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At a Loss for Words | The Nation

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At a Loss for Words

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Racial treason is a charge inherently ugly as well as intrinsically cheap, all the more when applied yet again to Ellison; as the scholar Jerry Gafio Watts has pointed out, "Ellison has had the rare honor of being attacked by black leftists and black nationalists"--along with influential friends, Ellison had the right enemies. "Much of the criticism directed against Ellison is personal, oversimplified and often not based on an analysis of the man's work and ideas," in the summation of, ironically enough, that most talented of theoreticians in the Black Arts Movement, Larry Neal. Rampersad does not seek to indict him. Rather, along with reckoning the cost, he probes the cause.

About the Author

Michael Anderson
Michael Anderson is writing a biography of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

The defining event in Ellison's life happened when he was 3 years old: His father died. The child was making the rounds with the elder Ellison, a deliveryman, when a block of ice perforated his ulcerated abdomen. "I had watched, holding on to the cold white metal of the hospital bed as they wheeled him away," Ellison would recall. "I had only a glimpse, then we were past." Sixty years later he would remember, "I was so far from accepting the reality of his death that I was still telling myself that any day he would reappear to take his place as the head of our family." None did in his mother's two subsequent marriages; Invisible Man records a series of encounters with failed father figures. He was frozen emotionally--"I have had to rigidly control my thawing, allowing the liquid emotion to escape drop by drop through the trap doors of the things I write, lest I lose control"--and frozen existentially: In his fiction and essays, Ellison strove to escape time and history (think of the apotheosis of the Invisible Man), to return to what was irrevocably lost on that fearsome day in 1916; "haunted," as he said, "by a sense of uncertainty," he would struggle his entire life to quiet what he called "chaos" (his "single most compelling term," as Rampersad writes, "the most burdened word in his cultural vocabulary"). A childhood friend from Oklahoma City remarked: "Ralph's the same way he was when he was a boy. He ain't changed." (Perhaps this is why Rampersad consistently refers to his subject by his first name.) No wonder he always complained he had trouble writing "transitions": "The problem for me is to get from A to B to C."

The immediate consequences of his father's death were devastating. "The new life of poverty started almost at once," Rampersad writes. "Money was always scarce." His widowed mother worked as a maid or a janitor to provide for Ralph and his younger brother, Herbert; at one point, the family was reduced to "a diet of worm-infested beans and day-old milk and bread discarded by a dairy and bakery." They came to depend on the charity of Oklahoma City's black upper crust; its accompanying condescension ("the teachers who made you ashamed and the professionals who thought Herbert and I weren't good enough to play with their children") exacerbated by Ellison's later experience at class-conscious Tuskegee ("a bunch of small minded niggers who won't be satisfied unless they show how important they are.... If I get away from here I am through with negro schools") was at the root of Ellison's rage against the black bourgeoisie, "what he saw," Rampersad writes, "as its shabbily run institutions, its materialism and Philistinism, its snobbery and self-hatred."

In the trajectory familiar from Invisible Man, Ellison came to New York in 1936, trading Tuskegee for the Communist Party. Rampersad is particularly penetrating about this crucial decade in Ellison's career, about which "he would never be frank in public" but which set his character for the rest of his life. After the trauma of his childhood and his stinging failure to win distinction as a music student at Tuskegee, he found the basis of his desired identity in the party: a rigid structure to ward off the threat of chaos; social solidarity, particularly with white comrades; a puffed-up reputation of an intellectual, the gift of authority, with which he proclaimed that black writers constituted the vanguard that would allow the masses to "possess the conscious meaning of their lives"; even a mate--Ellison met his first wife in the home of the Communist couple who had provided him shelter. The man who "depended on safety nets--the certitudes of radical ideology and the defensive interests that patrolled it" had found safe harbor. "He probably became, at least for a while, a dues-paying Party member," Rampersad says, but most definitely he remained "something of a Stalinist for years to come," his journalism tortuously following the twists of the party line (as has been documented by the scholar Barbara Foley), standing fast "even when virtually every one of his leftist literary heroes, including Mann, Hemingway, and Malraux" abandoned the party in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Ellison left the party carrying one of its central Popular Front tenets--"that cultural interchange between the races represented a defining feature of the American experience," in the words of historian Mark Naison--and a style that remained constant, though the principles flipped. If now, as Rampersad writes, "his rhetoric reached new heights of patriotic fervor" ("It is a big, wonderful country," he told Time in 1953), if his worshiped triad had changed to Kenneth Burke's "purpose to passion to perception," even as he celebrated "an ideal, interracial American history that really had never been," Ellison remained "self-conscious, solemn, ideological, and ponderous," someone who "searched with the zeal of an autodidact for bits and pieces of knowledge that bolstered his sense of himself as an intellectual."

Though Ellison declared, "The break with the c.p. has allowed me to come alive," once again he was existentially unanchored, defenseless against chaos. The evidence is plain, even if too often overlooked, in Invisible Man. Perhaps the supreme paradox is that the novel of a man who never tired of excoriating sociological explanations of black life has lent itself to a sociological cliché. "Negroes, in America, are 'invisible men,'" Library Journal wrote in 1952; by 1965 Robert Penn Warren could report, "The title has become a key phrase: the Negro is the invisible man." Such a misreading seems to answer a deep need for white America: Even when invisible, all black people look alike.

Ellison's protagonist, with his giddy naïveté, psychological shallowness and sketchy background, is the least representative black figure in American literature--"less a full-blooded character than a convenience of an often symbolic, occasionally surreal plot," as the critic Morris Dickstein has put it. In fact, one of the novel's major flaws is that Ellison's black Candide suddenly shows signs of flesh and blood once he becomes involved in the Brotherhood; the prose loses its ironic lightness and assumes shades of anguish ("At what point do we stop? Is this the new definition, is Brotherhood a matter of sacrificing the weak? If so, at what point do we stop?") and despair ("Only in the Brotherhood had there seemed a chance for such as us, the mere glimmer of a light.... And even that was without meaning"). It is not until he feels betrayed by the Brotherhood that he declares himself invisible, "invisible," as Rampersad points out, "to everyone, black or white."

In his astute commentary on Invisible Man, Rampersad, who teaches English and the humanities at Stanford, notes Ellison's technical mistake: "He gives the Brotherhood no plausible reason for deserting the cause of black rights." In life, of course, it was because the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union caused the party to sacrifice black rights in favor of American war efficiency. (Black hard-liners stood fast; for example, three months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the Harlem Communist leader Benjamin Davis Jr. was claiming that "the CP is disturbed by the increasing struggle of Negroes for jobs in defense plants." The party opposed A. Philip Randolph's proposed March on Washington, the Rubicon for Ellison and many other blacks--though he would publish "ultra-Marxist criticism under a pseudonym even as he was abandoning the radical left." Editors at New Masses told Ellison to "soft-pedal this Negro thing. We've got to get production going." Perhaps to placate him, the magazine also started paying him for his articles; as Rampersad notes, "Ralph and black intellectuals like him were more important than ever.") Conspicuous in its absence, the sense of racial betrayal--"If only we had some true friends, some who saw us as more than convenient tools for shaping their own desires!"--makes Invisible Man a document of black anti-Communist disillusionment, the fictional analogue to another persistently misread book, Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.

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