs Terkel And yet in church, no, at the end of a hard terrible week of working for whoever he may be, Mr. Charlie, the phrase is, or Miss Ann, or working for the man downtown, a week in which you say nothing and you're pretty well exploited, there's Sunday. And aside from the Saturday night for those interested in the blues and the secular life, on Sunday morning isn't there tremendous release and holiness churches? I'm leading up, of course, to Mahalia eventually.
Ralph Ellison Yes. There was a tremendous release, a feeling of communication as well as communion which was very, very important. And it's an important part of any life, and when we do not have that, that's where you get a lostness which money doesn't cure. And this is one of the things that America suffers from. And one of the things which makes me worry when I see it being lost from Negro life.
Studs Terkel Vitality.
Ralph Ellison The vitality, not so much the vitality, but the communion, the coming together for purposes which takes the members of the group out of themselves and make them part of a larger unit, a larger unit of experience. This is very important. This is what great drama tries to do. This is what great dance tries to do, and this is one of the great motives for ritual and we have had that. But I would look on the other hand at this, that sometimes the same people, at least in Oklahoma during Jimmy's days out there and my- all of my day out there. Some of the same people who went to the dances Saturday night and had that tremendous release of dancing, of listening to music, of drinking the liquor, or smelling it and smelling the perfume, the perspiration, all of this atmosphere of vitality and togetherness and transcendence in a way, would go to church the next morning, you see.
Studs Terkel You know, there's something in line with what you're just saying something you said, "in danger of being lost, you see, even among the Negroes" you now are referring to the fact that as middle class values are coming into play--
Ralph Ellison Not only the economic deprivation, but the attitude toward life, the sense of command, the inheritance of values, there are a lot of factors operating and what we mean when we say middle class and it's usually used as a negative term when we know that there would be very little art in this country or in the world if not for the support of the middle class and I think I don't like to use that because it's bad enough when it's used about whites in certain references, and it certainly has very little meaning to Negroes.
Ralph Ellison Yes, and this loss, well, this feeling that what someone else has is always, is necessarily better than what you have. That is it's going to cost something to end segregation, and it's- I don't mean just struggling in the streets or in the courts or even enduring violence, I don't even mean bombings. This- and these things are horrible. I mean a loss of a sense of being in the world, of knowing where you are in the world, because many many Negroes have not bothered to find out what the larger society is like in its values and in its basic motives. We know something about what it's done to us, but we don't always see what it's doing to those who are not Negro.
Studs Terkel Now, I got to make something clear. This is a very delicate and sensitive point you're touching. This whole matter of this world outside, we know, and we know that, for example, say among actors, there's been a discrimination against Negro actors and is to a large extent very much so today. We know that [unintelligible] hope someday even now you see a model now and then, a Negro model, involving a television cigarette commercial. Now the question someone'll ask is, "Why? The commercial as lousy as is", and I will make my position clear. He has as much right. Let him get one step, you know, he has as much a right to make a living for the wrong things as the white man does, eventually. But don't you feel, with the- I will ask you this before I ask you about church music itself and Mahalia, wonderful article. Won't that be a change of our own values with what is described as a Negro revolution? Won't the values of our country, aside- won't they of necessity change themselves innately?
Ralph Ellison They will certainly change as we become more honest through confronting what, that is, confronting some of the wrongs as they affect Negroes and as we confront- no, I'm sounding like a white man, you know, as non-Negroes confront their own involvement with this particular injustice, but there is no guarantee that the larger American values which Negroes share with all other Americans are going to be improved unless we insist that they be improved. And what I am asking for, I mean what I would like to see, is I'd like to see my own people, while remembering the struggles and the injustice, will realize that part of the degeneration of values in the United States comes precisely through this debasement and so that it has a a reflective action upon all American values. Our inability to deal forthrightly with serious problems, our need to tell ourselves lies about what we really are and how we really act, all of this goes far beyond us, but Negroes can participate in that kind of thing just as any other group of Americans can. But I think that for people who have suffered as much as my group has suffered, that when a group has suffered as much as this group has suffered, they take on an obligation not only to themselves, but to the entire society. This is one of those strange twists. We cannot debase what we have endured and what our parents and grandparents endured by accepting things as they are, by accepting that which is shoddy in the culture. We really should insist upon it improving. Not that we are better, but we know the cost of corrupt values. We know because we have suffered it. We have lived it. We have paid a price and I think that this is a sacrificial price which was paid by Negroes against their wills for the debasement of values within the United States.
