This article challenges long-standing narratives of Ralph Ellison’s response to civil rights-era struggles as one of quietism, conservatism, or apolitical aestheticism. Focusing on a key episode early in Ellison’s Three Days before the Shooting …, in which a jazz musician burns his Cadillac on a US senator’s lawn to protest the senator’s racist pronouncements, I argue that Ellison adopts expressive strategies of black vernacular culture—the ritual of the dozens and African American automotive consumption—to explicate a singular conception of literary commitment, one that seeks political effectiveness precisely within formal autonomy. By tracing the presence of the Cadillac in US rhetorics of race, the nature of the dozens as a formally hermetic expressive form, and the signifying potential of conspicuous consumption, I demonstrate the radical and utopian content of Ellison’s politics in the postwar era.
Playing the Dozens and Consuming the Cadillac: Ralph Ellison and Civil Rights Politics
Nathaniel Mills is assistant professor of English at California State University, Northridge. His work on US and African American literary radicalism has been published or is forthcoming in Against the Current, Journal of Modern Literature, MELUS, Studies in American Naturalism, and African American Review. His current project is a monograph that theorizes the forms of black Marxism animating the writings of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Margaret Walker during the 1930s and 1940s.
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Nathaniel Mills; Playing the Dozens and Consuming the Cadillac: Ralph Ellison and Civil Rights Politics. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 June 2015; 61 (2): 147–172. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-3112180
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