Ellison’s readers can be greedy and hope for more novels and essays—come to think of it, a memoir would be nice, too—but what’s done is done and, in a sense, is more than enough. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, it becomes clearer than ever that “Invisible Man” and his two collections of essays, “Shadow and Act” (1964) and “Going to the Territory” (1986), are the urtexts for a loose coalition of black American intellectuals who represent an integrationist vision of the country’s history and culture. Ellison’s books are a foundation for talents as various as the novelists Charles Johnson, John Edgar Wideman, Leon Forrest, and James Alan McPherson; the critics Shelby Steele, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Stanley Crouch; the poet Michael S. Harper. When Johnson, for instance, received the National Book Award, in 1990, for his novel “Middle Passage,” he devoted his entire acceptance speech to a celebration of Ellison. Johnson said he hoped that the nineteen-nineties would see the emergence of a “black American fiction” that takes Ellison as its inspiration, “one that enables us as a people—as a culture—to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.”
The publication of “Invisible Man” predates the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties, the drama of Malcolm X, and the rise of Afrocentrism, and yet it anticipates, or answers, all of these. The demagogic figure of Ras the Destroyer in the novel is based, no doubt, on Marcus Garvey, but it turns out to be a prescient depiction of the Farrakhans to come. The lancing portrait of the Brotherhood was modelled on the Communist Party of the nineteen-thirties, but it stands for all the doctrinaire utopianism and fakery to come. The metaphor of the paint factory and the mixing of black paint into white anticipates a sane multiculturalism, a vision of American culture as an inextricable blend. Unlike so much fiction labelled somehow as ethnic, “Invisible Man” is a universal novel. From the first lines to the very last (“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”), it insists on the widest possible audience.
In Ellison’s view, America is not made up of separate, free-floating cultures but, rather, of a constant interplay and exchange. In the essays, he describes slaves on a Southern plantation watching white people dance and then transforming those European steps into something that is American; he speaks of what Ella Fitzgerald has done with the songs of Rodgers and Hart, what white rock bands did with the blues; he watches the black kids in Harlem in their baggy hip-hop gear walking down Broadway, and on the same day he sees white suburban kids on television affecting the same style. What Ellison has called the “interchange, appropriation, and integration” of American culture is evident in the music we hear, the games we play, the books we read, the clothes we wear, the food we eat. For him, integration is not merely an aspiration but a given, a fact of cultural and political life. Without pity or excessive pride, Ellison also sketches the facts of his own life—especially his self-discovery, first through music, then literature—to describe the American phenomenon. “Invisible Man” itself looks not only to the experience of Ralph Ellison at Tuskegee Institute or in Harlem but to Ralph Ellison in the library, the young reader that Albert Murray remembers as “always looking to the top shelf.” When Ellison finally came to New York, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes became literary mentors and friends, but their influence was secondary, following a youthful tear through Eliot, Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Stein, and Dostoyevski. Out of many, one.
Ellison’s vision of American life and culture has not always sat well with critics, black or white. For the Black Arts Movement of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, “Invisible Man” and its author lacked the necessary rage. Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and other nationalists denounced Ellison from platform after platform. And that had its wounding effect, especially in the academy.
In 1969, Charles Johnson dropped by the library at Southern Illinois University’s new black-studies program. “Where can I find a copy of ‘Invisible Man’?” he asked the librarian.
“We don’t carry it,” came the answer.
“Really? Why not?”
“Because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer,” the librarian said.
An extreme example, no doubt, but it suggests the climate of the time. “When Ellison got an award in 1965 for the best novel since the Second World War, people were still under the sway of the vision that came from Martin Luther King,” Stanley Crouch, the author of “Notes of a Hanging Judge,” told me. “Once the black-power separatist agenda came along, and once white people showed that they preferred some kind of sadomasochistic rhetorical ritual to anything serious, Ellison’s position began to lose ground. That’s been the central problem in Afro-American affairs since the black-power-cum-Marxist vision took over the discussion. We have had to deal with one or another intellectual fast-food version of that these last twenty-five years or so. What it comes down to is that Ellison perceives Afro-American history in terms of the grand sweep of American life, not in terms of sheer victimhood. And that has been very difficult in the wake of the whole Malcolm X, ‘You didn’t land at Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on you’ thing.”
“Let’s face it,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chairman of the Afro-American studies program at Harvard, said. “Ellison was shut out, and Richard Wright was elected godfather of the Black Arts Movement of the nineteen-sixties, because Wright’s hero in ‘Native Son,’ Bigger Thomas, cuts off a white girl’s head and stuffs her in a furnace. For Ellison, the revolutionary political act was not separation; it was the staking of a claim for the Negro in the construction of
an honestly public American culture. Wright’s real message was not that different, but no one wanted to see that.”
