- Ralph Ellison Remembered*
Healer of the soul, celebrant of black consciousness and critic of African-American waywardness, Ralph Ellison, who died April 16 at age 80, not only was blessed with a fabulous, wildly illuminating imagination but also possessed large intellectual gifts and a powerful sense of the absurdity of life—all of which enabled him to reveal the mad contradictions of our American values with the stunning technical skill of a literary surgeon. Indeed, Ellison understood that the same resoluteness a fine surgeon brings to the craft of saving the life of the body is what the writer must bring to his own life and career.
In his magnificent novel Invisible Man, Ellison, as artist, helped to save the life of the mind and spirit by giving his nation something to live for and to live by, even as he challenged his readers to think profoundly and analytically about the disease of racism and the contradictions between our democratic ideals and the capricious attitudes that characterize our rigged value system.
No novel has so brilliantly captured or imaginatively projected the black American’s ambiguous status in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The book has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952. I have been teaching the novel for the last 21 years at Northwestern University. Each autumn I look forward to teaching it, with the excitement of a schoolboy out on his first date and with the zeal of a middle-aged professor ever alive to its sources of renewal and instruction.
An ever-consuming and challenging work of fiction to teach, Invisible Man is fun to read on the primary level of engagement—a book whose author possessed a riveting power and narrative drive and an enriching way of feeling his way into the grain of chaos, societal dislocation and the will for a formulaic order that shields the deeper agonies of our country.
In an uncanny, almost mystical manner, Ellison was able to bring to his writing desk the “felt knowledge” of nearly every avenue into black consciousness: music; the dance; a full scope of black vernacular; the grand preacher tradition; slave heritage; political intrigues and entrapments; the relationship between the Southern Negro tribunal and the Northern; duplicity-streaked encounters with racism; and the profound, bewitching yet wrenching way in which blacks are represented by uncommon uses of eloquence and often profanely duped by high-powered word artists who distort the cry for freedom. One finds eloquence as an instrumentality for justice and eloquence as a source for murder-mouthing by certain Afro-centric souls in the name [End Page 280] of a false-faced brotherhood: thus the huge role speech making of all kinds plays in the novel.
The novel also continues to intrigue because of the rowdy power and the sharp delineation of a vast landscape of black and white characters. Dedicated to removing all stereotypes, Ellison also avoids sentimentalizing attributes of black figures. As he once said: “America is a land of tricksters,” and Invisible Man is full of tricksters both black and white. These are especially riddled figures, often cunning, engrossing yet troubling, with memorable links to Melville, Twain and Faulkner. Here, Ellison not only reveals how the black American had been set up by racist forces but also notes the duplicity of certain Negroes who occupy positions of leadership and authority.
The novel’s structural underpinning comes from a joke played by whites when an African-American outsider would come to a town looking for a job. The white man would give him a sealed note to carry to another white man down the road, who supposedly had work. He would read the note, send its bearer in search of another man down the road and so forth and so on. Finally, the frustrated outsider would unseal the note and read these words: “To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger Boy Running.”
That is a joke played not only on the narrator of Invisible Man but also on black people, in one way or another, throughout their history. My students, black, white, Hispanic and Asian, often reveal...