Continuing our Amplify Black Voices series, Mario Relich, Trustee of Scottish PEN and member of the Writers for Peace Committee, shares a profile of Amercian writer Ralph Ellison and his famous essay collection, Shadow and Act.August 5, 2020
Ralph Ellison became a writer mainly because Richard Wright, who later became famous for his searing novel Native Son (1940), encouraged him when he edited the radical periodical New Challenge in the late thirties. Ellison also wrote essays when participating in the WPA (‘Federal Writers’ Project’), which was an initiative of President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ policies, when the Depression was still raging. His best-known collection of essays is Shadow and Act, published in 1964 when he was already famous for his great and only complete novel Invisible Man, which won the US National Book Award in 1953, is what I would like to briefly discuss. These essays (and interviews) tell us a lot about what we would now call ‘identity politics’, particularly its limits. My discussion will be peppered with quotes in order to give an indication of Ellison’s voice in his distinctive non-fiction writing.
Ellison was born in and grew up in Oklahoma City, which did have segregated ‘black’ and ‘white’ residential areas, but Oklahoma itself was a ‘border state’, closer to the urban culture of the North, than the more racist and bigotted ‘deep South’. It also boasted a number of great jazz musicians. Ellison wrote about some of them in his essays, devoting the second of three sections to jazz and Blues music. In short, Oklahoma City had fewer ‘Jim Crow’ restrictions, particularly for cultural activities, such as visiting libraries. He was a New Yorker for most of his adult life, and Harlem plays a large part in Invisible Man. He also wrote essays about it, including the bleak, hard-hitting ‘Harlem is Nowhere’ in Shadow and Act. It makes for an interesting comparison with James Baldwin’s forensically sharper essay ‘The Harlem Ghetto’ in Notes of a Native Son, both essays coincidentally written in 1948, thereby reflecting post-war disillusionment among African-Americans. Arguably, living in the more ‘liberal’ parts of America made it possible for Ellison to be more detached about social and political constraints on African-Americans, but he was certainly well aware of them, and inevitably experienced them himself; moreover, he studied music, actually his first love though he ultimately chose writing, at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which was founded by the political/cultural activist Booker T. Washington.
Possibly the most revealing essay in the book is ‘Hidden Name and Complex Fate: A Writer’s Experience in the United States’, an address he delivered to the Library of Congress in Jan. 1964. He tells us that his parents gave him an aspirational name, as his first two names ‘Ralph Waldo’ echo those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, great American sage and anti-slavery advocate, though not a militant one. Like Emerson, Ellison was fastidious as a writer.
The essay is primarily concerned with how he sees himself as a writer, and only secondarily as an African-American or simply (actually not so simply) as an American. Part of his American heritage was that he did not regard himself as merely a representative member of ‘the nation’s most oppressed minority’, as Baldwin put it. But both Ellison and Baldwin knew that it was the minority which actually founded post-Revolution America just as much as any British-descended whites. Ellison has this to say:
‘… I have shared and still share many of their detailed injustices – what Negro can escape them? – but by way of suggesting that they are, at least in a discussion of a writer’s experience, as writer, as artist, somewhat beside the point’ (Ellison’s italics).
He goes on to add:
‘For we select neither our parents, our race, nor our nation, these occur to us out of the love, the hate, the circumstances, the hate of others. But we do become writers out of an act of will, out of an act of choice; a dim, confused and oftimes regrettable choice, perhaps, but choice nevertheless.’ (Ellison’s italics)
In a 1961 interview with Richard G. Stern entitled ‘That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure’, Ellison explains how Richard Wright pointed the way for him, when he met him in the 1930s, as follows:
‘I didn’t understand what was going on, but by this time I had talked with Wright a lot. And he was very conscious of technique. He talked about it not in terms of mystification but as writing know-how. “You must read so-and-so,” he’d say. “You have to go about learning to write consciously. People have talked about such a problem and have written about it. You must learn how Conrad, Joyce, Dostoievsky get their effects …” He guided me to Henry James and to Conrad’s prefaces, that type of thing.’ (Ellison’s italics)
But he did not wish to simply imitate Wright, which his essay ‘Richard Wright’s Blues’, very much a critique, makes clear. As he already suggest in the interview with Stern:
‘Of course, I knew that my own feelings about the world, about life, were different, but this was not even a matter to question. Wright knew what he was about, what he wanted to do, while I hadn’t even discovered myself. I knew only that what I would want to express would not be an imitation of his kind of a thing.’
