Lavelle Porter

Last week, my alma mater, the CUNY Graduate Center, mourned the loss of Jerry Gafio Watts, a political scientist, literary scholar, and extraordinary teacher, whose work on the politics of black intellectuals will inform the subject for decades to come. Watts’s life and work stretched far beyond the Graduate Center.  As news of his passing spread, his Facebook page filled up with testimonials from students and colleagues far and wide: from classmates at Harvard (his undergraduate alma mater) to Yale (where he earned a Ph.D. in political science) to Wesleyan (where he taught before joining CUNY) and to other folks inside and outside of the academy all across the globe. Each was blessed to meet a man with a gregarious and outgoing presence who lit up every room he entered.  

I’ve been thinking about Jerry all week.  (He served on my dissertation committee, and I spent many hours shooting the shit with him and all the other people who passed through his office at the Graduate Center—the same office where we held a memorial gathering on Friday.) But he particularly sprang to mind when I ran across this article by Jonathan Zimmerman in the Los Angeles Times, with the header,  “Take a cue from Ralph Ellison: Don't demean minority students by overprotecting them.”  The article responds to the recent, and ongoing, anti-racist student protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, Princeton, and other campuses across the country.  Zimmerman cites statements from Ralph Ellison, author of groundbreaking works like the novel Invisible Man, and the essay collection Shadow and Act, and uses Ellison to concern-troll black students about being overprotected by universities.  

First of all, any black student or faculty member who has spent any time in a majority white institution of higher learning will find the idea that black students are somehow overprotected from racism in these spaces as fundamentally laughable. All that notwithstanding, here’s Zimmerman quoting from Ellison:  

"Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment and resuscitate itself ... is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization," Ellison said. "I am not denying the negative things which have happened to us and which continue to happen, but I am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life and personality from whatever quarters they come, whether white or Negro."

Actually, a better source for Zimmerman’s argument comes from current Howard University historian Daryl Michael Scott in his book Contempt and Pity. Scott challenges the overdetermination of psychological damage imagery in black political discourse, such as the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll study, something that Zimmerman also cites.  As Scott argues, pathology discourses tend to steer conversations toward racial sensitivity and black feelings of marginalization, and detract from the fundamental material inequalities that African-Americans actually face. But that argument coming from Scott has a very different trajectory to it than having a white male professor tell minority students they need to toughen up and take the abuse.

The politics of black intellectuals was Jerry Watts’s specialty, and he wrote a book on Ellison called Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics and Afro-American Intellectual Culture.  In that book Watts expresses a profound respect for Ellison’s creative accomplishments, yet critiques his blues ontology.  Fundamentally, the problem with Ellison's thesis about "the blues" and "laughter" as a black aesthetic is that it encouraged black people to accommodate racism rather than resist it. No wonder, then, that elite academics at predominantly white institutions with racist histories (see Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy for a good account of how slavery built American higher education) would want someone like Ellison to be a model for black students.  

Furthermore, Ellison had a troubling tendency to distance himself from other black intellectuals and artists. Unlike Langston Hughes, who generously advised and corresponded with many young black writers who sought him out (see Barbadian-American writer Paule Marshall’s underappreciated 2009 memoir Triangular Road for just one example of a writer who benefitted from Hughes’s guidance), Ellison often shunned and condescended to younger artists.  He preferred to see himself as a solitary black genius, limiting himself to only a small subset of peers—black, white or otherwise—including Albert Murray who informed much of his blues ideology. 

It was that same narcissism and perfectionism of Ellison’s which also contributed to his spending forty years trying to write a follow up to Invisible Man, a second novel he never finished.  As Watts goes on to state, Ellison was mired in a “heroic individualism,” an especially potent trap for black intellectuals who can be individually exalted, even as the masses of black people are subjugated.  To the credit of black students in these protests, they are taking whatever meager “privilege” that they possess as university students, and using that to address systemic issues of institutionalized discrimination.  (And yes, if you bother to read and listen, there is a conversation happening among black students about that “privilege,” particularly at Ivy League institutions where students may have some economic and social standing that other black folks do not, and they’re grappling with what that means for them in those spaces.)  

But, lest you think that somehow white critics are just waiting to receive a solid materialist argument about black inequality, and they’re only sick of this whining from college students who have never experienced the real world, think again. Just take a peek at some of the responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” an article that specifically focuses on the generations of incarceration, housing discrimination and financial dispossession perpetuated against African-Americans. Forgive me if I’m skeptical at the idea that the critics would somehow listen to REAL problems of oppression if only black college students would stop talking about “hate speech” and “safe spaces.”      
This is all to say that Ralph Ellison is hardly the guy you want to cite in a student movement that is pushing universities to challenge their racist roots and to reform the ways they systematically marginalize black students and faculty.  Zimmerman invoked Ellison the way conservative critics invoke Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks, as one-dimensional black heroes, as if no one has ever had any critical conversation about the strategic decisions those folks had to make in the movement (or in Ellison’s case, the decision he made to avoid the movement altogether), and what flaws may have been in those decisions.  But it’s telling that someone would pick up on Ellison in response to these protests, because what too many white professors and administrators want, with their “diversity committees” and such, is really to have just a handful of Negro students and faculty around, who will laugh off the racism, pick up a guitar, strum out a cathartic twelve bar blues about their suffering, and take all the bullshit in stride.
Lavelle Porter is a graduate of Morehouse College (BA, History) and the CUNY Graduate Center (PhD, English). He is an Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology, CUNY.  His writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, African American intellectual History Society and Poetry Foundation.  He is currently at work on a book about academic fiction and black higher education. Follow him on Twitter at @alavelleporter

Photo via  The Independent.