"Everybody wants to tell us what a Negro is, yet few wish, even in a joke, to be one. But if you would tell me who I am, at least take the trouble to...more"Everybody wants to tell us what a Negro is, yet few wish, even in a joke, to be one. But if you would tell me who I am, at least take the trouble to discover where I have been." ~ Ralph Ellison from "The World and the Jug"
While conceiving this masterpiece of American fiction, Ralph Ellison was faced with a confluence of several political and artistic forces whose elements formed the landscape navigated by its protagonist. The wind of the Harlem Renaissance had swept through Black communities in New York providing them with a flourishing of art both as a political weapon and cultural instrument of intrinsic value. The social decompression of the war economy expanded available spaces for self actualization inspiring pursuit of a Black cultural theory in the post-Reconstruction period. The New Negro Movement sought to extend the DuBoisian notion of the Talented Tenth and brought intellectual convergence around the establishment of a shared Negro identity. World War I created a vacuum in able bodied men to run the Northern industrial sector. The Great Migration drew a flood of urban workers into these cities to take the place of those deployed on the front line. Communism having marinated as an ideological conversation during the previous century came into its own as a governing philosophy becoming the object of suspicion for a rising geopolitical authority in the United States. The Black community in America with its teeming masses of disdainful victims of capitalism became the center of contention between these two doctrines until the decline of Black radicalism in the Reagan era. The Great Depression arose to flatten society with a cataclysmic impact sufficient to erase any prior political and economic gain.
His childhood and formative years spent in a diverse middle class community of Oklahoma City would buttress him from the stark urban naturalism which became the literary pulp of Richard Wright. A rich artistic life filled with musical study and immersion in classical literature formed the crux of a writer who considered art a personal truth requiring no express political intent to merit its validation. His desire to write from this apolitical perspective is deeply ironic considering that Invisible Man went on to become one of the most politicized works of modern fiction. For each succeeding generation, it has served as a foil for negotiating affairs of race, class, identity and social construction while justifying its position as a premier text in the African American literary canon. Invisibility and cultural intersection as rendered bare by Ellison remain subjects to be scrutinized even as Blackness becomes a more highly visible mainstream phenomenon. This restructuring of spatial terms should inspire us to interrogate the invisible space which once proscribed the occupancy of Black people within this nation. How do we confront gender, sexual, class and immigrant invisibility in such a manner that we do not become a dogmatic Brotherhood overriding the political perspective of others with no regard for the qualities of their particular oppression?
In his brutal opening visage, Ellison fleshes out a rough sketch of the characteristics of invisibility explored in the course of the narrative. The protagonist arrives at a gathering of the most respected local businessmen for the purpose of impressing them with his graduation oratory on the ironic theme of the virtue of humility in achieving progress. His expectations are upset when he is forced to engage in a physical brawl and brutal coin grab with nine other young men from the community. Only after this humiliation is he given audience to speak even as they continue to converse over his words. His intellectual invisibility is further reinforced when he mumbles "social equality" only to rescind the sentiment moments later at the unspoken threat of losing the meager opportunity for which he had literally fought. The exploitation of impoverishment, disorienting inconsistency in the rules of engagement and restriction of voice as a method of curtailing free agency or undesirable ideas display themselves as means of social regulation throughout the novel.
Ellison provides a brief glimpse into the adolescent journey of the protagonist before transitioning to his encounter with college life. This academic experience is punctuated by a confrontation with an administrator who essentially tells him that if he would gain any power for himself in this world, he must learn to render invisible anything in the Black condition which causes discomfort to white financiers. One is tempted to interpret Bledsoe as a figure in the image of Booker T. Washington. Through further dialogue we come to understand him as what remains in the shadow of arguably all great men (the obscure legend known only as "Founder"), a largely sycophantic personality concerned with maintaining centralized power and prestige only to the degree that it serves them personally. These individuals are neo-colonial power brokers of invisibility curating which areas of Black life will receive notoriety and silencing the voices of those who won't assume the required posture.
