aesthetic individualism in ralph ellison's invisible man
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DESCRIPTIONBroadly defined, the term 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic group' refers to "a collectivity of people who share some patterns of normative behavior and form part of a larger population" (Saram 5). An ethnic group is held distinctive due to the unanimous subscription of its members to a set of traditions exclusive to this group. "Such traditions", George De Vos explains, "typically include 'folk' religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, and a common ancestry or place of origin" (De Vos 9). Invariably, ethnic groups, especially when persecuted, develop a system of communal or collective identification in which individual identity and group identity become nearly indistinguishable. This system of identification, however, raises its polemics most visibly in the United States, a country which bears simultaneously a history of promoting individualism and a history of ethnic persecution.
Ain Shams UniversityFaculty of Al-Alsun Department of English
Beyond Ethnicity: Aesthetic Individualism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
Submitted by: Shaimaa Suleiman
Under the supervision of: Dr. Irini G. Thabet
Table of Contents
I. Introduction 1
II. Invisible Man 9
III. Conclusion 25
VI. Works Cited
Broadly defined, the term 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic group' refers to "a collectivity of people
who share some patterns of normative behavior and form part of a larger population" (Saram
5). An ethnic group is held distinctive due to the unanimous subscription of its members to a
set of traditions exclusive to this group. "Such traditions", George De Vos explains, "typically
include 'folk' religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, and a
common ancestry or place of origin" (De Vos 9). Invariably, ethnic groups, especially when
persecuted, develop a system of communal or collective identification in which individual
identity and group identity become nearly indistinguishable. This system of identification,
however, raises its polemics most visibly in the United States, a country which bears
simultaneously a history of promoting individualism and a history of ethnic persecution.
Individualism refers to the ideological stance or outlook which holds "the individual" to
be "the primary element of society, taking precedence over the collective" (Heller 213). Such
stance stems primarily from the view that the individual is constantly in an eternal struggle
with collective forces external to himself. These forces attempt to shape for the individual an
identity essentially and exclusively defined by his affiliation to a collective entity, thus
hindering and negating his natural entitlement to independent self-fashioning. Taking "the
fundamental premise that the human individual is of primary importance in the struggle for
liberation" (Brown 9) as its point of departure, individualism promotes the individual's
inalienable right to pursue, on his own terms, values of uniqueness, self-reliance,
independence and freedom. The basic contention of individualism hence rests upon the simple
principle that human identity is achieved rather than ascribed.
Although originally a European term which came into use as a reaction to the French
revolution, individualism found and still finds its most vigorous expression in the United
States. It was in the U.S. that
[Individualism] became a symbolic catchword of immense ideological
significance, expressing all that has at various times been implied in the
philosophy of natural rights, the belief in free enterprise, and the American Dream.
Commitment to these basic values of individualism is, in fact, what informed the authorship
of the most influential document in U.S. history, the Declaration of Independence. The
Declaration famously asserted the principle that "all men are created equal; that they are
endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", thus initially establishing individualism as the
cornerstone of American culture. A theoretical statement of the aspects of American
individualism, nonetheless, was not made until Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist
philosopher and essayist, published his most famous essay Self-Reliance. In his manifesto of
staunch individualism, Emerson unapologetically defended individualist virtues of self-
confidence, self-worth, non-conformism and, ideally, self-reliance. He decried the pressure
exercised by society and its institutions to suppress man's unique identity.
American individualism, however, remained a rather problematic value for ethnic
groups who form a considerable portion of U.S. population. As indicated, all accepted
definitions of an 'ethnic group' denote a strong ethic of communal devotion underlying all
interactions between its members. "Persons born into such [groups] generally share a
collective identity and constitute a distinct people" (Esman 16). Yet, this dominantly
collectivist nature of ethnic groups is not without its reasons. In fact, it is when "the
community is threatened" that "individual identity and collective identity become fused"
(Esman 20) in what is known as ethnic solidarity, the threat in this context being posed by
racism, "the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism" (Rand 120).
