Ralph Ellison testimony; Harlem by Ellison and Powell
I Mr. Allison Where do you live now. I live in New York City Riverside Drive. Under 50th Street. It isn't properly in Harlem but Harlem has a way of expanding. It goes where Negroes are where we go in certain numbers. Some of us think of it as Harlem but. Really Washington time where where did you. Where were you born. Oklahoma City. And were you brought up in the city. Yes until I went off to college. And I went to Cesky. Where for three years I worked toward a degree in music. I wanted to be a composer. But then. I ran out of money and. I went to New York. I didn't get the money to. Go back. So. Technically
I'm a dropout. And you lived in then how old were you when you came to New York. Nineteen and twenty. And you lived in New York continuously ever say. Well except for us. And 37 when I lost my mother. And for those seven months and no day. And then again I was away for two years when I won the Rome prize and lived at the American Academy in Rome. But since then I've lived continuously. What was life like for you as a boy growing up in Oklahoma City. Well it was a life of the average for family. I lost my father when I was three my mother had two boys and she raised
us. Later on. By the time I was in high school there was a stepfather. We lived in. What are known as three room shotgun houses most of what. We. Ate for food. Which often was well prepared. Sometimes not because we would talk to take care of ourselves or our mother went out and worked. On the other hand there was a relationship with the church. There was a sense of community. I was encouraged in music. My mother had some sense of. Of the values of. Excellence and she used to say that she didn't care what I became as long as I. Tried to become one of the bast. Was I kind of live as I was a boring and growing God
Oklahoma City. Were you sensitive to or did you encounter prejudice because it covers you. Yes very definitely. Although it was somewhat. More muted than it would have been and the deep sobs because Oklahoma is a 46 state had no history. Of slavery. I never attended a non-segregated school. This we resent it but we didn't feel inferior because of that we felt that this was an injustice and that we were being denied an opportunity to compete fairly. And that was all attitude about. Now. When you came to me your. Work here again was that when you came to New York 36 1936 was New York City a surprise to you our hero rescuer. It was not a surprise in this way.
New York was one of the great cities of of. Of the myth. Of more freedom. A kind of myth which goes back very far and to grow American experience and OBs Pareto's it was and the OnStar and places in the north which stood for freedom. And to that extent I expect certain things from New York. I did not incidentally Gonda New York to live in Harlem as such although Harlem was a glamorous place a place where. Wonderful music existed where there was this great tradition of Negro style and elegance and so on. But what I had to do what I had to learn in New York was how to live in New York and how to discipline myself to discover
just where I was free and was not free in the south there was side but stowed you where you could go and where you could not go. In New York there were not the signs and I had to tell myself well you must go and discover it for yourself. And the best way of doing it. Is not to have died before someone threw a punch at you. Those consequences I found myself going to places and being accepted. Which might ordinarily have a. Sense that I was intimidated and turned me away. But you came when you came to New York. What type of a job you get what did you do. We were writing them or were you working. Then I still thought of myself as a musician but I couldn't get work as a musician. I didn't have enough money to join the union. My first job was working as a county man at the Harlem YMCA. Took that as a temporary job and. Was kept
working. But a good part of a year because I was pretty good at that I had been away to. Oklahoma. The next job was a very interesting one I was asked if I would work as a substitute. Receptionist the receptionist and file clerk for Dr Harry stack Sullivan. A psychoanalyst. This was a very time job of short duration but one of the most interesting that I ever had. After that. All right. Well I worked and factories. I sometimes have no work and slept in the park below a city college. I lived as as I could live sometimes I want a cage and I had to sleep on the day bed in a friend's. Living World.
But. At that point in my life this was not simply a matter of discrimination it was a matter of adventure and a recognition that everyone was having a hard time. It didn't have you Norma's down you came to New York. 36 now it's 1966. And your own observations. Have you noticed any basic change that is say the Negro community or their relationship of the white community with the negroes in New York or between the period of 1936 American 66 30 years back. Yes well a number of things have been during the day the WBA days they the days of relief when everybody was. Undergoing that crisis of the nation there seem to have been a closer relationship between lights in between Harlem and the rest of the community. In those days
they simple I borrowed got about great cultural landmarks which was foolish latents destroyed existed and people were coming from all over the world. The great composers were going there to listen to jazz they had great jazz bands were coming their way. People from downtown were coming because this was one of the great points of culture in the United States although it was then thought of as entertainment. The Federal there had excellent plays performed in Harlem Arsen Wells produced his best efforts at that point in the hollow. But I'm trying to say as if you had more white people coming in and there was less. Less. Well you have a mess about that danger. President. It was not into the.
