What These Children Are Like

Ralph Ellison

Lecture given at a seminar

September 1963

I assume you all know that I really have no business attending this sort of conference. I have no technical terminology and no knowledge of an academic discipline. This isn’t boasting, nor is it an apology; it is just a means of reminding myself of what my reality has been and of what I am. At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble.

The American scene is a diversified one, and the society which gives it its character is a pluralistic society-or at least it is supposed to be. Ideally it is, but we seem to insist, on the other hand, that this society is not pluralistic. We have been speaking as though it were notmade up of diversified cultures but was in fact one monolithic culture. And one which is perfect, the best of all possible cultures, with the best of all people affirming its perfection.

Well, if this were true there would be no point in our being here. But we are here, and since we are, let us try to see American society in all of its diversity. One of the things that has been left out in our discussion is imagination. But imagination exists even in the back-woods of Alabama, and here too is to be found a forthright attitude toward what it is possible to achieve and to become in this country.

The education which goes on outside the classroom, which goes on as they walk within the mixed environment of Alabama, teaches children that they should not reach out for certain things. Much of the education that I received at Tuskegee (this isn’t quite true of Oklahoma City) was an education away from the uses of the imagination, away from the attitudes of aggression and courage. This is not an attack. This is descriptive, this is autobiographic. You did not do certain things because you might be destroyed. You didn’t do certain things because you were going to be frustrated. There were things you didn’t do because the world outside was not about to accommodate you.

But we’re still talking about scene, and thus we’re talking about environment. A discussion of scene in terms of culture and diversity serves to remind us that there is no absolutely segregated part of this country. There is no such thing as a culturally deprived kid. That kid down in Alabama whose parents have no food, where the mill owner has dismantled the mills and moved out west and left them to forage in the garbage cans of Tuskegee, has nevertheless some awareness that-he is part of a larger American scene, and he is being influenced by this scene. But how does the fluctuation of the stock market get down there to him? How does the electronic manipulation of music get into his musical language? How do the literary theories of the “Fugitives,” which have so much prestige in the North, influence his destiny? How is his badly trained teacher going to view him and his possibilities as a future American adult? What I’m trying to say is that the problem seems to me to be one of really scrutinizing the goals of American education.

It does me no good to be told that I’m down on the bottom of the pile and that I have nothing with which to get out. I know better. It does me no good to be told that I have no heroes, that I have no respect for the father principle because my father is a drunk. I would simply say to you that there are good drunks and bad drunks. The Eskimos have sixteen or more words to describe snow because they live with snow. I have about twenty-five different words to describe Negroes because I live principally with Negroes. “Language is equipment for living,” to quote Kenneth ’Burke. One uses the language which helps to preserve one’s life, which helps to make one feel at peace in the world, and which screens out the greatest amount of chaos. All human beings do this.

When you have one body of people who have been sewn together by a common experience–I won’t even talk about the cultural heritage from Africa–and you plant this people in a highly pressurized situation and they survive, they’re surviving with all of those motivations and with all of the basic ingenuity which any group develops in order to remain alive. Let’s not play these kids cheap; let’s find out what they have. What do they have that is a strength? What do they have that you can approach and build a bridge upon? Education is all a matter of building bridges, it seems to me. Environment is bouncing everything off everybody in this country. It is wide open; television is around. You see antennas on shacks, electric iceboxes on back porches, with the electricity brought in from a neighbor’s pole, cars are flying around, jazz musicians are invading the backwoods with modifications of language, verbal as well as musical, new styles of dress are being introduced. The things which come at you in a Negro grade school are just as diverse as those which come at you in an upper-class white school. The question is how can you relate the environment to yourself? How can one discover, for instance, that well-cooked chitterlings are part of a cuisine? It took me a lot of living and going to France to realize this obvious fact. I said to my-self, “What on earth are these Frenchmen doing? This is peasant food; chitterlings are peasant food. There are some great masters of Negro cooking. Chitterlings must be part of a high low-class cuisine!”

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

What filters out this richness when the children come North? It is, in part, a reflection of their sense of being dispossessed of the reality to which their vocabulary referred. Where they once possessed the keys to a traditional environment–the South–they now confront an environment that appears strange and hostile. An environment cluttered with objects and processes for which they have no words and which too often they are prevented from approaching by poverty, custom and race. They are being educated in the streets.

