Thursday, April 15, 2010

Claiming Ancestors

Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject of cultural ancestry, at the end of an expansive post on slavery, the Civil War, and Robert E. Lee:
Finally, there's the question of how we claim ancestors, a question that is more philosophical than biological. Africa, and African-America, means something to me because I claim it as such--but I claim much more. I claim Fitzgerald, whatever he thought of me, because I see myself in Gatsby. I claim Steinbeck because, whether he likes it or not, I am an Okie. I claim Blake because "London" feels like the hood to me.

And I claim them right alongside Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin and Ralph Wiley, who had it so right when he parried Saul Bellow. The dead, and the work they leave---the good and bad--is the work of humanity and thus says something of us all. And in that manner, I must be humble and claim some of Lee, Jackson, and Forrest. What might I have been in another skin, in another country, in another time?
It is not often that one encounters such willingness to recognize and lay claim to one's cultural ancestors in defiance of contemporary racial boundaries. But in America, of all places, the scope for such appropriation is enormous. Ralph Ellison explained the reasons for this with crystal clarity in a remarkable essay published forty years ago:
For one thing, the American nation is in a sense the product of the American language, a colloquial speech that began emerging long before the British colonials and Africans were transformed into Americans. It is a language that evolved from the king's English but, basing itself upon the realities of the American land and colonial institutions—or lack of institutions, began quite early as a vernacular revolt against the signs, symbols, manners and authority of the mother country. It is a language that began by merging the sounds of many tongues, brought together in the struggle of diverse regions. And whether it is admitted or not, much of the sound of that language is derived from the timbre of the African voice and the listening habits of the African ear...
Its flexibility, its musicality, its rhythms, freewheeling diction and metaphors... were absorbed by the creators of our great 19th century literature even when the majority of blacks were still enslaved. Mark Twain celebrated it in the prose of Huckleberry Finn; without the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it. For not only is the black man a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence, but Jim's condition as American and Huck's commitment to freedom are at the moral center of the novel.
In other words, had there been no blacks, certain creative tensions arising from the cross-purposes of whites and blacks would also not have existed. Not only would there have been no Faulkner; there would have been no Stephen Crane, who found certain basic themes of his writing in the Civil War. Thus, also, there would have been no Hemingway, who took Crane as a source and guide...
Without the presence of blacks, our political history would have been otherwise. No slave economy, no Civil War; no violent destruction of the Reconstruction; no K.K.K. and no Jim Crow system. And without the disenfranchisement of black Americans and the manipulation of racial fears and prejudices, the disproportionate impact of white Southern politicians upon our domestic and foreign policies would have been impossible. Indeed, it is almost impossible to conceive of what our political system would have become without the snarl of forces—cultural, racial, religious—that makes our nation what it is today.
I came across the essay thanks to Andrew Sullivan, who posted an excerpt on his blog last October. Sullivan independently discovered the truth of Ellison's claims through the fresh eyes of an immigrant to the United States:
It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me - and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of - and attraction to - its opposite... From the beginning, in its very marrow, this country was forged out of that racial and cultural interaction.
Rod Dreher, himself a product of the American South, came to the same realization while traveling overseas:
I'd spent several weeks traveling around Europe the summer before my junior year in college, and came to understand after being around all those fellow white people that deep down, we Americans have been deeply shaped by the black experience... for a white Southern boy like me to spend six weeks in the Heart of Whiteness was to feel my own Americanness to the marrow for the first time... and to surprise myself by recognizing that the main reason I was so different from these people who looked just like me was because I had been raised in a culture profoundly shaped by black Americans. 
Ta-Nehisi Coates is right to insist that the question of how we claim our ancestors is "more philosophical than biological." And it is entirely appropriate that he began his post with a quotation from Ralph Wiley, who answered Saul Bellow's famous taunt "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" with the brilliant and wise retort "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus -- unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership."

For me personally, it was liberating to see Coates claim Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Blake alongside Clifton and Baldwin and Wiley. I too claim Baldwin, whose Notes of a Native Son I first read with choking emotion in a village in Sierra Leone at the age of twenty-one, and whose funeral service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine I attended just a few weeks after first entering the United States as a graduate student. He is no less an ancestor of mine than Rushdie or Kureishi, and I am no less a descendant for not having his blood coursing through my veins.


  1. A wonderful post, Rajiv. To tell the truth, I am slightly aghast at Saul Bellow's quote. Especially b/c he is a contemporary writer. I wonder if the context is a forgiving one.

    Still, it is always jarring to see revered intellectual figures slip into questionable moral territory. Europeans are especially bad at this. I recall reading some awful stuff in Steppenwolf.

    As a foreigner, I can relate to your statement about Baldwin. It's strange what this country can do to you, if you allow yourself to be receptive to its complexities.

    That's why I get so annoyed when European elites dismiss Americans as a bunch of fat Jesus freaks who "don't even have passports!". These people have obviously never bothered to read Baldwin, or listen to Neil Young, or watch Short Cuts. Theirs is just such an impoverished view of this incredibly rich country.

  2. Thanks Stergios. I've spent a lot of time in Europe, including ten formative years growing up in England and two later on in Germany, and did occasionally encounter the reflexive anti-Americanism and cultural condescension to which you refer. But this was not an easy post to write, perhaps I should stick to topics in economics and finance where I can maintain some emotional distance.

  3. I'm sure it can be hard to write about topics that resonate on an emotional level. The internet is a difficult medium in that regard.

    Still, much like yourself, the readers of this blog have other concerns in life besides economics and finance. So it's nice to read articulate, thoughtful posts on a variety of topics. The essays you linked to are pretty profound in their understanding of american culture.

    From a personal standpoint, it is especially rewarding to read about Baldwin, a topic that strays from the hyper-rational mathematical world we work in, from someone who I know can think in that rigorous a way, and appreciates other people who do.

  4. Kevin, Stergios, thanks to you both.

  5. "I too claim Baldwin, whose Notes of a Native Son I first read with choking emotion in a village in Sierra Leone at the age of twenty-one ..."
    Do you remember the village in Sierra Leone?. It must have been Long Ago. I am from Sierra Leone and I your posts are must read for me.
    M. Bah

  6. Jimmi Bagbo, about thirty miles south of Bo, on the Bo-Pujehun road. I was teaching Mathematics at the Government Secondary School there and the book was lent to me by Ibrahim Dabor, the school principal.