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Black History, Uncensored: Ralph Ellison envisioned an American nightmare

Ralph Ellison’s 1970 essay “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” serves as a stern rebuttal to modern-day efforts by conservatives to whitewash history.


“Materially, psychologically and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence,” author Ralph Ellison wrote in his 1970 essay for Time magazine, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.”

“Which is fortunate,” he adds, “for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals.”

Over here at The ReidOut Blog, we’re more than halfway through this inaugural iteration of our “Black History, Uncensored” series, celebrating work by Black creators targeted with right-wing book bans. And today Ellison, author of the oft-targeted novel “Invisible Man,” is in focus. 

Ellison’s essay pondering what the U.S. would look like without Black people addresses literal efforts, waged by President Abraham Lincoln and others, to send free Black people to Africa after the Civil War rather than encourage them to settle in the U.S. But the essay can be seen as a metaphor for the ideological severance of Black history from American history lessons we see taking place in conservative-led schools across the country, and the pitfalls of that crusade. 

Take this passage, for example: 

[T]here is something so embarrassingly absurd about the notion of purging the nation of blacks that it seems hardly a product of thought at all. It is more like a primitive reflex, a throwback to the dim past of tribal experience, which we rationalize and try to make respectable by dressing it up in the gaudy and highly questionable trappings of what we call the “concept of race.” Yet, despite its absurdity, the fantasy of a blackless America continues to turn up. It is a fantasy born not merely of racism but of petulance, of exasperation, of moral fatigue. It is like a boil bursting forth from impurities in the bloodstream of democracy.

And similar to those who oppose modern-day efforts to erase Black history, Ellison knew that ridding Black people from the country was fundamentally illogical because Black culture undergirds so much of U.S. culture. 

He wrote:

The problem here is that few Americans know who and what they really are. That is why few of these groups—or at least few of the children of these groups—have been able to resist the movies, television, baseball, jazz, football, drum-majoretting, rock, comic strips, radio commercials, soap operas, book clubs, slang, or any of a thousand other expressions and carriers of our pluralistic and easily available popular culture. And it is here precisely that ethnic resistance is least effective. On this level the melting pot did indeed melt, creating such deceptive metamorphoses and blending of identities, values and life-styles that most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it.

That last part is critical to the current debate over inclusive learning plans, in my view. The reality is that understanding Black history is fundamental to anyone — Black or white — who truly wants to learn American history. As Joy Reid explained in my Q&A with her on right-wing curriculum restrictions earlier this week, if you don't know the Black experience, “then you don’t understand the society we live in.”

Ellison set fire to the fantasy of a non-Black America with this essay, and any perceived greatness some thought would come through achieving that fantasy. 

But the widespread attempts to hide his work shows that the pitiful dream still lives on in many Americans today.

Read previous “Black History, Uncensored” posts about Zora Neale Hurston, Maya AngelouRichard WrightJames BaldwinToni MorrisonAlice WalkerTa-Nehisi Coates, Kimberlé Crenshaw and bell hooks.