Columbus Day: Ralph Ellison and the Waters of Meribah

My previous post suggested that attempts to construct the proper grounds on which to meet the other is an attempt to control the relationship, even if that comes masked in good intentions.  What must be clarified is that to reach out and actually touch the other, in Fanon’s language, is to be exposed to another whose existence you cannot control and whose consciousness you cannot predict.  This exposure provides a helpful way to approach Columbus and anti-Columbus day festivities.  

There are those who fail to recognize that this day of celebration–of hope, promise, freedom, unlimited potential, national glory–is also a day of mourning.  Fearful of what it would mean to recognize the painful and brutal legacy that begins in 1492, they vaunt the American ideals with such febrility that any query will be lost within the din of celebration.  “What was that?  Can you speak up?  Did you say you hate America–because that is what I heard.”

On the other hand, those who do recognize the atrocities that began in 1492 often end up stuck in the mode of condemnation, a mode that also ends up missing the voices of those whose histories they claim to uphold.

In an interview, Ralph Ellison was asked:

Isn’t there a sense in which the white audience expects a Negro to be angry about the conditions of being a Negro in America?

To which he replied:
I’m afraid so, and if the conditions were good I think that many white Americans would expect the Negro writer to be angry because he wasn’t white.  I mean you have that thing operating underneath.  More seriously, I try to use an approach that isn’t dictated by my anger or my lack of anger, not by my protest or any lack of feelings of protest but by the logic of the art itself.

I’m afraid so, because it means the white audience actually ignores his art and dismisses him.  Like those stuck in the mode of celebration, those stuck in condemnation actually miss the voices of those around them.  To thoroughly and exhaustively condemn the past is, in a sense, to ignore those who suffered through that history.  To expect and celebrate the “angry negro” author is to make that author’s voice unnecessary:  I already know the story, and I prove my innocence by expressing (what I think is) the same opprobrium.

What is needed is a kind of openness to the logic of the art, of the relationship, of the interaction itself, a mode of being with the other that does not need to master the discourse and relationship before it occurs.  Theologically, this means that you and I meet not within the confines of our own histories–our spheres of mastery–but within the history of another who draws our histories into his own and then discloses to us what our stories mean.  I cannot anticipate in advance what he will say–and, knowing who this one is (the one who came in the form of a slave), those of us who benefited are (at least) a little afraid.  After all, what if I listen and they tell me they don’t want my shared sense of outrage but want their land back–what will this savior say?  And what if they tell me to sell what I own, give it to the poor, and come live with them–or they with me–what will this savior say?  Will he tell me that this is his grace and provision?  Am I willing to listen to that voice?  Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah.

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This entry was posted in ethics, fanon, genocide, history, levinas. Bookmark the permalink.

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