Poetic Justice in “A Party Down at the Square” by Ellison

In “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”, Ellison elucidates the African-American experience in contrast to the (No Hyphen) “American” experience. “When the white American, holding up most twenty-th century fiction, says, ‘This is American reality,’ the Negro tends to answer ‘Perhaps, but you’ve left out this, and this, and this’…”. To make the American Experience whole, Ellison wrote “A Party Down at the Square.”

Therein, he describes the lynching of a black man, burning at the stake. Even in the simple plot, Ellison creates justice through the “accidental” events that surround the burning: a terrible storm wrecks havoc on the the town’s infrastructure for three days, a plane crashes in the near distance; this causes electrical wires to whip about dangerously; they strike a woman and kill her instantly. In all of this, Ellison makes the case that when you lose a man (of any color), you lose much more than a man.

The most striking element of this short story is Ellison’s prolific use of the word ‘nigger’. It’s painful to read, used over and over , dozens of times, often once per sentence. Not only does it conjure the pain of the word, and the history of oppression, but sadly enough it does the opposite: it numbs us to the word and by the end of the story, it doesn’t hold much strength; it becomes somewhat normal to describe the black man as such (as horrible as that may be); this technique is effective to call attention to some of the hatred we have normalized.

The overabundance, I believe, is specifically to hedge the use of pronouns. Very seldom is the man given “he” or “his” but rather described in parts: “the nigger’s voice”, “the nigger’s hands”, and “the nigger’s feet”; he was mostly described for the color of his skin; the narrator demeaned his experience: “Every time I eat barbecue I’ll remember that nigger,” which emphasized the cruelty and barbarity of the “party.”

The only voice the African-American ever spoke was “Will somebody please cut my throat like a Christian?” He once more proved his humanity and his will; he entreated his fellow men to end his life swiftly and mercifully (the inhumane irony should not escape the reader). One ignorant Jed replies: “Sorry, but ain’t no christians around….we’re just one hundred percent Americans.” In his stupidity and ignorance, he doesn’t connect the American value of Christian mercy to what it means to be American for his is so blinded by his racism that he has not realized his own hypocrisy.

Ellison, influenced by T.S. Elliot idea of a corrupted and decomposing sense of morality, may be commenting on the lack of spirituality and the increasing secularism of American identity. Rather than be united against a common evil or towards a common good, they divide themselves into black/white, man/woman, rich/poor and so forth. In this brief dialogue, Ellison seems to remind Americans the lack of faith and values they once had upheld.

In the end however, despite a belief in the higher power, the higher power believes in them anyway. It seems that some greater justice is served (to the willful ignorance of the townsmen) when all the consequent chaos emerges (environmental turmoil, death of a white woman, legal battles etc). One ultimately hushed white cropper stated “it didn’t do no good to kill the niggers ‘cause things don’t get no better”. Instead of subduing African-Americans, the lynchings incite anger and revenge and leads to increased amount of escape attempts.

While Ellison didn’t present his “Negro characters [to] possess the full, complex ambiguity of the human” as he criticized other authors, but he did present a new American reality. He used poetic justice to represent the grueling experiences of “slavery, full citizen ship, stigma of color, and enforced alienation.” He demonstrates that to hurt one of our countrymen is to hurt all countrymen.

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