Racism arises from and projects a collectivist sentiment. It de-individualizes the
allegedly subaltern group by evaluating its members by the characters and actions of their
collective of ancestors. Meanwhile, it reveals a sever lack of individuality on the part of the
The overwhelming majority of racists are men who have earned no sense of
personal identity, who can claim no individual achievement or distinction, and
who seek the illusion of a “tribal self-esteem” by alleging the inferiority of some
other tribe. (Rand 121)
No ethnic group in the U.S. managed to escape institutionalized racism, discrimination as well
as social prejudice and oppression. African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and
Asians were all forced to endure the de-individualizing implications of both racism and the
communal obligation of struggling against it with their respective groups. It was, therefore,
established among citizens of dual identity that self-worth is to be only gained through ethnic
solidarity. Nonetheless, yearning for a distinctive identity forged after the long-standing
tradition of American individualism still lurked in the deepest level of their consciousness.
Some hyphenated Americans believed that a valid counterargument to racism consisted in
pursuing individual, rather than group, rights; and promoting individual uniqueness in a
culturally plural America.
This tension between the collectivist and the individualist elements of ethnic identity is
particularly reflected in the conflicting criteria which informed the production of ethnic
literature in America. The definition and purpose of such literature had undergone several
permutations, swerving between the collectivist and the individualist sides. The collectivist
criterion regards ethnic literature as a statement against oppression and discrimination, a voice
given to the dispossessed, and a record of the collective ethnic struggle. It places more
emphasis on the historical, political and social context of literature than on its aesthetic value.
Instead, ethnic literature in such context maintains an aesthetic of its own that rests on
ethnically distinctive features derived from folk tradition. Ethnic writers, according to this
criterion, are ascribed the social responsibility of acting as spokespersons for their
communities. Conversely, the individualist criterion argues for a literature that allows for
multiple readings in various contexts, including but not limited to the ethnic context. Ethnic
writers, according to this approach, are left to draw on multiple sources for aesthetic
inspiration and associate themselves with the literary tradition they see fit. Notwithstanding
its individualism, this criterion does not call for a complete isolation from ethnic concerns. On
the contrary, it attempts to espouse individual talent with a moral concern with fighting
racism as an infringement of individual rights and freedoms.
In African-American literature, the vastest of all sub-categories of ethnic literature in
the U.S., the conflict between the collectivist and the individualist strains was the subject of
countless literary altercations. The question of 'art or propaganda' was emblematic of such
tension and informed various attempts at defining the nature and purpose of black literature
and the responsibility of the black writer. The rise of the art-propaganda question in African
American literature goes back to the year 1895 when Victoria Earl Matthews in her famous
address, 'The Value of Race Literature', called for a more aesthetically sophisticated race
literature (Ervin 36).
Matthews's address came as a natural response to a tradition in African American
literary practice which rested upon highly politicized, later overly romanticized, interpretation
of Negro life (Matthews 37). This tradition mainly spanned the period from the Slavery Era
(1746) up to the few years preceding the New Negro Renaissance (1919). During this period
of African American history, the basic impulse for literary production was explicitly political
rather than creative. Understandably, literature "maintained as its central priorities the
abolition of slavery and the promotion of the black woman and man to a status in the civil and
cultural order equal to that of whites" (Gates 154). The literary genre known as the slave
narrative, written by both antebellum and post-bellum African Americans, perfectly embodied
such communal priorities. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, this tradition of literary
expression was exhausted. It became clear that African American literature needed a
reconcilement; it had to manifest craft and creativity while shaping and documenting the
racial struggle. This called Matthews to declare that race literature, without relinquishing its
direct relation to "the traditionary history of a people", should be developed so as to transcend
"the narrow limits of race or creed." The criteria for such development, Matthews maintained,
consisted in race literature's ability to "[reach] out to the utmost limits of soul enlargement
and [outstrip] earthly limitations" (Matthews 38).
After Matthews, the implications of the art-propaganda question evolved into a complex
conflict that intensified in the early twentieth century with the emergence of the New Negro
movement, alternatively known as the Harlem Renaissance. The New Negro movement was
born out of Alain Locke's contention that "the Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race-
leader", referring to W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey respectively,
had failed to account for the complexity of the Negro. Locke condemned the de-
individualizing effects the racial struggle forced upon the Negro artist. "The thinking Negro",
he suggested, was impelled to "focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in
the distorted perspective of a social problem"(Locke, "New Negro" 984). Accordingly, Locke
argued for a new literary tradition that promoted the 'self-reliant' individuality of the Negro
artist and synthesized the Negro and American components of his/her cultural makeup.