Will. As I recall that White started. Staying that way. And often this was done through the police department. They would be stopped at a hundred 10st. And told that they shouldn't go to. Why. Any idea why that was. I don't really understand why it lives. This was before they the riots of forty three. Barriers of course a traditional antagonism between. The police department New York Legros. Was I mean this is something that was continuous it was continuous enough to discourage people. But since 36 car when you first came to New York Harlem was it is crowded and teeming with people. Van
as it is now. It wasn't as crowded because they the population has increased steadily. And there are a lot of us. Senator I think more optimism. When everyone is having a bad time then you don't feel so bad about your condition. When on the other hand everyone else is enjoying prosperity and you can't see it reflected in your own bike. In your own life then you become uncomfortable about it. I would like to to suggest that there's a basic difference. In what has happened in the saga to the southern negro and what has happened to people living in such slums as Harlem right. I would appreciate if you would go into this from your own perspective the difference of
the situation the negro in the south of the negro or the small or big city. Well. Tasking for instance. And now Obama in Macon County Alabama where I. Attended school I knew exactly. Where I could go. And where I could not go. The contempt which was felt for me lives obvious in the most casual interracial kind. I got to know Alabama and north Georgia fairly well because I was playing trumpet and Jazz Orchestra. We played and we played and the various. Three clubs four dances and four in a row. And we got to know the country people the people most antagonistic to my race. There was a certain sense of
security about that. They had their ears. They were very interested. Some of them and provoking me to violence. My. Struggle to keep from being provoked. To keep my eye on my goals I was not there to. Hold a contest. With white people. I was there to get an education and go on to the north to become a composer. I think that that sums up a certain aspect of seven Lego characters. We have been disciplined for over three hundred years not to be provoked. We have been disciplined for over three hundred years. By the nature of reality and society for ourselves. We have been disciplined. To.
Accept. Our own sense of life regardless of what. Those antagonistic to us thought about. Now. But this. This makes FAR FAR FAR very complex personalities. And it makes for a certain split. Within the negro's. Conception of. How the United States. But one thing. One thing I'm certain. We were in a hole. We made the sacrifices. We tried to educate our children as we still do. We lived if we could live and had to live. Because we had great hope in the future. And great confidence in the promises of American democracy. We have long memories we know what went
on before 1874. This if you think about it there's hardly a negro of my generation who can't touch a grandparent and be right back in slavery if they would have been that recent. So we have whether in our very lives in our memories a sense what was and what has been promised. So that by 1954 when these bills began to pass. When that when it went when the law changed. We could transform. Our our discipline our discipline before physical provocation and brutality and to an agency to help achieve the freedom which was guaranteed by the law. To watch. Through hostile. People now became a political
end mentality. And it worked. And even little children little Negro children have had the courage to do this not something fell out of an eye but heart of a heritage of over three hundred years. And when our tradition writes down you get a hard on you. You have expected a great deal of freedom which does not exist because you are going to does exist you haven't been taught how to achieve it. Usually you don't have the education necessarily to go and some of the places that you want to go. And you find yourself frustrated. When the civil rights laws began to be passed. They did not have the same impact whether in the northern slums. Because we have. Certain other rights. Which were symbols at least of what the Negroes at not have.
In other words basically the laws that were passed on a on a federal level were not broader probably less crime than the laws that pertain in the state of New York. So basically the guarantees federally the law I was certainly in a state like 70 Javits of my own Connecticut out on us that we had passed on a state basis were even further beyond the guarantees are even greater than the national law. Well do you think that represent the impact of the passage of a first Supreme Court decisions and the passage of civil rights laws on a national basis. How did the northern Eagar or the Negro in regard to these laws. Well ALITO I was big for one of them myself. I regarded these laws as with great. Relief.
With a certain amount of enthusiasm because I feel. That bottled up in this. Line of Negroes is a great deal of spirit. Intellectual. There's a go. Technical and Mark I think that this that this was one of a lot of them wanted political moves which has occurred since the squashing. Of reconstruction. There is one. American Negro experience. And it is nationwide on the political level. It is a national experience and that's not really most of us were quite overjoyed by the passage of these laws. We were also inspired.
