To live in Harlem is to dwell in the very bowels of the city; it is to pass a labyrinthine existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter underfoot with garbage and decay. Harlem is a ruin — many of its ordinary aspects (its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings with littered areaways, ill-smelling halls, and vermin-invaded rooms) are indistinguishable from the distorted images that appear in dreams and, like muggers haunting a lonely hall, quiver in the waking mind with hidden and threatening significance. Yet this is no dream but the reality of well over 400,000 Americans; a reality that for many defines and colors the world. Overcrowded and exploited politically and economically, Harlem is the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth.
But much has been written about the social and economic aspects of Harlem; I am here interested in its psychological character — a character that arises from the impact between urban slum conditions and folk sensibilities. Historically, American Negroes are caught in a vast process of change that has swept them from slavery to the condition of industrial man in a space of time so telescoped (a bare eighty-five years) that it is possible literally for them to step from feudalism into the vortex of industrialism simply by moving across the Mason–Dixon Line.
This abruptness of change and the resulting clash of cultural factors within Negro personality account for some of the extreme contrasts found in Harlem. For if Harlem is the scene of the folk Negro’s death agony, it is also the setting of his transcendence. Here it is possible for talented youths to leap through the development of decades in a brief twenty years, while beside them white-haired adults crawl in the feudal darkness of their childhood. Here a former cotton picker develops the sensitive hands of a surgeon, and men whose grandparents still believe in magic prepare optimistically to become atomic scientists. Here the grandchildren of those who possessed no written literature examine their lives through the eyes of Freud and Marx, Kierkegaard and Kafka, Malraux and Sartre. It explains the nature of a world so fluid and shifting that often within the mind the real and the unreal merge, and the marvelous beckons from behind the same sordid reality that denies its existence.
For this is a world in which the major energy of the imagination goes not into creating works of art but into overcoming the frustrations of social discrimination. Not quite citizens and yet Americans, full of the tensions of modern man but regarded as primitives, Negro Americans are in desperate search for an identity. Rejecting the second-class status assigned them, they feel alienated and their whole lives have become a search for answers to the questions Who am I, What am I, Why am I, and Where? Significantly, in Harlem the reply to the greeting “How are you?” is very often “Oh man, I’m nowhere” — a phrase revealing an attitude so common that it has been reduced to a gesture, a seemingly trivial word. Indeed, Negroes are not unaware that the conditions of their lives demand new definitions of terms like primitive and modern, ethical and unethical, moral and immoral, patriotism and treason, tragedy and comedy, sanity and insanity.
But calm in face of the unreality of Negro life has become increasingly difficult. And while some seek relief in strange, hysterical forms of religion, in alcohol and drugs, others learn to analyze the causes of their predicament and join with others to correct them.
In relation to their Southern background, the cultural history of Negroes in the North reads like the legend of some tragic people out of mythology, a people that aspired to escape from its own unhappy homeland to the apparent peace of a distant mountain, but that, in migrating, made some fatal error of judgment and fell into a great chasm of mazelike passages that promise ever to lead to the mountain but end ever against a wall. Not that a Negro is worse off in the North than in the South, but that in the North he surrenders and does not replace certain important supports to his personality. He leaves a relatively static social order in which, having experienced its brutality for hundreds of years — indeed, having been formed within it and by it — he has developed those techniques of survival to which Faulkner refers as “endurance,” and an ease of movement within explosive situations that makes Hemingway’s definition of courage, “grace under pressure,” appear mere swagger. He surrenders the protection of his peasant cynicism — his refusal to hope for the fulfillment of hopeless hopes — and his sense of being “at home in the world” gained from confronting and accepting (for day-to-day living, at least) the obscene absurdity of his predicament. Further, he leaves a still authoritative religion that gives his life a semblance of metaphysical wholeness, a family structure that is relatively stable, and a body of folklore — tested in life-and-death terms against his daily experience with nature and the Southern white man — that to action serves him as a guide.
From an essay written by Ellison in 1948 and published for the first time in the August 1964 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.