Sanity suggests that the street child learns that which prepares him to live in a world that is immediate and real. To fail to recognize this is to expect far too much of a human being while crediting him with far too little humanity.

Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much “culturally deprived” as products of a different cultural complex. I’m talking about how people deal with their environment, about what they make of what is abiding in it, about what helps them to find their way, and about that which helps them to be at home in the world. All this seems to me to constitute a culture. If you can abstract their manners, their codes, their customs and attitudes into forms of expression, if you can convert them into forms of art, if you can stylize them and give them many and subtle ranges of reference, then you are dealing with a culture. People have learned this culture; it has been transferred to them from generation to generation, and in its forms they have projected their most transcendent images of themselves and of the world.

Therefore one of the problems is to get the so-called “culturally deprived” to realize that if they take what we would give them, they don’t have to give up all of that which gives them their own sense of identity. Indeed, the nation needs some of the very traits which they bring with them: the group discipline, the patience, the ability to withstand ceaseless provocation without breaking down or losing sight of their ultimate objective. We need aggressiveness. We need daring. We even need the little guy who, in order to prove himself, goes out to conquer the world. Psychologically Napoleon was not different from the slum kid who tries to take over the block; he just had big armies through which to amplify his aggression.

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness.

As we approach the dropouts, let us identify who we are and where we are. Let us also have a little bit of respect for what we were and from whence we came. There is a bit of the phony built into every American. This is inevitable in a conscious society that has developed as swiftly as ours has. We are faced with endless possibilities for change, for metamorphosis. We change our environment, our speech, our styles of living, our dress, and often our values. So, in effect, we become somebody else–or so we are tempted to believe–and often we act as though we have no connection with our past. We are all tempted to become actors, and when we forget who we are and where we are from, our phony selves take command.

When the phony me appears, there is a favor I would ask of any-one: nudge me and say, “Look, you, you’re really just you!” Because the great mystery of identity in this country, really on the level of a religious mystery, and one of our greatest challenges is that every-body here is an American and yet is a member of some unique minority Everyone knows this when he starts out into the world, but often we forget it. The best teacher, it seems to me, for those Negro youngsters who have been so harmed, so maimed by the sudden confrontation of a world that is more complex than any that they are prepared to deal with, is the teacher who can convey to them an awareness that they do indeed come from somewhere, some place of human value, and that what they’ve learned there does count in the larger society.

Let us remind ourselves that it is not merely the lower-class Negro child who has difficulties in dealing with our society. After teaching three years in a progressive school where I had only two or three Negro students, I am aware that we here should also be concerned with people who come from sections of the society lying far distant from Negro slums. Therefore I do not believe that the basic problem is a Negro problem, no matter what the statistics tell us. I do believe that there has to be some effort made to bring our system of education into line with what we say we are, and into line with those ideals which we celebrate in ritual and ceremony on patriotic occasions. If you have a society in which all men are declared equal (I am not speaking racially now), then it seems to me that you must act out of an assumption that any people which has not been destroyed after three hundred years of our history, and which is still here among us, is a people possessing great human potentialities and strengths which its members have derived from their background. And it follows that those potentialities are to be respected.

One of the worst things for a teacher to do to a Negro child is to treat him as though he were completely emasculated of potentiality. But this, I’m sorry to say, is also true of some Negro teachers. Not all, fortunately, but far too many. At Tuskegee during the thirties, most of the teachers would not speak to a student outside the class-room. The students resented it, I resented it, and I could never take them very seriously as teachers. Something was in the way. A fatal noise had been introduced into the communication.

As you can see, I am not making this a racial matter I insist, in fact, that the harm can be done by anyone from any background. To speak topically, there are a lot of distortions getting into the picture of the Negro situation now as we Negroes become more publicly agitated over our condition. Our enemies are being sharply designated, and this is a good thing. Nevertheless, the first people to do Negroes damage are usually other Negroes. If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t be human; we’d be somehow immune to the shaping force of our parents and relatives and to the presence of our immediate community. Much of the damage sustained by Negroes begins in the Negro family, and much of it occurs in the Negro nursery school, kindergarten, and the first few grades. Worse, the people who do the harm are not always vicious, but often they dislike themselves, and often they have utter contempt for us little “burr-heads.”

