The study of demography does not yield the history of culture, and in focusing so closely on population statistics Berlin overlooks several centuries of vital political, intellectual, and entrepreneurial history, and so he presents only the silhouette of black culture. Particularly glaring is his neglect of the vernacular tradition in black culture—its poetic speech, its music, sacred and profane, its folklore and folk art. That tradition, which emerged over the course of the journeys and migrations that Berlin traces so ably, demands special attention. It may now seem indistinguishable from the mongrel culture that has enveloped it, but represents in fact its invaluable essence—so deeply embedded in our national life that when, in 1970, Ralph Ellison asked “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” an essay published when racial harmony seemed far from assured, his sensible answer was, “Not America.” “Which is fortunate,” he continued,
“…for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, between our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has always threatened its existence from within.”
We are no longer living in Ellison’s America, thankfully, though the ascension of black vernacular culture can still seem the most complete triumph over racial prejudice American society will truly permit. Moral slobbism has certainly not disappeared from our midst, and the traditions of African American culture can still help us fight it.