Ralph Ellison and Cultural Knowledge
by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante
I have often reflected on how I came to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man while I was in high school at Nashville Christian Institute. It was about the same time my Aunt Georgia gave me Dickens' stories as a Christmas gift that I found in our little library Ellison's big book. What fascinated me about the book was its size, after all, I had never seen a book written by a black person. I did not read the book in its entirety at that time, I must have been fourteen or so when I came to the book. Later, I would read it and read it again; such was the power of Ellison's prose.
Unquestionably as a writer, Ralph Ellison, both by reputation and skill, largely based, if not exclusively so on Invisible Man, occupies a unique corner of American literature. Angled there by virtue of the indomitable presence of Invisible Man, Ellison has become a fixture in more literature courses and writing seminars than either Richard Wright or James Baldwin, both far away more productive and telling authors in their own way.
Ellison was from Oklahoma. When I, as a young college student, landed in Oklahoma I could only feel strangeness at first. It was not quite like either Georgia or Tennessee. Something tugged at my soul, called me to take notice. At first I thought it was the fact that I had never seen so many Native Americans up close, went to school with them, raced against them on the track field, and heard their music in the many spiritual celebrations. But Ellison was from Oklahoma I kept thinking. And one day while in Boley, an all-African town, it hit me like lightning I really want to be a writer. The intense black faces staring at me from the hardware store, maybe ten or twelve people who had assembled on the porch of the store for something followed my car as I drove slowly through the main street. I could see how Ellison could dig deep into these souls and see something that was invisible to the normal person. These were survivors. I then knew what had tugged at me, what had been in the atmosphere; it was the strong intermingling of African and Native American history.
Many of the African families had come to Oklahoma with the Native Nations that had made the Great Trek in 1835, the "Trail of Tears." Perhaps some of my ancestors on both sides may have come with them. This strange land lay claim to powerful spirits. In the one main street town of Boley there were remnants of these hardy ones. They looked curiously at any visitor and I could see their interest in me. Their souls were sturdy as rocks and their faces chiseled with wisdom and experience. I wanted to spend a lot of time in Boley and the other all African towns in Oklahoma but was only a student, one of only two blacks in my college.
So it was set. I studied at Oklahoma Christian College where the Bible was the main text of the college. I mastered it because of interest, faith, and some very skilled teachers. Yet as a student involved in the emotions of the Civil Rights period I felt an urgent need to write. I could not contain myself and yet here I was in a sea of whiteness and each day I felt that the Bible, all sixty six books, twenty seven in the New and thirty nine in the Old Testament, had become too narrow, too inexpressive, too restricting in meaning for my spirit. And perhaps I felt that none of the white teachers had ever read Ralph Ellison, none gave me any indication that they had ever read anything by an African person. So thinking of Ellison, I would sit in my British Literature, or German, or Greek, or Communication class and daydream about what could be if these teachers only knew about African Americans. We were invisible in the intellectual realm in which these teachers operated.
I sought to break out of my bondage. Writing appealed to me because it gave me a way to order the chaos I saw. The murder of blacks in the South by anti-Africanists had a profound effect on me. The Birmingham Church bombing , as much as the murder of Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner, and Viola Liuzzo and the earlier lynching of Emmett till was psychologically scarring. As a young African person with little to protect me from the vagaries of the system of oppression which I saw around me I believed there was only one orientation for me and that was to swear an oath to always oppose injustice. My teachers could not deliver for me the explanation or solace or counsel I needed; they would have had to condemn themselves because their own people, white Christian Americans, were the cause of the turmoil in the South. Yet Ellison always lay at the back of my mind.
It was at this period that I turned to my own history with greater intensity. I wanted to know all of the works Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. I saw these writers as heroes. I had little knowledge of literary heroines. This was before the awakening. It would be several years before Zora Neale Hurston would truly burst upon my consciousness. The women of struggle were seldom the literary women. I knew Tubman, Truth, Bethune, the Grimkes, and Ida B. Wells. Rising in the Sixties would be the new lyrical voices, Mari Evans, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Toni Cade Bambara. Of course, Gwendolyn Brooks would later encourage me to continue to write and I would see in her history the most eloquent expression of nobility in the race. In my own honor to heroes, including Ellison, I was pleased to have rediscovered Ellison when I re-read Invisible Man in college.