Studs Terkel Lived it. At this point earlier, about our values, other values basic might change because of what is happening now. See if I could put this another way- the deceitfulness practiced by a majority group, the deceitfulness, the double standard used, if that eventually is eliminated with total civil rights, you know, and at least he will have, the Negro will have the same right as the white man does, the same right as the white man does this in this society, the fact this deceitfulness is gone, wouldn't that by some crazy process open doors to other kinds of deceitfulness, oh, TV com- whatever it is will go too, I mean.
Ralph Ellison Well, one hopes but I know that this isn't necessary because I've seen Negroes operating, I see some of them operating today, when they're right in the middle of it, and why not? They are Americans. These are the accepted values. These are the goals. So you make it while you can. There are some of these operating within the Negro freedom movement. This is known. So--
Ralph Ellison Well, I think this, as we said earlier as we confront the existence of injustice and corruption and we have a chance to be a little bit more honest about other areas of our lives, when we for instance now we have dropped the idea that you can get equal education in unequal schools. Gradually, some of the educators, though not all, are beginning to realize that the tests through which they have measured the intelligence of Negro kids from the south were not fair tests to these kids since these kids were not familiar with the details of an urban white middle-class environment. So if we go through, if we're consistent and far-ranging, this revolution centered around the Negro protest movement can become a revitalizing factor through life, through American life as a whole. I would expect, I had hoped, that many white southerners would become involved in this in a creative way because I feel that so much of the creative energy of the white south has been aborted because every time they start thinking about something, every time they start thinking about something new, chances are they're gonna run up against the Negroes I think this there's that Negro. If I do this, well, what's, what are the Negroes going to do? It's always- they're as much fascinated by us as we have been fascinated by them, except in their case they had the power, but they could not escape this concern. We see it what's happening in Congress, trying to shake these bills out of these committees.
Ralph Ellison I know. I know, this is one of the most ironic situations in the world. And yet, if a good number of white southerners are able to free themselves of worrying about Negroes, think of how much creative energy which could be released in this country.
Studs Terkel This I suppose is the waste. Remember Ruby Dee, seeing her at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial during that Freedom March in Washington, the gathering. She was saying she was looking at the crowd of more than 200 thousand, she said, "It's the waste of time. How beautiful is the waste." I think it's the word
Ralph Ellison Yes
Ralph Ellison Yes. Yes, it can be. There is such a horrible waste and one of the great problems of a young kid growing up in the south is not to be dominated by that particular formulation. Not because he wants to escape being a Negro, and not because he wants to run away from his responsibilities to his group, but because he has to find other ways of looking at himself. He has to find some way of evaluating himself which is not based upon this obsessive concern with race.
Studs Terkel Ralph Ellison, I come to another, it's connected, I think of the Negro church. The church has always been so much a part of Negro life, more than just a way, you know, a center, an organ for religious worship. But more than that, the church, the social center of it all, I think of course of your piece on Mahalia Jackson, our gospel-singing friend and spiritual singer
Ralph Ellison Well, the church was the largest institution which we had and the most vital during slavery. It was about the only one which could be recognized. And as you said, combined many functions which were not properly those of the white church of the time, white churches of the time. And still today, if you look for the best Negro drama the best Negro dramatists you'll find that they are Negro preachers. It takes place on Sunday and it's a drama which is tied up with man's deepest fears, and his hopes, and so on.
Ralph Ellison No.
Ralph Ellison No, there's no accident. And there's no accident that for all of the corrupt Negro preachers who sold their congregations down the river under the pressure of the south, the Negro preacher in the south as in the north has, nevertheless, always been connected with the realities of social life. They can tell you much more. A Negro preacher who is really doing his job, who through his consulting with people during their illnesses and death and birth and economic difficulties, he knows much more, much much more about how Negroes really live than any Negro novelist that you will ever meet.
Studs Terkel Ralph, you are a creative man, a novelist, a writer. You deal with poetry, the word, the Negro preacher, the sermon. I guess there's no figure on a platform who has really his poetry, his eloquence, cadence, call-and-response, [unintelligible] how, I mean I suppose again anthropologists ask, how did this come to be, this particular use of imagery?
Ralph Ellison Well, it's folk poetry and part of it goes back to the inheritance of the language. This is Shakespearean, this is a 19th century oratorio, all of this moved right into the Negro church. Remember before Mark Twain, Americans were for the most part, except on the eastern seaboard, they were, the language which they responded to most was an oral literature. So the Negro got part of that from the general culture. I won't argue with the anthropologists who say that the call-and-response pattern comes out of Africa. Perhaps so. But it didn't have to come out of Africa.
