Ralph Ellison
On the Hidden Political Meaning of Cultural Symbolism

“A third major problem, and one that is indispensable to the centralization and direction of power, is that of learning the meaning of the myths and symbols which abound among the Negro masses. For without this knowledge, leadership, no matter how correct its program, will fail. Much in Negro life remains a mystery; perhaps the zoot suit conceals profound political meaning; perhaps the symmetrical frenzy of the Lindy-hop conceals clues to great potential powers — if only Negro leaders would solve this riddle. On this knowledge depends the effectiveness of any slogan or tactic. For instance, it is obvious that Negro resentment over their treatment at the hands of their allies is justified. This naturally makes for a resistance to our stated war aims, even though these aims are essentially correct; and they will be accepted by the Negro masses only to the extent that they are helped to see the bright start of their own hopes through the fog of their daily experiences. The problem is psychological; it will be solved only by a Negro leadership that is aware of the psychological attitudes and incipient forms of action which the black masses reveal in their emotion-charged myths, symbols, and wartime folk-lore. Only through a skillful and wise manipulation of these centers of repressed social energy will Negro resentments, self-pity and indignation be channelized to cut through temporary issues and become transformed into positive action.”

SOURCE: Unsigned Editorial Comment, Negro Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, Winter 1943 (pp. 295-302), quote on pp. 301-302. This editorial is not to be found in Ellison's Collected Essays.

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