Monday, February 21, 2011


There are at least two things I remember vividly about Ralph Ellison on the evening of Nov. 27, 1990 when I received the National Book Award for Middle Passage. That night, I read a tribute to 76-year-old Ellison as part of my acceptance speech (this was published in the October 1991 issue of Tri-Quarterly), and afterwards as we fielded questions together from reporters he said to me, "I thought I had been forgotten." Then during that joint interview when a reporter asked him if he wrote from the "Black experience," Ellison replied, "My God, you write out of your imagination, not your skin!"

Obviously, my hope is that Ellison and his aesthetic legacy are never forgotten.
His one novel, Invisible Man, and his essays in Shadow and Act, have become cultural artifacts and essential texts if one hopes to understand what we once called the "American experience." Yet to this day Ellison remains a lightning-rod for controversy. Some days, late at night when I'm working, I wonder if this on-going controversy arises simply because we no longer have or believe in a unique "American" literature (or identity), or even in the motto e pluribus unum.

 Writers from the era of Ellison, and his friend Saul Bellow, believed their job was to conjure universal truth from the rich particulars of the black and Jewish experience in this country. That project defined the aim of most of our great, canonized writers from the founding of the Republic forward. But the word "universal" is understandably radioactive for many today and, like the historical concepts of "nation" or "nation-state" it may have outlived its shelf life in an age when multi-national corporations know no geographic boundaries. Rather than striving to expand a canon of works that distinguish American literature (and identity) from that of the Old World (which Ellison's namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, devoted himself to doing), the zeitgeist of our moment in history directs writers to create for a specific, tribal, Balkanized audience defined by its race, class, gender, ideological or cultural orientation. In other words, many differing experiences within America with no apparent eidos (or essence), as a phenomenologist would say, providing an invariant meaning for what is "American."
Despite this cultural sea-change, which I believe is an inevitable and necessary correction for the overwhelmingly white, Eurocentric bias in American society, Ellison stuck to his old-fangled, liberal humanist position, or "stayed at his post" as Emerson might say. That night in 1990, Ellison's reply to the reporter was, in fact, an abbreviation of a famous passage from Invisible Man, where he wrote, "Stephen's problem (in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record...We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture. Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn't exist? For, you see, blood and skin do not think!"

In the decades after his novel's publication, Ellison continued to believe that "by a trick of fate (and our racial problems notwithstanding), the human imagination is integrative---and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process." (I can easily see President Barack Obama including that statement in one of his speeches, and members of the Taliban and al-Qaida hating it.) He urged us to believe in the principles on which America was founded, not in the men---white and black---who betrayed those principles. Democracy, individualism, high artistic standards, and integration---these were his mantras. And his goal was always to create "a fiction which, leaving sociology to the scientists, arrived at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of a fairy tale."
There is both sadness and irony in the virulent attacks Ellison received from Black Cultural Nationalists in the 1960s. One of the founders of the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal, first criticized Ellison in "The Black Writers Role, I, Richard Wright," an essay he published in 1965, then later in a stroke of honesty and contrition took back his criticism in "The Black Writers Role II, Ralph Ellison's Zoot Suit," in which he said, "Invisible Man is artistically one of the world's greatest novels...a great deal of the criticism (of Invisible Man) emanates from ideological sources that most of us today reject."

 In my own case, I was introduced to Ellison's novel in college by my friend, poet Alicia Johnson, who is mentioned with admiration in Amiri Baraka's anthology, Black Fire. In 1969, she told me she re-read Invisible Man once a year to improve her own writing. And I remember how my friend, the late playwright August Wilson, who greatly admired Baraka and always described himself as being a "Race Man," answered the question, "Do you write from the Black experience?" His answer was Ellisonian: "It never enters my mind that I'm writing Black. I'm writing what I know best---which is myself. I'm writing human, and while I'm conscious of the way history influences and in some guise controls our conduct and understanding of what it is to be part of humanity, it never defines it." (August told me often how he wanted to lead a protest against Borders and Barnes and Noble for placing the work of, say, Tennessee Williams in the section of the bookstore set aside for "American" works, and his in the section reserved for "Black" ones.)

In his life, and in his literature, Ralph Ellison was one of the 20th century's American literary pioneers who courageously called for the most demanding and (for some) frightening of freedoms. He told us, "The thing that Americans have to learn over and over again is that they are individuals and they have the responsibility of individual vision."

1 comment:

  1. I'm always struck by Ellison's emphasis on the individual imagination. I think your observation about recent fiction struggling with this is right on the mark: when I think of recent American novels, especially novels emerging from a particular ethnic tradition, the emphasis is much more on the group and group ideologies, much less on the charismatic individual emerging heroically above any single group identity. Ellison's achievement is all the more masterful, because his hero's titular struggle--"I am an invisible man"--would seem to preclude individual assertion. Yet by the end, particularly in the masterful epilogue (added later to the manuscript), he attains both self-identity AND a remarkable identity with the nation. Its power and lyricism always reminds of Nick Carraway's similar realization near the end of Gatsby: "unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again."