Ellison’s Promised Land

Juneteenth

by Ralph Ellison
Random House, 368 pp., $25.00

I’m walking down Elm Street, in the gathering dusk of a Sunday spring evening in New Haven. The streets are still. As I approach the corner of College, a two-tone Camaro pulls up at the red light beside me. The car’s a few years older than most others on the road and the driver is a young black man with very close-cut hair and wrap-around shades. But the sound is the thing.

Out of the Chevy’s overheated amps, engineered by its creators to exploit the tinny resonance of automotive acoustics, the drawling, sibilant insolence of rap blasts at top volume, hostile and profane. The rapper lays out the text like a card trick, explosively articulating some lines, swallowing and slurring others, appearing and disappearing phrases, slow moves following fast shuffles to the shifty boom of the bass line. It’s wild. But I don’t like it much.

Which I can’t help feeling has briefly become the point to the young man at the wheel. Maybe it’s paranoia but I think he’s aware of me a few feet away. Indeed, he glances over at me and he’s not in the least apologetic. Professor Beard, that’s me, and I don’t get it. I so obviously don’t get it that he thinks it’s amusing; and as for me, who dates from the days when cool was all, who cherished the hip and arrogantly scorned the square, where am I now? What’s his is his because it’s not mine.

The driver of the Camaro has made me see him. He’s also made me not see him. He has presented himself, intruded on my consciousness and my pittance of the public space, not as another man but as an urban phenomenon. Flying the patch, wrapping himself in the colors to the point of invisibility. I’m put out. A memory comes to me of sitting in a club on San Francisco’s Broadway and listening to John Coltrane, me dizzy with synesthesia as the brass appears in spurts of scarlet and the rhythm expands and contracts in waves of jagged hallucinatory frost. As though I belonged there, as though being there made me something, got me something. I was just another white habitué but I was paying attention. Now such illusions of social definition are old, they’re over. On Elm Street the light changes and we go our separate ways forever.

How preposterous of me to assume the right of access to the cultural artifacts of a new generation of black Americans. As though the man in the Camaro should somehow be my pal, when plainly for him I am part of something he’s trying to outwit and survive. But I regret the whole sad history of our racial failure, the great crossover that never made it over or across. It seems to me I remember an era in which more than a few Americans—however deluded, terrorized, or fatuous—felt they had to examine the country’s plural identity.

The attempted engagement of those times is often evoked today by…


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