In 1928, Locke's defense of art against propaganda became more articulate. Propaganda,
he observed, "perpetuates the position of group inferiority … it is too extroverted for balance
or poise or inner dignity and self-respect" (Locke, "Art or Propaganda?" 49). Locke's ideas
were countered by Du Bois who, in his essay 'Criteria of Negro Art', expressed his concern
that the heightened aesthetic consciousness of young artists was a conspiracy to appease
political agitation. Contrary to what he viewed as Locke's break with 'Truth' for the sake of
'Beauty', Du Bois argued that the two are indissolubly linked. This led him to infamously
conclude that "all art is propaganda and ever must be" (Du Bois 42). Amidst these literary
altercations within which Du Bois, Locke and others were involved, Langston Hughes came
up with a new paradigm for artistic creativity which appropriated Locke's individualist
cosmopolitanism and Du Bois's political obligation. He urged artists to "express our
individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame" regardless of the impression that left on
whites or blacks alike (Hughes 48). Hughes's was a last statement before the New Negro
movement came to an abrupt end against the backdrop of the Depression era.
Following the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Harlem race riot of 1935, the
Black literary scene witnessed a radical change. Locke was forced to admit that art could not
transcend discrimination and mass brutalities, whereas the radical activism of Du Bois
evolved into a revolutionary aspiration for pan-Africanism. Moreover, Langston Hughes
"overtly politicized [his] work, aiming it more squarely at the working poor, and
experimenting with social and socialist realism" (Ross 166). A common, yet relative, Marxist
influence seemed to lurk behind the shift in Black literary outlook until it was given full-
fledged articulation in Richard Wright's 'Blueprint for Negro Writing'. In that essay, Wright
provided an overtly Marxist critique of the Harlem Renaissance / New Negro literature. He
contended that New Negro literature manifested the grave isolation of the black bourgeois
from the daily life of the masses. He, therefore, argued for abandoning that tradition of
"begging the question for Negroes' humanity" for another that promoted "writing for the
Negro masses, molding the lives and consciousness of those masses toward new goals"
(Wright 99). Valid aesthetics, according to Wright, were to be derived from Negro folklore
which represented "the collective sense of Negro life in America", thus deepening the Negro
masses' racial consciousness. Instead of embracing "the illusion that they could escape
through individual achievement the harsh lot of their race swung", Negro writers needed to
accept their social responsibility toward race (Wright 99). However, embracing the "Marxist
vision", he believed, "endows the writer with a sense of dignity which no other vision can
give" (Wright 102).
With the publication of Native Son in 1940, Wright's Blueprint proved itself effective. It
theorized for a novel that officially knocked the death toll for a bygone era:
Native Son had almost single-handedly birthed and shaped a radically new agenda
and established for African American writing a new center of gravity, one pitched
toward the gritty realities of urban living for black Americans and filtered through
the lenses of urban sociology and the conventions of naturalism. (Gates 1358)
The social protest embodied by Native Son became a literary commonplace and was
definitively acknowledged as a new aesthetic practice. Writers whose work exhibited features
of the Wright aesthetic such as Chester Himes, Frank Yerby, Ann Petry were collectively
identified as the "Wright School". By and large, African American literature became
synonymous with protest.
In 1950, nonetheless, there loomed an opposing movement that aspired to topple
Wright's naturalist protest tradition. Ralph Ellison, J. S. Redding and James Baldwin, previous
admirers of Wright's Native Son and Wright himself, sensed a kind of uneasiness toward the
de-individualizing implications of the protest tradition. They rejected protest tradition on
ideological and aesthetic grounds. They expressed concern that protest muffled artistic
creativity and overlooked the cultural depth and complexity of the Negro experience in
America. It undermined the humanity of the black writer by pushing him into embracing the
Marxist ideology of political change, and of the black folk by portraying them as victims who
are helpless, forsaken, and weak and without agency. Thus, what was once a question of 'art
or propaganda?' became a question of 'art or protest?' In 1951, Redding voiced his
dissatisfaction with "the obligations imposed by race on the average educated or talented
Negro." "I am tired of giving up my creative initiative to these demands", he protested
(Redding 26). Furthermore, Ellison attacked what he believed was Wright's subscription to
the "abused notion that novels are 'weapons' … [unlike Native Son,] true novels, even when
most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life" (Ellison 114).