Just to have our beliefs. Reaffirmed that our sense of who we were and what our parents and relatives were. The notion. That negroes suddenly became courageous. With the passage of these laws amuse some of us because we knew what was there. We also knew that part of our survival had depended upon obeying laws. After all we are a minority and not always in a violent minority. Through graphics. Rather we through wisdom. Yet in a constant exodus of the negro from the south to the north in the last decade a million Negroes have moved from the south to the north now or as you mechanise industrialise agriculture. That too there will be a
steady exodus that is no negroes the right is moving into the city to now or what happens now to the negro from the south when he comes to the yard rather than regret ways that habits of the South survive of the north. Is a negro when he moves from the south to the north under some sort of a promise. Because the difference between his royal life and suddenly the right of a northern slum. All right I have no figures on the senator but I I think that the shot is apt to come to the second generation. Southern nigro. At least during the various And for what it is that this s which was true that the adult who came use they found some way of bettering himself even though he didn't get the good job that he expected there was a great of. Freedom of
movement about the city. When the children upset. You had a different situation because. They could see. What is possible. In the big city. They could see the wonderful possibilities offered by the Senate too. Defining one's own individuality to amplify one's tolerance to find a place for oneself in this that this in this social situation. But. For many men and girls this. Proves impossible. Schooling is bad. They come to the north with poor schooling very often their their parents have no schooling. And the strikes are against. This. This makes for great deal of frustration. Now on the other
hand these are American children. And Americans are taught to be rationalised to be mobile to be downright. Myths teaches us how cartoons do just as athletic sports teaches us the whole society is geared. To making the individual rashness to make him to making him test himself against the possibilities around. It's a misunderstanding to assume that Negroes want to break out of Harlem. They want to transform the Harlem's of the country. These places are precious to them. These places are where they are dream where they live where they love where they worked out life as a human. Icon just isn't a place of decay. It's also a form of historical and social memory. Well I gave me an allegory of the lower east side of me are on
the Maury side right and you see that the staging area for the immigrant wave. Which came in the 1880s 1890s. And before World War 1 and then was left as a staging area after World War 1 and successive waves which populated. The Bronx and Brooklyn Queens and especially the suburbs. You know I gather and there was a nice power to stay on the Lower East Side on that side. The second generation would have nothing. How do you see the same thing happening among many. To the extent that the parents can finance it but so few of us care. We just don't have day to day money to get out and also we run into difficulty when we can because many of the places are barred to us from I don't know if I may I would like to try to say something which isn't lesser
than to grow and be. Historically. We have advanced. Our condition has been. Bettered in this country doing periods of national disaster. This was true of the Civil War when we got our freedom. It was true of us but it is American war when there was a the beginning of the migratory movement. It was true to a large extent during the First World War. It was even more true during the Depression. We had this this contradictory movement in American history and when there is a breakdown of the structure democracy spreads. As much as I dislike warfare. As much as I'd like to see this thing end. From a negro point of view from one wing growth point of view I know that the people who are going to rue the sign.
Together under the new political situation there will be. Black and white southerners who are fighting together and they're getting to learn one another in a way that was not possible. Before getting to know one another with out the mess. A great deal in theory arguing about a superiority. These two are American political realities and they have to be considered it when we look at what's happening. In the Senate. Well how is a place where there's a can continuity of Negro. Style. Harlem has its elegant side. Harlem is a place where you see the transformation of a Southern. Idiom. And I know I did it you know. This is exciting in itself. This is a place where the folklore is preserved and transformed this is the place where the body of Negro myth
and legend arrives this is a place where our time Arkell sighed. Style musical style as. Many styles of Negro life. Find continuity and metamorphosis. This is this is very important. This is where a seven and a girl who has in the lot who has a little talent can actually change himself. Into. The man I woman of his dreams. Because Harlem is a base problem most people who have jobs who live in Harlem do not live in Harlem they spend most of their times outside of this is forgotten. Spend of their times and jobs. They are very many of them intimately involved in a household of whites. Outside. They get as
- Ralph Ellison testimony
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- Actuality of Ralph Ellison's testimony before the Senate subcommittee on executive reorganization examining social conditions in Black Harlem. The committee was chaired by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, former governor of Connecticut.
- United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Government Operations. Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization; Ellison, Ralph; Ribicoff, Abraham, 1910-1998; African Americans--Civil rights--History
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- APA: Ralph Ellison testimony; Harlem by Ellison and Powell. Boston, MA: Pacifica Radio Archives, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-28-tm71v5c06s