Mapping Black Movement, Containing Black Laughter: Ralph Ellison's New York Essays
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.
Mapping Black Movement, Containing Black Laughter: Ralph Ellison's New York Essays.
American Quarterly, 68(4), 907–929.