In addition to this biting critique of Black leadership, the white philanthropist is also subjected to a probing (and telling) inquiry through Ellison's dialogue. Salvation for Norton defined as charitable giving towards Black edification is exposed to lack any true compassion or yearning for justice otherwise he would not be so shaken to incredulity when confronted by the consequences of southern injustice which exist beyond the campus grounds. In his conversation with the veteran at the Golden Day, he expresses a notion that the school is tied to his destiny, but is then unable the reconcile the debilitating effect of widespread social oppression. While the campus can expose Black youth to the limitless possibilities of education and fill their minds with worldly knowledge, it could do nothing to salve their disillusionment from bearing the weight of a social contract which states they may only progress so far before being reminded of their place within society.
The longest and most enduring critique in the novel is saved for the white Leftist progressive whom at the time of its writing were largely invested within various branches of Marxism, Communism, Socialism or Trotskyism. Upon expulsion from school, our protagonist journeys to the urban North in order to seek work. After realizing that Bledsoe has designated him persona non grata on the campus and that no assistance would be forthcoming from Norton in spite of their alleged linked destinies, he makes an effort to carve out a new life for himself thereby shaping his own identity free of the social pressure towards higher education which haunted him in the South. Through the subterfuge of a phony recommendation from Emerson, he secures a non-union position at Liberty Paints where he is jostled between identities as an imbecile to Kimbro, a scab to the Union and a provocateur to Brockaway before having his identity stripped in its entirety through post-traumatic amnesia. Ellison during this period draws invisibility down to a deeply human level exploring the importance of memory and experience in shaping our identity. Without the conceptual texture of these twin elements, we lack the context in which to understand ourselves as chronological influencers and "plunge outside of history" to the narrator's own words proving prophetic in hindsight. Memory and experience give us the power to reflect upon past occurrences and future test our present actions based upon a newly evolved understanding of cause and effect. When we discard memory and experience from our navigational toolkit according to the dictates of the Brotherhood, we relinquish some of our capacity to be truly influential and regress to mere interchangeable fragments in the fulfillment of someone else's vision.
When Ellison draws the protagonist into relationship with the Brotherhood, we find him at once both lauded for his articulate concern in the interest of his people and chided for couching that concern in the context of race. This persuasive gambit sets the stage for a split in consciousness where he is urged to exercise his oratorical gift in the service of this community while divorcing himself from the racial alienation which provides the impetus for him rising to action. The Brotherhood show themselves further engaged in a duplicitous strategy by raising a speaker amongst the Harlem community that can strike the necessary emotional tone with its residents while dismissing the concerns of that community in any future planning. Such political duplicity is not something confined to the progressive Left of the past when the politics of the Black community were once betrayed by Communist organizations wishing to hold our support amongst the discontented, but taking no interest in addressing the racism embedded in white labor unions leading such brilliant organizers as A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen and George Schuyler to abandon their work with the Party. The political invisibility continues in the present day through the post-racial demand of the Democratic Party establishment and even members of the Black community claiming that it would be unfair for President Obama to show particular favor to this community since he is the President of all America. At the same time, we are brought to our own split in consciousness for we share a racial identification with President Obama which makes us feel especially smited by attempts to render him and his experiences invisible as occurred during the debate over the birth certificate. All of the discomforting memories of race which are stirred up between both of those poles is valid and worth accessing in planning our political direction forward.
