🦋 Language, diversity, and Ralph Ellison’s 'democratic vernacular'

Do democracies have to choose between diversity and social cohesion? The African-American writer Ralph Ellison spent his career resisting this false choice, arguing that the idea of a 'common culture' did not have to amount to assimilation. Nathan Pippenger argues that Ellison’s distinctive perspective on these issues holds important lessons for democracies today

Democracy and culture

In many democracies, cultural diversity is both a fact of life and a frequent source of controversy. But democracy is not just a matter of laws and institutions. This series has made clear that it also involves a kind of cultural aspiration wrapped up in words and meanings. How can this distinctive way of living together include all citizens when the demos comprises such different groups?

Many people mistrust the ideal of a 'common culture'. It can easily be co-opted in support of assimilative agendas that signal disrespect for oppressed groups and/or minorities. On the other hand, if citizens lack unity, their mutual isolation might corrode solidarity, breed mistrust, and imperil democratic ideals.

These questions preoccupied the 20th century African-American writer Ralph Ellison. Although best known for his novel Invisible Man, Ellison was not only a novelist. He was also a prolific essayist who wrote about music, politics, and contemporary controversies such as racial integration.

Many Black intellectuals of Ellison’s era disdained his integrationism. They believed that integration could only amount to assimilation, destroying Black culture and identity. Ellison’s challenge to this view resulted in a major contribution to democratic theory. It came through his concept of the 'democratic vernacular.'

The ‘democratic vernacular’

What is the 'democratic vernacular,' and what does it have to do with these debates? We can find clues in Ellison’s career-long fascination with American English, which began in his early attempts to write a novel that would portray America in all 'its rich diversity'. To achieve that goal, he felt it necessary to capture the 'richness of our speech,' which he attributed to the perpetual metamorphoses that characterised American cultural life.

When Americans spoke, according to Ellison, out of their mouths emerged a mélange. It was the language of Shakespeare that had travelled to North America with the colonists, but since had become mixed with influences from Mexico and Spain, from native peoples, from African-American slang, and much else besides. American English was a 'rich, marvelous, relatively unexplored organ,' 'the creation of many people,' and a 'product of these elusive variations of styles, manners and customs which emerged from our many sub-communities'.

For Ellison, American English was a 'rich, marvelous, relatively unexplored organ'... 'a product of these elusive variations of styles, manners and customs which emerged from our many sub-communities'

The vibrancy of this motley blend demonstrated the potential of what Ellison called the 'democratic vernacular' process. It was discernible in language, but not limited to language alone. As he explained in 1979, 'by "vernacular" I mean far more than popular or indigenous language. I see the vernacular as a dynamic process in which the most refined styles from the past are continually merged with […] play-it-by-eye-and-by-ear improvisations'.

‘Social barriers’ and ‘cultural styles’: the vernacular’s ‘democratising power’

From this example, Ellison drew a profound conclusion: American English proved the viability of cultural integration. Here was a cultural product shared by all, shaped by all, and dominated by no particular group. Its emergence was evidence of the vernacular’s 'democratizing action,' which proceeded 'in its own unobserved fashion, defying the social, aesthetic and political assumptions of our political leaders and tastemakers alike'.

The nation’s political elites attempted to strictly segregate white and black Americans’ social and political existences. Yet, their segregationist ambitions were constantly undermined by the 'integrative action' of the democratic vernacular: 'In the United States all social barriers are vulnerable to cultural styles'. 'In this sense,' Ellison suggested, 'the culture of the United States has always been more "democratic" and "American" than the social and political institutions in which it was emerging'.

Ellison believed that the emergence of American English was evidence of the vernacular's 'democratizing action'

Ellison challenged Americans to tackle this work self-consciously, 'to fashion strategies of communication' to 'bridge the many divisions' of their society. He added: 'To the extent that American literature is both an art of discovery and an artistic agency for creating a consciousness of cultural identity, it is of such crucial importance as to demand of the artist not only an eclectic resourcefulness of skill, but an act of democratic faith'.

Reconciling diversity and unity: democratic virtues

The idea that language profoundly shapes a community’s culture — and, ultimately, its political life — did not originate with Ellison. Originally, the concept came from the 18th-century German scholar Johann Gottfried von Herder. Today, many remember Herder's theory of language as a key source of nationalist ideology, and it is often thought (unfairly) to be incompatible with the diversity that characterises many modern societies. But Ellison shows that a Herderian theory of language, culture, and politics need not entail a preference for social homogeneity. Instead, he explicitly celebrates the unexpected hybrids that result from the collision of different cultural-linguistic traditions.

Ellison's writings show how certain virtues of artistic and political importance can help citizens overcome social barriers without resorting to assimilation

Far from producing a muddled people without distinct traditions, these collisions contain the potential to reconcile diversity and unity. As Ellison explained in 1979, 'American culture is of a whole, for that which is essentially "American" in it springs from the synthesis of our diverse elements of cultural style'. Though separation and subordination plagued its politics, the unexpected fusions that retained group distinctiveness characterised America’s culture. To Ellison, this proved that 'integration without the surrender of our unique identity as a people […] [is] a viable and indeed inescapable goal for black Americans'.

Ellison did not naively believe that the vernacular process would automatically resolve complex questions that arise in culturally diverse democracies. But his writings offer an account of how certain virtues of artistic and political importance — such as creativity, aesthetic sensitivity, and openness to novelty — can help citizens overcome social barriers without resorting to assimilation. In this way, he believed, the everyday workings of language and culture might promote a shared democratic life.

No.90 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the ðŸ¦‹ to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Nathan Pippenger
Nathan Pippenger
Assistant Professor of Political Science, US Naval Academy

Nathan is a political theorist who studies democracy, citizenship, and nationalism, with a special focus on American politics.


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