In the same interview, he rejects what he calls the ‘social determinism’, a recurrent theme in the essays, and observes that ‘art is a celebration of life even when life extends into death and that the sociological conditions which have made for so much misery in Negro life are not necessarily the only factors which make for the values which I feel should endure and shall endure.’ In his 1955 Paris Review interview he made the point that:
‘If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance – but it must be acceptance on his own terms’ (my italics).
Ellison’s ‘own terms’ included a rejection of the ‘hard-boiled style’, despite his admiration for Hemingway, which developed in twentieth-century American literature, insisting that ‘realistic’ discourse is much more complex than that. Here is how he described the limits of that style in his acceptance speech, given the title ‘Brave Words for a Startling Occasion’, for the National Book Award:
‘For despite the notion that its rhythms were those of everyday speech, I found that when compared with the rich babel of idiomatic expression, a language full of imagery and gesture and rhetorical canniness, it was embarrassingly austere.
Our speech I found resounding with an alive language swirling with over three hundred years of American living, a mixture of the folk, the Biblical, the scientific and the political. Slangy in one instance, academic in another, loaded poetically with imagery at one moment, mathematically bare of imagery in the next.’
I can imagine writers like Alasdair Gray, Salman Rushdie, and Ali Smith taking this kind of observation about literary style to heart.
Some of the other essays discuss the importance of African-American folk culture, indeed folk tales, for enriching the American novel, not least his own Invisible Man, and contain some very perceptive comments on Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, but also the likes of Dostoievsky, Andre Malraux and T.S. Eliot. His critique of such writers is always historically informed, especially in his 1946 essay ‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity’, but not slavishly beholden to any modern literary theory. He was immunized against theory and ideology by his wartime membership, with Richard Wright, of the American Communist Party. He became disillusioned with the Party when they did nothing against segregation in the American Army, indeed embraced it, ostensibly for the sake of defending the ‘Russian Motherland’ against the depredations of the Nazis.
Regarding African-American folklore, in which the ‘trickster’ figure is prominent, Ellison discussed it in his Spring 1958 essay for Partisan Review, ‘Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke’. It includes a striking description of Louis Armstrong’s performance style, which suggests that the jazz artist was himself a trickster figure, ‘his medium being music rather than words or pantomime.’ He continues:
‘Armstrong’s clownish license and intoxicating powers are almost Elizabethan; he takes liberties with kings, queens and presidents; emphasizes the physicality of his music with sweat, spittle and facial contortions; he performs the magical feat of making romantic melody issue from a throat of gravel.’
I’ll end with an excerpt from Ellison’s 1948 interview with a Harlem mother, ‘The Way It Is’, which remained unpublished until collected in Shadow and Act. She refers to her son killed during the war: ‘Then I gets so made I don’t know what to do. I use to pray, but praying don’t do no good. And too, like the union folks was telling us when we was so broken up about William, we got to fight the big Hitler over yonder even with all the little Hitlers here.’ Her voice, as recorded by Ellison, paved the way for, or at least anticipated, writers like Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.
The Harlem mother could easily have been originally from Jamaica, and talking about the Home Office ‘over here’.
Mario Relich’s book of poems Frisky Ducks was published by Grace Note in 2014. His poems have appeared in Poetry journals, and in the ‘Poem of the Day’ section of The Herald. He is also a retired academic who was a lecturer on Post-Colonial Literature and Film History at the Open University, both in Scotland and London, for many years. At present, he writes regularly literary reviews, and an annual Edinburgh International Festival Diary for Scottish Affairs.