Consider this: one of the most influential musicians to come out of Oklahoma was a gifted boy who never took part in school musical activities (and ours was a musically oriented Negro community) because he was considered “lower class” in his attitudes. I refer to Charlie Christian, the jazz guitarist, who accomplished that rare feat of discovering the jazz idiom, the jazz voice, of a classical instrument. Yet here was a child who lived in a hotbed of everything that middle-class people fear: the tuberculosis rate was sky-high, crime, prostitution, bootlegging, illness. There was all of the disintegration which you find among rural Negroes who are pounding themselves to death against the sharp edges of an urban environment. Yet Oklahoma City at that time was one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever known. Imagination was freely exercised by the kids. They made toys. They made and taught themselves to play musical instruments. They lived near the city dump, and they converted the treasures they found there to their own uses. This was an alive community in which the harshness of slum life was inescapable, but in which the strength and imagination of these people was much in evidence. Yet you would have to say that it was indeed lower class, and lower-lower class and, according to the sociologists, utterly hopeless. Certainly it was no place to search for good minds or fine talent.

But how many geniuses do you get anywhere? And where do you find a first-class imagination? Who really knows? Imagination is where you find it; thus we must search the whole scene. But how many pretentious little kids have we been able to develop through progressive education! We can turn out a hell of a lot of these. I once taught at Bard College, where the students were highly articulate, some of them highly imaginative and creative. But many were utterly unprepared by their education to live in this world without extensive aid. What I’m trying to say is that it is not that we are all estranged from our backgrounds and given skills that don’t apply to the real world, but that something basically wrong is happening to our educational system. We are missing the target, and all of our children are suffering as a result. To be ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed is not the only way to suffer deprivation. Frank Reissman, who taught at Bard, has much to say about the “culturally deprived child,” but does he recognize that many there were also culturally deprived kids? When a child has no sense of how he should fit into the society around him, he is culturally deprived, no matter how high his parents’ income. When a child has no fruitful way of relating the cultural traditions and values of his parents to the diversity of cultural forces with which he must live in a pluralistic society, he is culturally deprived. When he has to spend a great part of his time in the care of – a psychoanalyst, he is, again, culturally deprived. Thus I would broaden the definition.

Now, what is the source of this trouble? (Obviously this is not a Negro problem. Obviously it is not only the result of great cultural deprivation or family dislocation, because the students there were for the most part middle class, and in fact eighty percent were Jewish. When compared with the Negro slum family, their backgrounds were quite stable indeed. Therefore it seems to me that there has been some more basic dislocation between that which an education is supposed to guarantee the child and the nature of the world in which he has to live. For one thing, many American children have not been trained to reject enough of the negative values which our society presses upon them. Nor have they been trained sufficiently to preserve those values which sustained their forefathers and which constitute an important part of their heritage. Frequently they are not trained to identify those aspects of the environment to which it is to their best interest–and to the best interest of the nation–to say “No.” Too often they have not been taught that there are situations, processes, experiences that are not only to be avoided, but feared. Think of how, many of our youths from the best middle-class families have taken to drugs.

Which brings me back to the education the child gets in the street. There is a conflict between the child’s own knowledge, his own intuitive feeling, and the sense of security he gets through the gang that leads him to reject many of the values which are offered him by the schools. He has found a counter-scheme for living. Museums are rejected because they make him think of going places and doing things that are ultimately frustrating. The New York theaters have been open to Negroes for years and years. How many attend them? How many of us do you see in downtown audiences? More than ever before, true, but certainly not in proportion to the Negro population. Let us not discuss the irrelevance of the plays presented there. The point is that this represents a world beyond reach. In-deed, do I dare turn my imagination, even as a writer, upon the possibility of living in that world from which I’m partially barred? I could do so only as an act of faith or recklessness. The schools weren’t the least bit encouraging, but I was always interested in writing, and finally I became interested in how writing was written. And then I realized that I couldn’t afford not to become a writer; I had to become a writer because I had gotten the spirit of literature and had become aware of the possibilities offered by literature not to make money, but to feel at home in the world, to feel that I could come into the possession of a certain part of reality.

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

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