Ellison's rejected the didactic tenor of Wright's tradition with its emphasis upon ideology
rather than artistic craft. Similarly, Baldwin summed up the limitations of the protest tradition
in "its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its
insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended"
(Baldwin 23). The path, Ellison and Baldwin agreed, to dismissing the parochial insight of the
protest novel and to depicting the diversity and humanity of Negro experience was through
ideological and aesthetic individualism.
Ralph Waldo Ellison's expression of individuality in art and ideology drew much on the
individualist tradition of his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ideologically, Ellison defined
the African American novel in terms of its commitment to reflecting what it meant to be both
a Negro and an American on one's own terms.
Being a Negro American involves a willed affirmation of self against all outside
pressure – an identification with the group only as extended through the individual
self which rejects all possibilities of escape that do not involve a basic
resuscitation of original American ideals of social and political liberty. (Ellison
Aesthetically, Ellison believed that the black writer should embrace a transnational
literary tradition, in which both Negro and American traditions were necessarily rooted, while
seeking to add his own individual contribution. He argued that "the black writer should not be
backed into a corner where the oddments and exotica of folklore presided over good writing"
(O'Meally 106). Accordingly, he openly admitted to have been influenced by writers outside
the black tradition such as T. S. Eliot, Malraux, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Emerson and
others. Yet, that did not mean that Ellison overlooked the aesthetic possibilities provided by
African American folk tradition. Folk tradition, he contended, provided the "humble base"
upon which "the product of individual artists" was based. Despite the riches of folk tradition,
"for the novelist of any cultural or racial identity, his form is his greatest freedom and his
insights are where he finds them" (Ellison, Shadow 172). Ellison, in fact, promoted an
individualist paradigm for writing which experimented with universal as well as ethnocentric
material and forms of expression.
Ellison's magnum opus, Invisible Man (1951), embodies his ideological and aesthetic
concern with individualism. It harnesses the aesthetic possibilities offered by the highly
creative form of meta-fiction to explore the definition, purpose and scope of the African
American novel. Meta-fiction employs intertextuality, self-conscious narration and ostantious
typography to "explore a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction" (Waugh 2).
Such features of meta-fiction, especially intertextuality, are informed by Ellison's deeply
studious interest in African American forms such as blues, jazz, dialect, folktales and myth.
The allusive range of meta-fiction in Invisible Man, moreover, puts forth for reexamination a
vast literature that includes the works of Du Bois, Washington, Emerson, Twain, Dostoevsky,
Joyce and others. The novel examines the claims raised by the competing forces, white and
black, which attempt to categorize, exploit, essentialize and suppress the black writer's
individuality. Ellison's protagonist, a spokesperson-turned-writer, struggles against the white
racists and the philanthropists as well as the black accommodationists, nationalists and
Marxists. As a meta-fictional novel, Invisible Man is an epic portrait of the black writer's
ideological and artistic striving against suppression of individual authenticity and self-
II. Invisible Man
Metafiction, as defined by Patricia Waugh, is a term given to "fictional writing which
self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as artifact". Essentially, she
adds, metafiction is a literary form which celebrates "the power of the creative imagination"
(Waugh 2). Notwithstanding its metafictionality, Invisible Man slightly deviates from
Waugh's contemporary definition of metafiction in which foregrounding a novel's fictionality
is of primary importance. Ellison's work rather falls into the category of 'self-begetting
fiction', a sub-genre of metafiction proposed by Steven G. Kellman:
A fantasy of Narcissus become autogamous, the self-begetting novel projects the
illusion of art creating itself. Truly samizdat, in the original sense of "self-
publishing," it is an account, usually first person, of the development of a character
to the point at which he is able to take up his pen and compose the novel we have
just finished reading. Like an infinite recession of Chinese boxes, the self-
begetting novel again begins where it ends. … This devise of a narrative which is
in effect a record of its own genesis is a happy fusion of form and content. We are
at once confronted with process and product, quest and goal, parent and child.
