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: The Faculty Lounge

The Little Man At the 116th Street Subway Station

By Alfred Brophy


Ralph Ellison, a sometime resident of Harlem and therefore neighbor of Columbia University, recalled in the 1970s a lesson he had learned as a music student at Tuskegee in the 1930s.  After a tough recital, where he had not performed as well as he would have liked, he visited his piano teacher, Miss Harrison.  She told him always to play for the little man behind the stove at the Chehaw station.  Now, Chehaw is a mighty small place and it's really unlikely to expect to find someone schooled in music hiding there behind the stove, listening to the music a person performs there.  

Therein lies an important story, which Ellison called "The Little Man at the Chehaw Station."  For Miss Harrison had in mind that one must always do one's best, because it is possible, even likely, that someone, often schooled in precisely what it is that we're doing, is listening.  Perhaps even in little Chehaw, Alabama, the man behind the stove will  know something about music.  And there is a second point -- that the little man behind the stove will be critiquing from all sorts of different vantages.  (Perhaps he's  like Emerson's transparent eyeball,  striding across the landscape and seeing all and knowing all?)

That's tough advice to follow, obviously -- which may be why she delivered in the form of a story, instead of an injunction.  But there is even more to Ellison's story--that the little man behind the stove will have a wide knowledge; he will see  all sorts of traditions, black and white, and how they are related (shades of Ralph Waldo Emerson's all-seeing eyeball, perhaps?).  Not only should we always strive for our best; we should expect to meet people who will know more and see more connections than we do.  Perhaps the little man behind the stove is America itself, with its democratic ideal, which is always working towards a goal of equality and of integration, which takes pieces of many traditions and puts them together.

P6120009  And so on the occasion of a new journal at Columbia Law School, (picture of Columbia's Low Memorial Library at right) particularly one on race, perhaps we should return to Ellison's essay.  It speaks to us in two ways.  First, it suggests the goals that a journal that specializes in race should have, in terms of maintaining, even raising, the standards of the profession; and, second, Ellison reminds us of the ways that a listener may be schools in multiple traditions.  So, not only must one be prepared to address an audience who knows "white" music and musical traditions, but "black" traditions as well - and, of course, for Ellison those traditions crossed and influenced each other and became one.  Race, I think he would admonish us, is a central category of law that should be integrated into our analysis of law.  To translate Ellison's story into a legal framework, perhaps we should think of the little man at the Chehaw station as the little man at the 116th street subway stop -- or maybe the little man at the number 1 train's Wall Street stop.  Because maybe it's the lawyers on Wall Street and their clients we need to address.

In another address, to editors of African American newspapers, Ellison admonished them to read as though the sheriff of a small southern town was looking over their shoulder and reading their work.  For, he  was.  There are two pieces of this story that intrigued Ellison.  First, the ways that white people and black people interacted, even as white people policed the boundaries of segregation.  Yet, white people were intensely interested in what black intellectuals were saying.  This is in the nature of things, perhaps, if you are trying to police the behavior of other people, you need to know what they are thinking and planning.  But I think that Ellison had a sense that this was a two-way street, that the ideas of Afriican American intellectuals might actually move their white readers, even those charged with maintaining segregation. 

There are, indeed, a number of examples of precisely this kind of listening to ideas of African Americans in our nation's history.  In the wake of Nat Turner's rebellion, white legislators in Virginia debated what to do about slavery.  One committed proslavery writer pointed to a meeting  in the African American community in Baltimore Maryland the previous year that opposed colonization.  White people read the anti-slavery literature to see what was being  said and then they responded to it.  To take another example from ninety years after Nat Turner: in the wake of the Tulsa riot of May-June 1921, one white man who worked in the black section of Tulsa testified about how he listened to what happened in Tulsa; he picked up their newspapers and listened to the conversations.  He was the eyes and ears of white Tulsa.  I'm not so sure those are cases where the white people who were listening were so much influenced by the events they read and heard about as reacting to them.

But I think there was more than monitoring of what happened at some times.  There was a moment when white people listened and learned from the ideas of African American intellectual as we moved towards Brown v. Board of Education.   From the late 1910s through the early 1950s, African American intellectuals -- like WEB DuBois -- advanced a powerful and broad critique of American law's failure to abide by the equal protection principle.  And while there are many, many sources of Brown, I think that one of the most powerful sources in the culture was the African American critique of the court's failure to abide equal treatment.  In part I suppose the critique was so powerful because it tapped into the principle of the golden rule, of which the fourteenth amendment's equal protection clause is a sort of secular version.

So it is my hope that the scholarship in the  Columbia Journal of Race and Law will be both exceedingly rigorous -- and I would expect nothing less from that most traditional of law schools.  But I also hope that the literature will draw on a variety of intellectual traditions; not just that it will provide a fine, doctrinal analysis of what the law is, but that it will look to the possibilities of what the law might be.  Just as intellectual like DuBois imagined a new world, constructed on principles from the Constitution and assembled, with social science rigor, evidence that our country was not living up to those principles.

The photo is from flickr.  There's another great photo of the 116th subway stop here.

Full post as published by The Faculty Lounge on July 12, 2010 (boomark / email).

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