Studs Terkel No, no, I'm trying to say something else. You spoke of oral literature. And this is not meant to denigrate the white preacher, but the fact is, I mean there are some rare exceptions among white evangelists, of course, who are quite marvelous in their own way for reasons they are all quite marvelous as actors and performers. And yet, the white preacher you know, as such, is no match for the Negro preacher. I mean, they both work from a pulpit.
Ralph Ellison Yes.
Ralph Ellison I see what you mean. Well, that's part of a tradition where people did not have shows, they didn't have theater, a lot of things were lacking within the Negro community, and on the other hand you had among a basically illiterate people a strong liking for drama, for action, and for language. Negroes have always in this country been great manipulators of language. This is one of the things--
Ralph Ellison Yes, like the Irish. You know, Lafcadio Hearn reported in the 1870's that when he was in Cincinnati that he was invited by a couple of Irish policemen to come and hear the best singing of Irish songs and Irish dialect that you could find in Ohio, and they went into a Negro joint, and this is in, collected in his miscellaneous papers--
Ralph Ellison They said that they went in there and there were some Negro dockworkers. Well, of course, we were mimics, and the other thing about this is a question of social snobbery. When you're down at the bottom you don't have it, so you don't erect defenses against taking from any body anything that you like, any sound that you heard, any phrase, phrasing of language you like, the [how? hell?], you took it. This is good. This is the great freedom, the great creative freedom that folk artist always have, so some of this was going on in the church. And this, part of this comes out of the Hebrew Bible, it comes out of the Old Testament, and these stories are dramatic in themselves, and taking the strong identification which my enslaved people were making with a people that had once been enslaved, this also enrichens language. This was emphatic. This was, it demanded imagination, so you had this richness and you had the other thing, I know we want to get around to Mahalia, you had the singing as an integral part of the ceremony. And it was a group thing where everyone took part. Usually spurred on by someone who was expert at singing, who was a specialist, so to speak, to use the anthropological terms, I guess, you would have a person like Mahalia who is a kind of priestess, who is--
Ralph Ellison She was a priestess in the Negro church and is just as Bessie Smith was a priestess when she got among, when she sang the blues among a lot of those people who really knew them and felt them, and so she stood there and evoked these emotions, evoked these images, evoked this sense of life. This is a very, very important thing, and, of course, this woman she just knocks me out. She knocks me out as Madame Schumann-Heink used to knock me out when I was a little kid. There's something that sounds through the voice, this is something which goes beyond mere technique and elegance of phrasing, although she has all of these things.
Studs Terkel It's interesting as you say that, I remember that again that memorial, foot of the memorial there. Reverend King asked her to sing, "I've Been Buked and I've Been Scorned." And she did. And yet she was doing this and she was in good- she was in great form that day. It felt good. The airplane was flying low, you know. And the sun was rather strong and you could just see her actually looking up at it and singing it down, and she didn't, of course, and people just rose and they waved their handkerchiefs. It was quite a moment.
Ralph Ellison Oh, that's wonderful. I remember seeing her taking part in the emancipation celebration at Washington and she sang "America." I saw it on television and I remember how when she came to the end, she sort of lowered her head and raised her hands as a gesture of finality. It was one of the most wonderful gestures I've ever seen. About that same time I was at a conference with a number of Negro college people, administrators and so on, and they were quite critical of having Mahalia Jackson sing on this occasion. I said, "Why?" "Well, she's not a good musician." I said,"What do you mean, she's not a good musician?" "Well, she has no training and she didn't sing America in the way that it should have been sung." I said, "Now, look, if emancipation means anything, and if the celebration means anything, then Mahalia Jackson of all people has a right to sing "America" the way she feels.
Studs Terkel Since you mentioned this story, quite a good one too, Ralph, I must ask you this. I remember I was writing Mahalia's continuity for radio approach she was the first Negro on this particular network at the time, and a young Negro disc jockey in town came up to me, he's sorry it's Mahalia. "What do you mean?" He wishes it were Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughan or Dorothy Dandridge and of course it hit me immediately that he was falling victim to the very stereotype. [Unintelligible] that's an interesting point.
Ralph Ellison Horne.
Ralph Ellison He was ashamed of Mahalia just as I remember somewhere in this town in Chicago. They did a film called "The Cry of Jazz" which was an attack by some Negro intellectuals on whites as having killed jazz. But and they were doing this to sell the idea that they- that somehow we Negroes were superior, which is all right for me. I'm amused. I like to see people shocked, I don't believe that any one group of people is superior naturally, but the thing about the film that these fellows made was that it was so incompetent. And I don't- it was too- just so incompetent that you wondered why they had the nerve to make these statements while disproving them so dramatically. But the other thing I noted about their film was that they showed Negro churches with people singing and women in great emotional exaltation and expressing religious fervor. But the music they were playing was not that that you would hear Mahalia Jackson or hear in the actual church, it was some very poor played bebop. This again rather amazed me because if they were really proud of themselves, they would have let that that actual sound come out.
