- One Blues Invisible:Civil Rights and Civil Religion in Ralph Ellison’s Second Novel
In the immediate wake of the U. S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision Ralph Ellison, embarking on a follow-up novel to his award-winning Invisible Man (1952), wrote to his friend and former teacher Morteza Sprague in reflection upon the momentous ruling:
Well, so now the judges have found and Negroes must be individuals and that is hopeful and good. What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for the children! For me there is still the problem of making meaning out of the past and I guess I’m lucky I described Bledsoe [the president of the protagonist’s “Negro” college] before he was checked out. Now I’m writing about the evasion of identity which is another characteristically American problem which must be about to change. I hope so, it’s giving me enough trouble.(qtd. in Bradley 103)
Ellison expresses relief, of course. The implications of an end to Jim Crow laws, supported broadly by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which Brown overturned, touched Ellison as an integrationist, a novelist, and a critic whose literary project sought ambitiously to situate African American culture firmly within the traditions and canons of the West. Yet Ellison exhibited anxieties about what integration would come to mean for an historically marginalized segment of the American population that had devised systematic networks and mores designed specifically to facilitate survival, endurance, and defiant humanity despite dehumanizing conditions imposed upon African Americans by Plessy’s “separate but equal” mandate. Relieved that he had published Invisible Man just prior to this social metamorphosis, Ellison understood that within this new racial paradigm, parts of his novel—if not the book itself—would become relics of a former age.
Kenneth Warren makes the compelling case that what we know as “African American literature” itself (in a broad, historical sense), belongs to this former age. It was “dismantled” amid the exigencies of Brown and its facilitation of a legal end to Jim Crow (What Was 1). Warren writes: “African American literature took shape in the context of … racial subordination and exploitation represented by Jim Crow. Accordingly, … with the demise of Jim Crow, the coherence of African American literature has been correspondingly … eroded as well” (2). Intrinsic to this sea change is a sense of unmooring from a system that, for all of the injustice it propagated, also necessarily held together a relatively stable sense of African American identity. Resistance, endurance, and survival simultaneously relied upon and forged a multi-valent cosmos that fractured in the wake of Brown, leaving African Americans and the larger American public searching for new ways to order social relationships and their political organizations, turning to more complex questions of anthropology, citizenship, and civil religion.
This essay explores how Ellison’s second novel reflects the erosion of coherence that Warren locates in the post-Brown era—a period of vertiginous social upheaval and unprecedented religious interventions in American and African American public life.1 Given that the second novel remained unfinished over the last four decades of Ellison’s life (he wrote from approximately 1952 until his death in 1994), how might it address propositions that were infeasible or unimaginable prior to 1954? To what [End Page 247] extent does Brown, as a line of demarcation, inaugurate a new occasion in the literary representation of race? In what specific ways does Ellison’s second novel reflect the tenor of its age, wrangling over theologies and ideologies of racial identity, and thereby characterizing resonances between readers and a nation “in progress”?2 I deploy as a critical lens a specifically historicized understanding of American civil religion that dovetailed with certain social, political, and cultural exigencies in the wake of Brown. In this process, we shall chart the relationship between civil rights and civil religion in the era of Ellison’s second novel’s composition, marking convergences of race, nation, and religion in Ellison’s Sisyphean literary struggle to reduce experience to symbolic action. Exploring Ellison’s coherences with the figure and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his involvement in...