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Ulysses in Black

Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature

Patrice D. Rankine

Publication Year: 2006

In this groundbreaking work, Patrice D. Rankine asserts that the classics need not be a mark of Eurocentrism, as they have long been considered. Instead, the classical tradition can be part of a self-conscious, prideful approach to African American culture, esthetics, and identity. Ulysses in Black demonstrates that, similar to their white counterparts, African American authors have been students of classical languages, literature, and mythologies by such writers as Homer, Euripides, and Seneca.

Ulysses in Black closely analyzes classical themes (the nature of love and its relationship to the social, Dionysus in myth as a parallel to the black protagonist in the American scene, misplaced Ulyssean manhood) as seen in the works of such African American writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Countee Cullen. Rankine finds that the merging of a black esthetic with the classics—contrary to expectations throughout American culture—has often been a radical addressing of concerns including violence against blacks, racism, and oppression. Ultimately, this unique study of black classicism becomes an exploration of America’s broader cultural integrity, one that is inclusive and historic.


Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

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Prologue: Preparing for the Journey of Ulysses in Black

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pp. 3-21

This is a book of parts. The whole advances our understanding of the relationship between black literature and the classics (the body of European texts and ideas that I define more clearly later). I argue that, as the recent boom in interest in black classicism within the academic fields of Classical Studies and outside of it attests, black writers have always been inter-...

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1. Classica Africana: The Nascent Study of Black Classicism

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pp. 22-34

African American literature is as obscure to some as the classics are to others. Apart from their common remoteness, the one might seem to have little to do with the other. The latter is an emblem of a European heritage extending back to at least the third century BCE with little real interruption.1 The former, although born before America itself, is a field that ...

Journey 1: From Eurocentrism to Black Classicism

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2. Birth of a Hero: The Poetics and Politics of Ulysses in Classical Literature

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pp. 37-65

Ulysses, who marks Western literature from Homer’s Odyssey to James Joyce’s novels, is emblematic of an endlessly adaptable heroic identity. For the classical scholar W. B. Stanford, Ulysses was perhaps the single most influential literary hero born in ancient times. In The Ulysses Theme, Stanford traces Ulysses from his pre-Homeric possibilities (as a folkloric trick-...

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3. Ulysses Lost on Racial Frontiers: The Limits of Classicism in the Modern World

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pp. 66-82

Race complicates the issue of classical reception more than any other ideological prism, including class, nationalism, or gender and sexuality. Given this hypothesis, the silence within the academic field of classical studies on questions of race and racism (excepting Frank Snowden) until relatively recent years (post–Black Athena) is curious and more than deafening.1...

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4. The New Negro Ulysses: Classicism in African American Literature as a Return from the Black (W)hole

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pp. 92-118

For African American authors, the use of classical motifs or emblems of Western heritage has always had attendant political consequences. Since Phillis Wheatley first showed “an inclination for the Latin tongue” in 1773, black American authors who dabble in the classics have consistently met a peculiar set of responses.1 Wheatley’s reception among critics is emblem-...

Journey 2: Ralph Ellison’s Black American Ulysses

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5. “Ulysses alone in Polly-what’s-his-name’s cave”: Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Myth

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pp. 121-151

In Emergence of Genius, Ellison biographer Lawrence Jackson reports an episode in which young Ralph witnessed the white children of the local corner grocer dressed in ceremonious white sheets and hoods for a mock parade (2002, 45). The episode was one of the larger-than-life (or mythic) experiences that shaped Ellison’s childhood. Through his studies, Ellison ...

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6. Ulysses in Black: Lynching, Dismemberment, Dionysiac Rites

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pp. 161-188

Ralph Ellison’s curious, often-repeated notion that the literary artist is better off keeping silent on political issues peppered the reception of Invisible Man throughout the twenty years that followed that novel’s publication, as William Walling’s article (1973) “Art and Protest” attests. In the wake o fthe Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, black artists turned to ...

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7. Ulysses (Re)Journeying Home: Bridging the Divide between Black Studies and the Classics

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pp. 180-192

The folkloric tale here hits upon the limits of the written word, the difficulty that comes in expressing certain cultural experiences in text. In chapter 3, I touched on the limits of classicism for twentieth-century black literary and sociopolitical thought, a limit that forced radicalism proscribed.1 The tale suggests that, aside from forced radicalism, it is possible that literacy cannot govern every experience, particularly those on the ...


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pp. 193-218

References Cited

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pp. 219-236


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pp. 237-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780299220037
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299220044

Publication Year: 2006