Friday, July 28, 2017

Goin' to the territory

I was in Ludlow, Vermont, over the weekend and found my way to Book Nook, a lovely store on the town's Main Street.  The store typically has a quote from a book and if you guess it right, you get a prize, in this case, a 10% discount.  I usually don't get them, but this time, I knew immediately that it was Huck Finn who said, "I reckon I got to light out for the Territory..."

One of the books in my library is a collection of essays by Ralph Ellison, called, Going to the Territory.  I had never read the eponymous speech, given at Brown University in 1979, which is reproduced in the book.  When I got home, I settled down to read what Ellison had to say on the topic.  I expected, of course, that he was riffing on Mark Twain, but, though he mentioned Twain, that wasn't the inspiration for the title.  The first thing I learned was Ellison grew up in Oklahoma, which was Indian Territory before it was a state.  The spark for the speech is that his high school principal, Dr. Ilman Page, had gone to Brown in 1877.  Ellison had a lot to say about quirks of democracy, but most important, I found, was his effort to put the hard work of his principal in the context of the moment after the defeat of Reconstruction.

He writes:
Because of the Tilden-Hayes Compromise they were forced to live under a system which was close to, and in some ways worse than, slavery... Within thirteen years Afro-Americans were swept from slavery to a brief period of freedom, to a condition of second-class citizenship.  And from a condition of faint hope, through a period of euphoric optimism, to a condition of despair.  The familiar world of slavery was gone, but now they faced a world of ambiguity in which their access to even the most fundamental of life's necessities was regulated strictly on the basis of race and color. Such was the general picture, but in spite of these dismal developments, there were still reasons for cautious optimism.  And this lay in the physical fact that they were now the owners of their own bodies and had the freedom to express something of their aspirations as individuals.  
It is not what I would have expected next, but he goes on to connect this basic freedom with Oklahoma:
But freedom was also to be found in the West of the old Indian Territory.  Bessie Smith gave voice to this knowledge when she sang of "Goin' to the Nation, Going to the Terr'tor'"...  
He goes on to spell out the profound effect Dr. Page's daughter, Zelia Breaux, had had on his life, as the person who had introduced him to the arts and to the possibility of excellence.  As he comes to the close of the speech, he hits a very touching note:
Such individuals as Dr. Page and his daughter worked, it seems to me, [for the emergence of the unexpected].  Ultimately, theirs was an act of faith: faith in themselves, faith in the potentialities of their own people, and despite their social status as Negroes, faith in the potentialities of the democratic ideal.  Coming so soon after the betrayal of the Reconstruction, theirs was a heroic effort.  It is my good fortune that their heroism became my heritage, and thanks to Inman Page and Brown University, it is also now a part of the heritage of all Americans who would become conscious of who they are.

Book Nook in Ludlow, VT