May 2, 2007

Mary's Notes, May 2, 2007

Mary's Notes, May 2, 2007

The barbershop atmosphere continued after we recorded our Ralph Ellison show last night. Chris followed Arnold Rampersad to the Harvard Book Store for a reading and Q & A co-sponsored by Skip (Henry Louis) Gates and the W. E. B. DuBois Institute at Harvard. Stars and up-and-comers among Af-Am scholars were out in force, including Gates; the literature buff Werner Sollars (who did a book on Ellison’s worst enemy, Amiri Baraka); the philosopher of “We Who Are Black,” Tommie Shelby; Harvard Law professor Randy Kennedy; Adam Bradley from Claremont College who emerged as one of the stars on our Ellison show; and Dell Hamilton of the DuBois Institute.

Here’s Chris’s report:

Chris’s Post-Game Analysis

The nuances of feeling and angles of analysis around Ellison — and shadings of emphasis around blackness — would fill volumes. Among the tensions in the near or far background at the Harvard Book Store were Ralph Ellison’s personal distaste for W. E. B. DuBois, who was a Communist by the time Ellison arrived in New York. Ellison was personally wary of the young Skip Gates at Yale in the Seventies. To many black people and scholars, it matters that the admired scholar Rampersad is a Trinidadian — from the Caribbean rim that Ellison pointedly excluded (with Africa) from his interest in Negro America.

In the bookstore as in our studio, Rampersad granted that he didn’t like Ellison much. He’d had a three-year wait and then an awkward time interviewing Ralph Ellison for his biography of Ellison’s former friend Langston Hughes. It grates on Rampersad, he told us, that Ralph was so emotionally chintzy with the younger generation of writers, while Langston was generous to a fault. (Rampersad said his heart is with Langston Hughes, though his own shyness makes him more like Ralph Ellison.) It goes without saying in all of these discussions that Ralph Ellison was, is, and will stand as a god. Yet there is a palpable pleasure that Rampersad has found a way to spot some divine flaws in his character: his haughtiness especially, his use and misuse of women, his perhaps self-destructive distance from black America. There are people who’ve been waiting for this side of the story to emerge — among them Cornel West. Rampersad last night remembered West remarking when he started the Ellison project, that he would discover about Brother Ellison what T. S. Eliot learned about Matthew Arnold: “that he had no real serenity, only an impeccable demeanor.”

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