A lot had been said, but not enough, about the sensitivity of Ellison's art. The manner in which he approached the cross of American society, using the metaphor so properly understood by whites and blacks alike. In Invisible Man, Ellison gives his soul, participating as a spectator creating his own magic circle, weaving the improbabilities of black life in the vortex of a society stacked against blacks and arguing for the probabilities of survival and success. And yet Ellison knows that his perceptions are from a select corner angled to impress and impact on the white spectators, non-participants in the magic circle, who need his telling thunder, however soft, imperceptible, to teach them.
He is haunted, not by the thoughts of failure, nor by the stalking truth of a million voices wishing to tell another story or to leap beyond invisibility or who were never invisible (and the whites knew it and them), nor by the sizzling impatience of black radicalism but by the grace of time, haunted by the cutting edge of Richard Wright's autobiography. In 1945, Ellison wrote himself in the Antioch Review that:
" Wright is an important writer, perhaps the most articulate Negro American, and what he has to say is highly perceptive."
And Wright's Black Boy was a significant contribution to black autobiography in an oppressive society. It was unmistakably brilliant as a monument of earnestness and integrity. Wright's portrayal of the quality of the black male's sojourn through identification and rejection is akin to every great work of individual struggle. Now less than seven years later, Ellison would write Invisible Man and be judged the writer of the generation. The National Book Award would be won by Invisible Man and critics would say in 1965 that it was the most remarkable work to be published since 1945.
I recall my father telling me and Vera about Richard Wright when we were six and seven. But I had never seen a book of his or even knew the titles of any of his books. Years later, my appreciation for him would actually exceed any appreciation I had for any writer. Valdosta was a long way from Chicago and Mississippi and yet Native Son and Black Boy would enthrall me with their familiarity. Wright seemed to me to know everything about our culture, our wishes, our aspirations. He was everywhere. Off to Asia, off to Europe, off to Africa—Richard Wright was our Joe Louis of the literary world, boxing the mad demons that danced in the African's path. Yes, my father told us about Wright's flights and fights. It would be many years later before Margaret Walker's Jubilee would come into my consciousness and I would understand how close she was to Wright in her sensibilities and how close he was to her. Margaret Walker had visited Temple University in 1985 and had condemned Alex Haley for what she believed to be his lifting of material from Jubilee for his book Roots. When she showed me the references, it looked too close to be anything other than Haley taking from Walker. She also spoke on Richard Wright and would later publish a book on his demonic genius. Her own genius was never in doubt and although I came late to her work it influenced my thinking about Georgia. Margaret Walker knew, however, that what she did with Georgia, Richard Wright sought to do with Mississippi—to paint a picture of reality so clearly evocative that even the pine trees would have to cry out for freedom of black people. In this sense, Wright was one of the deities in my growing pantheon; he knew how to tell my southern story.
Wright was to be found lurking in the back of Ellison's mind, to impregnate his right hemisphere with the imaginative attributes of life under slavery, the distortion of sense, the resurrection of latitude from the narrow box of a provincial death, thus providing the writer with a wider view of the world, a more literate universe, rich with diversity and logic.
There is, therefore, in Ellison a direct and forceful literary gesture which appears as illusion, rhythmicized by the author's intelligent use of light and dark, black and white.
But this is an extreme statement on the generation of Invisible Man. Extremity in this case is probably no vice, however, since Ellison has given us no other full-length novel from which to draw conclusions. Shadow and Act, his undistinguished collection of essays published in 1966, had its faults and insights as well. But neither the faults nor the insights were those one finds in a novel. The most valuable indication of the literary breadth of a writer is probably how he handles the novel. In Ellison we see his remarkable critical acumen and yet the shadow of Wright is ever so present.
I see nothing wrong in this, it is rather to be admired. And if Ellison never gave Wright credit for his own creative inspiration as he should have, it is his loss. Richard Wright was a rebel; Ellison a controversialist writer. Wright an expatriate; Ellison the writer tied to his soil. It would be unfair to say that Wright was a black writer first and Ellison an American writer first; indeed they were both out of the spirit of America. Both saw the contradictions in their social and literary condition. For Wright it was clear he was an American but an American who wrote from a black experience; he could not possibly have written from any other experience. Ellison admired Wright's work and could see how in Black Boy "two worlds have fused, two cultures merged, two impulses of western men become coalesced." By the time I came to literature in a serious way I was dumbfounded by the statement of Ellison about Wright's work, how could he bring the double consciousness of Dubois to this situation. In fact, all the books I read by Wright was about two separate, warring cultures. Was there something else going on at an official level that I might not have known? This was not to be answered by Ellison who gloried in Joyce and Dostoevsky and never truly saw himself in Wright's tradition.
