Title

Mapping Black Movement, Containing Black Laughter: Ralph Ellison's New York Essays

Document Type

Article

Publication Title

American Quarterly

Department

English

ISSN

0003-0678

Volume

68

Issue

4

DOI

10.1353/aq.2016.0072

First Page

907

Last Page

929

Publication Date

December 2016

Abstract

This essay analyzes Ralph Ellison’s nonfiction about New York during the Harlem Renaissance—especially his essay “An Extravagance of Laughter” and its redacted version as Esquire magazine’s “New York, 1936”—as way to engage with larger questions of movement in and through what Houston Baker dubs “the American geography of race.” Ellison’s 1986 account of his mapping of the inscrutable spaces of the urban North fifty years earlier yields, I argue, important insights into the cultural geography of race, the problematic historiographies of the Great Migration, and the adaptive, if psychically treacherous, performativity of (African) American identity. I unpack Ellison’s figure of the laughing barrel as a trope for Jim Crow–era attempts to control the spectacle of Black bodies and the unsettling sonics of Black laughter / Black sound. I then track the trajectory of Ellison’s essay itself, from Going to the Territory’s mapping of hypervisual/invisible Black bodies/spaces to Esquire’s nostalgic travelogue as instantiations of ongoing (failed) strategies of containment of African American bodies and full expressive humanity. Ellison’s papers from the Library of Congress and a critical synthesis of African American studies, cultural geography, and cultural studies inform the argument.

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"Beyond the Page" online supplement to article