The Brotherhood couches their diminishing of race in a scientific view of history which does not appear to recognize that even the action of having to diminish race is a reaction to its reality and further reinforcement of its power. Race is a reality that has permeated the relationships and thinking of all members of society such that they are thinking about it even when not doing so explicitly. Therefore the better hand of history would acknowledge race and racism in order to work through these issues with deep analysis and accountability. The Invisible Man shines in causing us to reflect on all of these lived experiences and appreciate them as elements which may initially drive us underground in order to escape our discomfort, but can make us better for the journey when we emerge. As long as the politics of marginalization and resource inequity continue to be a scourge upon society, the politics of invisibility as outlined in this text will continue to be a source of understanding and fictive enlightenment. In spite of the gains made by the Black community since Ellison's time, there is still a marginalization and invisibility occurring urban communities lacking access to fresh produce, medical care and educational opportunity. The symbols in Ellison's text remain as rich and necessary as ever to sharpen our analysis of the conditions which impede bringing invisible and marginalized populations to vanguard. If we would render ourselves any greater success building bridges over these cultural intersections in the present than was achieved in the past, we would do best to put away the paternalism and seek to build equal partnerships with full transparency.(less)
"My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form,...more"My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact." ~ Excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
The most important use of the anthology is to draw to the fore those literary passages which have been previously overlooked or otherwise subverted beneath other writings of greater acclaim. Another very necessary application of the anthology is to create a topical umbrella under which a keen eye can be focused on a single motif as it threads itself through a variety of literature over time. "On Being Black" manages to accomplish both of these aspects with magnificent deft, insight and comprehensiveness. The elusive and mutable nature of race and identity in America has provided a complex construct for black people to navigate in comprehending the nature of blackness as a thing that one must circumscribe for themselves and either live within or desperately plot to escape.
The line initially quoted above appears in the "Narrative" as included in the 'First Stirrings" section of "On Being Black". Soon after I completed my reading of this anthology, the line reappeared in my subsequent reading of "The Black Panthers Speak" as evidence of the legacy of black resistance flowing between Douglass' battle with Edward Covey and the Panthers emergence from the black community as a revolutionary political force. In that text, Philip Foner argues that both events are connected by Fanon's assertion in "The Wretched of the Earth" that only through revolutionary violence could be accomplished the transformation and rebirth of the black personality which had been severely underdeveloped through centuries of violent oppression.
Here lies the critical importance of what this anthology seeks to accomplish in collecting writings on how we have wrestled with the question of blackness over time. As the ways in which race is defined has changed, so has our opinion of the significance of race. As the conditions of oppression either rise or fall, the discussion of blackness is manipulated by forces that are not explicitly racial in nature. Though we must keep in mind that the absence of an explicit racial quality within a condition does not preclude the possibility that said condition can be racially coded including political latitude, class, poverty and community development. This may be shown in our present era of political claw back upon social programs originally created to equalize historical inequities.
The first era charts those initial stirrings of a people yearning for a sense of independence and struggling through literary means to express their intellect (W.E.B. DuBois), work ethic (Booker T. Washington), culture (Paul Laurence Dunbar) and religiosity (James Weldon Johnson). Sometimes we find these moments colliding with one another and raining down upon us at the very same time as in a second set of selections offered from DuBois; "The Song of the Smoke" and "A Litany at Atlanta". In "A Litany...", DuBois employs a strident liturgical petition in a cynical retort to black religious fervor as he ponders the hand of God inside of the racial terror being inflicted upon black people crying out at one point "Doth not this justice of hell stink in Thy nostrils, O God? How long shall the mounting flood of innocent blood roar in Thine ears and pound in our hearts for vengeance?".
The second era maps those initial breakaways from the emulation of white cultural forms coming with the arrival of the New Negro Renaissance as we hear Alain Locke ushering the era forward with "The Negro's Contribution" moving as a natural outgrowth of DuBois' espousal of the "Talented Tenth". Black dialect is more loosely employed in lengthy mixed poetic and prosaic form as the excerpt from "Kabnis" of Jean Toomer's "Cane" or Eric Walrond's short tale "The Yellow One". Langston Hughes posits an argument that will be continued through the end of the century and live on even in our present with his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" where he states "But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America--this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible."