Studs Terkel I think, isn't it so, though, I think of this, he was rather- he was pretty good. He was fairly hip in jazz and he was articulate guy. But I- don't you feel he was a victim in a sense of the Anglo Saxon stereotype of himself, in a way, he was accepting it.
Ralph Ellison I guess he was, but I don't know why he would get all confused like that. I don't know whether he was making a musical judgment or his judgment as to feminine beauty, Mahalia Jackson is a beautiful woman.
Ralph Ellison Well
Studs Terkel But [this?] in itself is I suppose is disappearing even among these kids because there were young guys that used to walk out on Big Bill's blues because they thought they were too raw, they don't even want to be reminded of this.
Studs Terkel No, but see, you are different. I mean, you knew Jimmy Rushing, you came from this community. And I suppose- I want to come back to you. I don't know why I should say this, you should. I want to ask about you. How did you become, where did your whatever it was, that urge come from, to write, say, to be the writer?
Ralph Ellison Well, I always loved to read, and my father was a great reader, although he died when I was three. The books were around, a young kid watching him spending a lot of time poring over books and newspapers and magazines. This must have had some impression. But I as a young kid dreamed a lot. Loved to be told stories, loved to read, and found a way of extending my environment. I wouldn't have known how to have said that, but I did through reading, and my mother was always bringing home books and magazines as she brought home classical phonograph recordings from places where she worked. This was just a kid responding to something and having a feeling for words, but I never thought of writing anything. I used to, well, I remember when I was about 14 I bumped into Bernard Shaw's "Prefaces" and I rather admired what this man could do with words. It just seemed beautiful, the handling of ideas and ideas which were somewhat unusual to me. This must have started building an admiration for writers which I didn't recognize, but by the time I came to New York intending to go back to Tuskegee and conclude my studies there in music, I was asked by Richard Wright, who had just come from Chicago to New York, to review a book for him. I had gotten into his- onto him by reading T.S. Eliot. At Tuskegee I blundered into "The Wasteland." I couldn't understand it, so I started reading books which could explain it to me. And this led to other poetry and other fiction and so on. I was not an English major and then I started looking for certain modern techniques, certain expressions of modern sensibility in the work of Negro writers and I found this in a poem by Richard Wright and I asked who he was. And someone said, "Well, he's coming here." So I met Wright and at his suggestion wrote my first book review and my first short story, and then I left New York and went out to Dayton, where I had nothing to do. My mother died out there, and there was no work. So I used to spend my time reading and trying to write.
Studs Terkel You know, in your essay on the novel you said something here about the novel is the most rational way or am I, I hope I'm not misquoting you here, "the most rational way of explaining our irrational life."
Ralph Ellison Well, if I said that, I must have been riffin' over my head. But I think that does say something that it's like. It is a most rational way for dealing with the irrationalities of existence and indeed it's true. It is one way, one form of defining the actual values of the human experience.
Studs Terkel As you're saying this, we've gone, it's oh, in the evening of Friday night. We look outside, it's somewhere in Evanston, and I've been holding you for quite a while, Ralph Ellison. We think of "The Invisible Man" your National Book Award-winning novel, your short stories, your comments, your reviews of jazz artists, blues artists, spiritual singers. Any projects with you right now that you care to talk about, or an idea that's--
Ralph Ellison Well, no, there's this long novel which will be completed and I hope published sometimes this year. There is a book of essays which will include some of the jazz essays which will come out this year. Last week I--
Ralph Ellison No, Random House. Last week I did a lecture at the Library of Congress which I can't talk about, you're restricted on that for a few months, but it will be published by the Library and made available. Oh, and that's about it. I have a--
Ralph Ellison Well, just this, it has to do with the question of memory and the will forgetting for forgetfulness which seems to be so typical of Americans and it's an attempt to arrive at what is really human and valuable in our lives beyond questions of race and class. It has to do with Negroes and whites and some who are neither. And if I can make it work as a novel, then it will have some interesting sections. Some of them have been published. One long section, "Hickman Arrives", was published in "The Noble Savage" which Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford and Jack Ludwig established some years ago and another part appeared last spring in the "Partisan Review." There are any number of sections which are ready for publication, but I don't want to reveal them because it'll destroy the--
Ralph Ellison Surprise.