Vol. 1 No. 1 2007
Ralph Ellison and the Militants
By Peniel E. Joseph, Ph.D
Ralph Ellison's starcrossed relationship with black militants who changed and provocatively challenged America's racial landscape seems almost pre-ordained.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1913, Ralph Waldo Ellison grew up in tragic and humbling circumstances. The death of his father and his mother's perpetually tenuous economic condition made for difficult times. Stubborn, willful and ambitious Ralph managed to enroll at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with dreams of having a virtuoso music career.
Three years at Tuskegee turned into a detour into the tragic-comic world of black Americans striving for success for success in a world where opportunities where starkly defined by race. Fleeing what he viewed as Tuskegee's intellectual and cultural parochialism, Ellison ventured to Harlem where he would befriend some of the era's leading literary figures, most notably Langston Hughes and Richard Wright.
In Harlem, Ralph soon came under the spell of the Communist Party and the larger interracial left that offered a tantalizingly, if also at times sectarian, cosmopolitan view of the world. Impressed with the literary breakthroughs of William Faulkner and able to imbibe in Wright's pungent prose style, Ellison dreamed of writing a novel so luminous that it would offer unprecedented opportunities to its author. The result, after a torturous gestation period of nearly a decade, was Invisible Man in 1952. Hailed as a literary masterpiece that transcended racial art for the higher altitudes of genuine literary genius, Invisible Man s 1953 National Book Award cemented Ellison's reputation as perhaps the most important Negro writer of the post-war era.
The publication of a book of essays twelve years later, Shadow and Act, furthered Ralph's growing reputation as a cultural critic and essayist. By now in his early middle age, Ellison's former radicalism had evolved into a stubborn embrace of American universalism, despite the racial barriers that still precluded blacks from enjoying the fruits of the nation's democracy. Ellison pursued social and literary connections with powerful white brokers that paid dividends by the late 1960s, when he would be feted as a voice of racial reason amid a searing wilderness of black radicalism.
Cold to younger black writers, Ellison found James Baldwin's stinging critiques of American racism to be distasteful and regarded the fiery young poet LeRoi Jones as a disaster. If Baldwin and Jones unleashed criticism against institutional racism in a bid tomake America more responsive to the needs of the black masses, Ellison (the former radical) now felt that true artists required a bruising self-discipline and technical mastery of craft that forbade entrance into social, historical and political quarrels. Ellison's standoffishness to African decolonization (despite being an avid collector of African art) during the 1950s and early 1960s anticipated his antipathy toward proponents of both the Black Arts and the larger Black Power Movement. As Arnold Rampersad's engaging new Ralph Ellison: A Biography makes clear, the author of Invisible Man took no prisoners in his belief that racial integration, rather than black separatism, held the key to social justice.
Black Power's notion of a collective African American community particularly rankled Ellison, who took pride by the late 1960s in his laundry list of racial breakthroughs (including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) that were based, he felt, on individual merit rather than race. Comfortable being the only black in largely, at time exclusively, all-white settings, Ellison viewed Black Power's robust nationalism and trumpeting of group solidarity as narrow, clannish, and anti-intellectual.
On this score, he refused the young LeRoi Jones' overtures for support of his ambitious Black Arts Repertory Theater and School that dazzled and scandalized Harlem in the summer of 1965. Though short lived, the Black Arts Movement would soon flourish around thecountry, popping up in the wealth of magazines, journals, and cultural and literary groups devoted to studying the complexity of black life as well as criticizing white America's longstanding refusal to acknowledge it. In this way, the Black Arts Movement represented the cultural arm of Black Power, which promoted radical black self-determination in the service of a social and political revolution
Ironically, the more Ellison purposely distanced himself from the gathering storm of racial protest that enveloped America during the 1960s, the more in demand he was a racial spokesperson. An ardent supporter of the Vietnam War, Ellison stood defiantly out of step with even liberal whites, who increasingly spoke out against the carnage in South East Asia. Ellison's patriotism, unwillingness to support younger black writers, and failure to produce a second novel made him a unique figure; a grand old man of black writers who stood aloof from the growing wave of discontent that, in certain sly instances, Invisible Man had imagined.
As Ellison's fame grew, so did his relative isolation from the black community he had mined so well for his best fiction. He consistently declined invitations to write for most black themed journal and would have a running, mostly one-sided feud, with radical members of the Harlem Writers Guild, such as John Henrik Clarke and John Oliver Killens. In a rare occasion of symmetry, Ellison and Black Power activists, albeit in different settings and tones, decried the "Moynihan Report's" depiction of black pathology centered in a dysfunctional matriarchal familial lineage. Noting that Moynihan looked at black families through "a white cultural pattern," Ellison defended black culture as resilient, disciplined and resourceful. (p. 429)
By 1967, with the summers in America being marked by civil disturbance the government called "riots" and Black Power militants characterized as "rebellions," Ellison agreed to a rare exchange with a group of young black writers published in Harper's. In broad brushstrokes, Ellison painted the Black Arts Movement as bellicose and anti-intellectual. The more Ellison launched invective against black nationalist-based art as nothing more than angry racial Philistinism, the more doors seemed to open up.
Attacked as an Uncle Tom following a panel at Grinnell College, Ellison broke down, crying, "I am not a Tom, I am not a Tom." (p. 440) 1968, the year of the Tet Offensi ve, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, May Day rebellions around the world, the trial of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, and the election of Richard Nixon, made demand for Ellison swell. As Rampersad puckishly notes, "each terrible event meant, perversely, more prestige and more money for Ralph." (p. 445). Handpicked, lucrative engagements (preferably before integrated audiences) were juxtaposed against Ralph's new ties to worlds of privilege and power. Imploring the tendency of black students to self-segregate during a speech at Brandeis University, Ellison had no qualms about being the sole black on the ever-lengthening lists of boards, philanthropic groups, private clubs and invitation-only social events to which he was becoming ever more accustomed.
Flogged by black writers Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and Larry Neal as isolated, out of touch, and politically compromised, Ellison remained indefatigably committed to a pluralistic vision ofAmerican society that, critics often reminded him, touched the lives of far too few Americans, black or white. For Ellison, Black Power inspired artists "allowed the realities of their social and political situation to determine their conception of their role and freedom as artists." (456).
The sad fact is that Ellison's quarrel with the generation of young writers, poets and artists identified with the Black Arts Movement merely scratched the surface of a deep-grained skepticism of the technical mastery, theoretical sophistication and capacity for genius of black intellectuals. With rare exceptions Ellison's pantheon of gifted writers were white, as were most of the scholars he judged sophisticated enough to analyze his work. These views remained consistent in his personal life as well, where only a privileged few blacks entered the world that he carefully constructed with his wife, Fanny
Peniel E. Joseph is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at SUNY -Stony Brook. He is the author of the award winning Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights Black Power Era.