from Ralph Ellison's "Going to the Territory"
for our September 19 session in Stillwater: "Is 'Diversity' Enough?: Strategies for Inclusion on Campus and Beyond"
“[N]o matter how we choose to view ourselves in the abstract, in the world of work and politics Americans live in a constant state of debate and contention. We do so no matter what kinds of narrative, oral or written, are made in the reconstruction of our common experience. American democracy is a most dramatic form of social organization, and in that drama each of us enacts his role by asserting his own and his group’s values and traditions against those of his fellow citizens. Indeed, a battle-royal conflict of interests appears to be basic to our conception of freedom, and the drama of democracy proceeds through a warfare of words and symbolic actions by which we seek to advance our private interests while resolving our political differences. Since the Civil War this form of symbolic action has served as a moral substitute for armed warfare, and we have managed to restrain ourselves to a debate which we carry on in the not always justified faith that the outcome will serve the larger interests of democracy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out, and when it doesn’t, the winners of a given contention are likely to concern themselves with only the fruits of victory, while leaving it to the losers to grapple with the issues that are left unresolved.
[…] [after the Civil War] Having won its victory, the North could be selective in its memory, as well as in its priorities, while leaving it to the South to struggle with the national problems which developed following the end of Reconstruction. And even the South became selective in its memory of the incidents that led to its rebellion and defeat. Of course, a defenseless scapegoat was easily at hand, but my point here is that by pushing significant details of our experience into the underground of written history, we not only overlook much which is positive, but we blur our conceptions of where and who we are. Not only do we confuse our moral identity, but by ignoring such matters as the sharing of bloodlines and cultural traditions by groups of widely differing ethnic origins, and by overlooking the blending and metamorphosis of cultural forms which are so characteristic of our society, we misconceive our cultural identity. It as though we dread to acknowledge the complex, pluralistic nature of our society, and as a result find ourselves stumbling upon our true national identity under circumstances in which we least expect to do so…”
excerpted from The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, Modern Library 2003, p. 599
(original publication date 1979)
Our Stillwater Light Bulb Room session will also draw from Ellison's 1970 essay 1970 "What America Would Be Like without Blacks," available here.