University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor(s): Scott Boehnen
The Power of Community
The Power of Community
Democracy is a system of government in which the power belongs to the people. As it is known throughout the world, one of the biggest issues plaguing democracies throughout history is the question of which groups are regarded as "people" and therefore included in democracy. Ralph Ellison acknowledges this in his essay "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks" saying, "The most obvious test and clue to that perfection [of democracy] is the inclusion—not assimilation—of the black man" (Ellison, "What America Would Be Like Without Blacks). Ellison emphasizes the distinction between inclusion and assimilation as an important one. The difference between the two is that inclusion implies acceptance of a group's culture, while assimilation implies erasure of that group's identity and conformity to the rest of society. The inclusion or assimilation of a group into society is key in determining whether there exists the possibility of a community for individuals of that group. This can be seen in two short stories about the Black experience in America. The first, Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game", demonstrates how assimilation of a group denies the possibility of community for the protagonist. The second, James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues", illustrates how inclusion can affirm the possibility of a community for individuals. These stories also show the impact that the presence or absence of a community can have on an individual's outcome.
The story "King of the Bingo Game" serves as an allegory for the struggles of African Americans and has many parallels to the Allegory of the Cave. In the story the protagonist, a Black man, participates in a bingo game with a crowd of fellow African Americans. This game is run by white men and is rigged so that it is virtually impossible to win; not only do players have to win the bingo game, but they must spin a wheel and have it stop using a button at the double zero. This bingo game represents the institutions run by white people, controlling the fate of any African American looking to get ahead in life. Despite being a part of the same crowd as his fellow African Americans, the protagonist feels no comradery with them. In fact, he internally wishes he was back in his predominantly Black hometown of Rocky Mont in the South, where he could ask a stranger for some peanuts or a drink and they'd gladly hand it to him. The reason why he feels so out of place among his supposed peers is that the audience members are prisoners, captive to the shadows created by the marionettes of their white oppressors, just as the prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave are. This illusion that the audience and the protagonist are given is one of luck and control. The seeming existence of luck comes from the very nature of the game, that if the right numbers are called out and you press the button just right, you can win the grand prize. The sense of control stems from the idea that you can take actions to increase your luck, such as playing with more than one bingo card or letting go of the button quickly. However, there is no luck, and there is no control over luck, as luck implies a random chance at winning, when in reality, the game is designed by the white overseers so that nobody can win. When the protagonist holds down the button that controls the wheel, he becomes the escaped prisoner and realizes the truth. He realizes that "as long as he pressed the button, he could control the jackpot. He and only he could determine whether or not it was to be his. Not even the man with the microphone could do anything about it now. He felt drunk. Then, as though he had come down from a high hill into a valley of people, he heard the audience yelling. 'Come down from there, you jerk!' 'Let somebody else have a chance…'" (Ellison, King of the Bingo Game 60). He realizes that by not playing to the rules of the white institutions, he can fight back and control his destiny. But he alone has escaped to the outside world. The rest of the audience is still held captive by the false promise of luck and fortune and are angry when he deprives them of their chance at winning. They are conditioned to be believe what white people tell them to believe, and act how they are told to act. If someone does otherwise, like ask a stranger for some peanuts or a drink as the protagonist notes, they'd be called crazy. Thus, the audience is assimilated into this white society. Just as the escaped prisoner did in the Allegory of the Cave, the protagonist tried to relate what he has seen to the audience, the prisoners engrossed with the false truth. "Those folks did not understand what had happened to him. They had been playing the bingo game day in and night out for years, trying to win rent money or hamburger change. But not one of those wise guys had discovered this wonderful thing. He watched the wheel whirling past the numbers and experienced a burst of exaltation: this is God! This is the really truly God! He said it aloud, 'This is God!' He said it with such conviction that he feared he would fall fainting into the footlights. But the crowd yelled so loud that they could not hear" (Ellison, King of the Bingo Game 60). Because the audience is so assimilated, they are contented with playing by the white people's rules and ostracize the protagonist for speaking out against doing so. They deny him the possibility of a community and so he has nobody to accept and support him in acting upon his realization of the truth. In the end, when the police officers come to take away his grip on control of his fate, the button, he has no one to help him and the audience simply cheers when he is beaten.
The counter example to "King of the Bingo Game" is the story "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin. The key difference is that unlike the protagonist in "King of the Bingo Game", Sonny actually has a community to support him. The nightclub that Sonny goes to holds within it a community of musicians who encourage one another to express themselves through a distinct form of music—blues. When Creole played with Sonny, "[h]e wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing—he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know" (Baldwin 246). The deep water that is referred to here is a metaphor for Sonny's journey for self-knowledge and expression of that knowledge. While drowning is often caused by panic and flailing, staying afloat in deep water requires seeing the surroundings and water clearly. Creole wants Sonny to look deep within himself and understand his struggles. He wants Sonny to be the escaped prisoner in the Allegory of the Cave and see the outside world and the truth. Once Sonny has done so, he then goes back inside the cave and relates what he was seen to the audience through his music. Sonny's music expressed what he has gone through, what he will continue to go through, and what others go through as well. The narrator understands the importance of this music saying, "the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell it's the only light we've got in all this darkness" (Baldwin 247). The music that Sonny provides gives hope to those watching. Unlike in "King of the Bingo Game", the audience enthusiastically listens to Sonny's music; the prisoners in the cave accept the escaped prisoner's truth of the outside world. Sonny does this with the assistance and guidance of Creole and other musicians in the community who have been in Sonny's shoes. This possibility of community and the help and acceptance it provides is only possible because of music, in particular blues—a form of music created by African Americans. It is only through the inclusion of African Americans and the preservation of their culture is this community made possible, and by extension, Sonny's self-realization and expression.
When it comes to discussing the oppression, and subsequent exclusion from democracy, of marginalized groups such as African Americans, one debate that always seems to come up is the importance of the power of the mind, as opposed to the power of the institution, in determining an individual's future. Those who emphasize the importance of the power of the mind say that change must come from within each individual, pointing to figures of Black excellence as proof. Those who believe that the power of the institution is greater claim that oppressive institutions make such changes impossible, pointing to the many more Black figures who could not overcome the obstacles resulting from their race. The answer to this debate, however, is neither. Rather it is the power of the community that determines an individual's potential and capacity for change. As seen in "Sonny's Blues", in order for the power of the mind to grow and develop, a community must be present to accept and nurture it. As seen in "King of the Bingo Game", attempting to overcome or even change institutions is futile without a community to back you. The community serves to support the individual and links them to institutional change. The clearest example of this is the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights movement was facilitated by a community; a community that was made up of like-minded, brilliant, and determined individuals; a community that formed its own institutions, such as the NAACP and the SCLC; a community that kept its identity and truly helped make a more perfect democracy.