There is a sadness here. Irving Howe's essay in Dissent in 1963 and Ellison's reply in the New Leader and Dissent make a good pas de deus but Ellison tries too hard to destroy Wright's notion of the novel that he proves the point made by Howe. The filial rebellion found in Ellison is unjustified on literary grounds. Baldwin chose to let Notes of a Native Son stand as his reply to Howe. Ellison, however, jumps on a springboard and goes up and down and across the sociological spectrum to criticize Howe's argument. In so doing, he disavows any relationship to Wright's integrity showing himself to be a caricature of the "American writers" he so wanted to be, and indeed became. In fact, it is probably why he could never achieve another novel. What if it failed? What if he told his true feelings? What if he could not sustain the philosophical position he had advanced in Invisible Man? And so, no, he was not a student of Richard Wright's and not a follower of Wright's literary method. He had no intention as he said of James Baldwin of out-Wrighting Richard.
In his attempt to escape Richard Wright, Ellison loses himself in cliches and hides behind the mask of universality, which could only be, as it has always been, an illusion, a system of artistic demagoguery. Indeed, Invisible Man, however devoid of "clenched militancy" must be understood as an unwilling attempt to out-Wright Richard Wright.
But in many ways, Wright was inescapable. Richard Wright's Black Boy captured the essence of what I had learned as a young black boy in South Georgia. A whole host of prohibitions and regulations obtained, the most common ones being:
· If a black cat crosses your path, you'll have bad luck.
· If you were good to your Mama, you'd grow old and rich.
· If you covered a mirror while a storm was raging, lightning would not strike you.
· If you spat on corn as it was being planted, it would grow tall and have good ears.
· If the sun came out during a rain storm then the devil was beating his wife.
· If you broke a mirror, you'd have seven years of bad luck.
· If you mocked a crippled person, then you would be crippled.
· If your nose itched, you'd have a visitor.
If your hand itched, you'd have money.
There were also rules that applied to whites in the South. We said:
· Whites would do anything for money.
· Whites loved to see blacks fight each other.
· Whites could not be trusted to support blacks against evil whites.
· Whites thought we were animals.
· Whites were curious about our sex habits.
· White didn't think we would be in heaven.
Ralph Ellison could not see as Richard Wright had seen that the fault of white people lay in their white supremacist attitudes not in human relations. They treated their animals better than some people. They were strange to me, talking to animals and shouting at blacks. They were not a happy people and even with their wealth and leisure they always seemed to be threatened by our presence.
Wright was gifted and significant because he saw the novel as a weapon for challenging and changing, granted a literary instrument but no less a weapon. Ellison may have never admitted that Invisible Man followed Black Boy and Native Son in that respect, but it did in the minds of those reading it. This is not to divest it of anything but to fulfill it, to charge it with the force its author wanted, for the grace of the critics, to minimize.
Now we come to a serious question, why is it that Ellison refuses to see himself in the shadow of Richard Wright? Was the Wright he admired in 1945 so different in 1963 as a writer? What had changed in Ellison's circumstances?
The appearance of Invisible Man in 1952 enthroned Ellison as the black writer to be dealt with critically and intellectually. The success of the novel, achieving more recognition and attention than any previous black novel, catapulted Ellison the critic into the front ranks of contemporary novelists. And there is the spotlight, with the heat of blazing rays of critics gunning for him, under pressure, waiting, fearing, and listening, he denied he knew Wright three times before the cock crowed. He was an American writer who happened to be black. He rejected the "Narrow Naturalism" of Richard Wright. He saw himself in the larger role of writer and not as black writer. In all of this he was running to claim an illusion, a poor illusion at that, to escape from his blackness, his identity, his oppression. And now with the National Book Award he had to deny that his work was anti-white, anti-American System, anti-oppression. With the acclaim of white critics resounding in his ears he felt the need to deny his kinship to Richard Wright. Once again, the inferiority monster, ever so secret, stole into the heart of one of our greatest literary artist and had him putting distance between himself and the shadow he could never escape.
It is a mistake to assume I knew all of this when I first read Ellison at the Nashville Christian Institute or when I re-read him in college. It would take years before I could really digest the real meat of this book and its author. There was, of course, no question of distance in the same way Ellison had seen distance between Wright and himself. Life was to be lived openly and with a good dose of respect for reality. Ellison was not an end for me but a beginning. He prepared me for deeper moments of spirit and soul and I would fly off to Africa both physically and intellectually as I found myself in the midst of anomie in America.