The close of the Renaissance idealism ushers in what might be termed a darker period, pun intended. We find America passing through the Great Depression which saw Harlem's marginal prosperity and nightlife decimated. The few opportunities afforded black Americans by the absent workforce during World War I began to evaporate. Garveyism and the U.N.I.A. were in collapse. The continuing anti-Communist blow back from the first Red Scare suppressed the black intellectual tradition which had flourished in Renaissance writing. Writers who did continue creating literature were largely engaged in New Deal cultural documentation through the Works Progress Administration. We enter a period that I call the Post-Renaissance Vanguard and which Lawrence P. Jackson termed the "Indignant Generation".
The brutality of black life in Chicago depicted in "Native Son" brings Richard Wright to prominence in the literary world with Bigger Thomas bullying friends into committing a robbery in which he himself was not confident. Ralph Ellison uses the vehicle of an invisible man to contemplate the issues of black culture as a continual stepchild to American indifference with his lead figure navigating through the ways in which he has accepted having his presence ignored by the American majority. James Baldwin would open his career exploring his experiences in the teen ministry and eventual alienation from the institution of the church while simultaneously lambasting its hypocrisy. Melvin Tolson exhibits a fierce mastery of the English language with his erudite poetry reflecting a well traveled understanding of the world. Ellison would also go on to enter another entry in the argument of Negro artistry engaged earlier by Hughes with a missive squarely aimed at Irving Howe entitled "The World and the Jug" where he states "In his effort to resuscitate Wright, Irving Howe would designate the role which Negro writers are to play more rigidly than any Southern politician--and for the best of reasons. We must express "black" anger and "clenched militancy"; most of all we should not become too interested in the problems of the art of literature, even though it is through these that we seek our individual identities."
The final era covered in this anthology changes the order slightly with the editors choosing to shift the commentary on black artistry from the anchor position to the lead as Leroi Jones offers his thoughts on "The Myth of a Negro Literature". In this commentary, Jones makes the case that "Only in music, and most notably in blues, jazz, and spirituals, i.e., "Negro Music," has there been a significantly profound contribution by American Negroes." He later goes on to cite Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin as the only examples of "serious" Negro writing that was not highly stylized and cultured to be more impressive to the mainstream American sensibility.
Writing in this period finds itself increasingly politicized as the Civil Rights struggle grows more confrontational reaching its crescendo when Stokely Carmichael sounds the call for Black Power. Echoes of Malcolm and Martin linger long after each respective assassination giving rise to a more militant orientation for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the genesis of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The Black Arts Movement sweeps through the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast as black authors in each region contemplate and write towards the creation of black aesthetic. Eldridge Cleaver takes a fiery blast at Baldwin's blackness and masculinity in his "Notes on a Native Son, from Home" which pulses with a certain envious tension. Bayard Rustin finds himself growing frustrated as he expresses in his "Convocation Address" to Clark College on March 5, 1968 that "...Young Negroes are now so frustrated that they are substituting slognanism for analysis. They are examining their navels when they should be examining economic and social programs. They are more concerned with the way they wear their hair and whether or not they are called "black" or "Afro-American" than with developing strategies to solve the problems of housing, poverty and jobs."
I am of the opinion that the question of race and identity continues to be one of the most critical issues faced by black people in America in this age. I therefore count this as one of the most important books that I have read all year on the basis of the breadth and scope of its content. One is left wanting with each selection to explore a slight bit more, but the editors have given us only so much as we should require to make the necessary connection between the transitions of identity that occur across each era. One necessary criticism that must be noted of this text is again the woeful absence of the black feminine voice. They have much to offer us in perceiving blackness and as happens too often even in anthologies of black diasporic literary movements such as "The Negritude Poets", men dominate the coverage. This title contains two lone female voices across four eras of writing; Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks. If we are ever to resolve this question of identity, men will not settle the issue alone for we too are possessed of a subtle privilege that may pervade our ability to grasp the full magnitude of the picture. Read this manuscript as a launch pad for it will move your insight in an infinite series of directions before you reach its end.(less)