Ralph Ellison on the Harlem Riots of 1943

I have been reading Arnold Rampersad’s excellent biography of Ralph Ellison in preparation for my upcoming October seminar at the Glencoe Library on Invisible Man. Rampersad’s discussion of Ellison’s personal observations as a witness to the Harlem race riots in 1943 caught my attention in light of recent events in Chicago. The quotes from Ellison are from on article that appeared in the New York Post on August 3, 1943.
Rampersad writes that Ellison was stunned by the bizarre, even surrealistic juxtaposition of behaviors among the rioters. A crowd of looters paused long enough from their stealing to buy bottles of milk from a passing truck. One man disavowed being a member of the mob. He hadn’t stolen anything, he pointed out. ‘I just broke windows.’ A woman declared the event ‘a colored man’s New Year.’ A group of black boys put on blonde wigs, silk hats, and other formal wear ‘and danced in the streets.’ Toting stolen boxes of soap powder, a man explained truculently, ‘I gotta keep clean ain’t I?’….He witnessed attempts by law-abiding folks to console shop owners. Mainly, however, the dominant vision was of chaos.

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