The resistance to Ellison’s vision was by no means limited to black critics. In “Black Boys and Native Sons,” an essay published in Dissent, Irving Howe adopted a strangely patronizing tone to celebrate Richard Wright’s authenticity and to reprimand James Baldwin and Ellison for failing to possess a similar sense of rage. Howe declared himself astonished by “the apparent freedom [“Invisible Man”] displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country.”
Ellison’s passionate reply, “The World and the Jug,” was published in The New Leader, and can be read as a manifesto, a defense of his vision and art, and of the life that created them:
Evidently Howe feels that unrelieved suffering is the only “real” Negro experience, and that the true Negro writer must be ferocious. But there is also an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain and sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done. . . . It would seem to me, therefore, that the question of how the “sociology of his existence” presses upon a Negro writer’s work depends upon how much of his life the individual writer is able to transform into art. What moves a writer to eloquence is less meaningful than what he makes of it. . . . One unfamiliar with what Howe stands for would get the impression that when he looks at a Negro he sees not a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell. He seems never to have considered that American Negro life (and here he is encouraged by certain Negro “spokesmen”) is, for the Negro who must live it, not only a burden (and not always that) but also a discipline.
Ellison’s answer to Howe was, in a sense, an elaboration of the first paragraph of “Invisible Man,” with the hero’s demand to be seen as himself, as “flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind.” The mind of Ellison has been deeply influential. Even if Leonard Jeffries and Molefi Kete Asante have been successful in imposing dubious Afrocentric programs on the City College of New York and Temple University, even if such ideas have trickled into school systems as far-flung as Portland’s and Atlanta’s, Ellison’s godchildren have been at least as influential in stating their case. His integrationist position has shaped black-studies programs at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and many other leading universities.
“Ellison grants blacks their uniqueness without separating us from the larger culture,” Shelby Steele, the author of “The Content of Our Character,” said. “After reading Ellison, you realize that talk of a ‘white culture’ or ‘black culture’ is simplification. In the academy, identity politics is often the thing, and people would prefer to deal with finite categories: ‘black culture,’ ‘white culture,’ ‘Hispanic culture,’ and so on. Nationalist politics gets more attention, because it’s more flamboyant, more glamorous, more controversial. It’s better press. But the vast majority of black people in this country are not nationalist. My sense of the problem has to do with the nature of black politics, an oppression-based politics since the nineteen-sixties. People like me, who believe that there are some difficulties of black life that are not the result of oppression, are just branded conservatives, no matter what the range of opinion.”
Stanley Crouch sees the ambivalence toward Ellison as a symptom of the separatist drift represented by Ras the Destroyer. “Ellison knew a long time ago what the dangers were,” Crouch said. “All the dangers are in ‘Invisible Man.’ The dangers of demagoguery. The dangers of trying to hold up a rational position in a country that can become hysterical about race, from either side. You see, the race hysteria that was dominated by white people for the bulk of time Afro-Americans have been in America was overtaken by the black-power-, Malcolm X-derived, pro-Louis Farrakhan, anti-American, romantic Third World stuff that came up in the sixties. You had thugs, like Huey Newton, who were celebrated as great revolutionaries. You had West Indians, like Stokely Carmichael, who were calling for the violent overthrow of the country. You had LeRoi Jones ranting anti-Semitism from one coast to the other, and black students on campus cheering and howling. And that’s going on now. If people had paid more attention to what Ellison had to say in 1952, we might have got beyond some of the stuff we’re in.”
Leon Forrest, a black novelist Ellison took time to praise in our meeting, told me, “Ralph goes back to a fundamental tradition in African-American life. He’s what we used to call a race man. Areas that seem conservative, supporting businesses in the community, respecting the workingman, the family—that’s part of it. A race man means you’re in a barbershop conversation, and there might be a nationalist, an N.A.A.C.P. man, whatever, but they’re all concerned with getting African-Americans ahead in the community. I know Ralph had a lot of respect for many of the things Adam Clayton Powell stood for at first, the way Powell broke the back of Tammany Hall, though not the shrill things he said at the end of his life. Ralph is for a robust onslaught against racism but, at the same time, for building within the race. What’s happened is that there hasn’t been enough building within the race: our families, our businesses, the inner strength of the people.
“What disappoints him today is that not enough black Americans are learning from the possibilities of the book. We don’t read enough. His own literature is informed by a vast library, and yet we are cutting ourselves off from that. You’ve got a problem in Afro-American society these days: if a woman has a niece and a nephew, she’ll give the niece a copy of a Toni Morrison book and take the nephew to the Bulls game. We don’t do nearly enough to enrich our kids in the middle class in our body of literature—the body that fashioned Ralph Ellison’s imagination and scholarship.”