Kellman, however, is cautious to point out what makes the self-begetting novel a distinctive
type of metafiction. With much correspondence to the American myth of the self-made man,
it "begets both a self and itself" (Kellman 1251). Penning a self-begetting novel, therefore,
becomes "an assertion of the individual's sovereignty in forging his own identity and a
reductive depiction of the forces which compel such assertion" (Kellman 1247). Interestingly,
Kellman also notices that most self-begetting works appear against a backdrop of exhausted
As a self-begetting novel, Invisible Man self-consciously operates within a circular
structure. The incidental details of the novel unfold between the prologue and the epilogue
where the narrator is depicted writing the novel itself. Both the prologue and the epilogue are
complementary and run simultaneously in time. In the prologue as well as the epilogue, the
narrator recounts his past experience in the outside world from "a hole in the ground"
(Ellison, Invisible 6). The narrator, thus, exhibits an awareness of that structure when he
asserts that "the end is in the beginning" (Ellison, Invisible 6). Furthermore, the novel's
circular structure draws attention to itself through Ellison's conscious use of the boomerang
symbol. Throughout the novel, the protagonist "boomerangs" from one experience to another
in a quixotic quest for self-affirmation which, ironically, every time ends where it begins. The
narrator, Joseph Frank argues, is caught in "some type of social or cultural trap—a road opens
up before him only to end in a blind alley, a possibility of freedom tempts him but then only
imprisons him once again" (Frank 233). He starts college as a jobless, poor student and this is
how he ends up after he is deluded into believing that "within this quite greenness [he]
possessed the only identity" (Ellison, Invisible 99). Similarly, his experience with The
Brotherhood, which he naively evaluates as something making him "more human", ends
where it begins, with him being pursued by a shadowy figure (Ellison, Invisible 346).
All this time, the narrator has no control over the spinning movement of the boomerang,
until he chooses to write:
I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem
was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own. I have also been
called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called
myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I
am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way and returned and boomeranged
from the point in society toward which I originally aspired. (Ellison, Invisible 573)
Only through writing this circular piece, the narrator creates and controls his own boomerang
rather than being boomeranged himself. Hence, "by designation a beginning and an end to his
story, he converts events that threaten to be chaotic into ones that reveal form and
significance" (Smith 43). This fulfills Ellison's vision of the artist as a man who stands up in
the face of formless chaos. The mission of art, particularly in the black artist's case, is to give
form to a chaotic existence plagued by racism and racial war by defining himself on his own
Moreover, Invisible Man "dramatically embodies the narrator's gradual transformation
from speaker to writer," (Rice 25) with special emphasis laid on the communal and individual
implications of both roles respectively. In fact, the novel practically starts with the narrator's
denouncement of his previous career, using confessional first person narration: "I am an
orator, a rabble rouser – Am? I was" (Ellison, Invisible 14). A line of demarcation is carefully
drawn between speech, a group-oriented act, and writing, as a personal action with public
implications. Ellison, thus, implants several speeches, each emblematic of an ideology the
narrator naively embraces, within the novel to indicate the episodes leading to that
The narrator's first speech is the one he delivers at the Battle Royal in order to gain a
scholarship. The speech is clearly modeled after Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Exposition
Address", in which he asserts the separate-but-equal principle. In fact, the narrator cites
certain parts verbatim as when he says, "cast down your bucket where you are" (Ellison,
Invisible 30). A number of signs, nonetheless, indicate that the narrator speaks for what he
does not stand for. There is a certain unwillingness involved in this oration practice as he
speaks and fights "automatically" (Ellison, Invisible 24, 30). Even the voice of the cynical
writer cannot help but intrude upon the gullible protagonist: "I delivered an oration in which I
showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed
this!)" (Ellison, Invisible 17). This speech is "the audience's speech and not Invisible Man's,
[thus] he remains voiceless" (Morel 26). The narrator's other decisive speech is delivered
from the Brotherhood's platform. Unlike the previous accommodationist speech, this one is a
highly populist, determinately radical speech that drips of leftist racial rhetoric of militancy: "I
feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear
the footsteps of militant fraternity!" (Ellison, Invisible 364). Ironically, however, all he can
see is the bulk of the crowd, figuring like "faces become vaguer and vaguer"; and all he can
feel is "mechanical isolation" toward them (Ellison, Invisible 340-1).
Only during the speech at Tod Clifton's funeral does the narrator get to see his audience
as "individuals". He is able to name the colors that make up the diverse crowd: "the dazzling
reds, yellows, and greens of cheap sports shirts and summer dresses" (Ellison, Invisible 460).
That speech is spontaneous, purely motivated by his terror and horror at the sudden brutality
with which a police officer claims the life of a black youth just because his skin color makes
him suspicious. The Brotherhood, naturally, decries the speech as a sign of the narrator's
The narrator's decision to narrate and write down the details of his life is, thus, a
decision that negates outside authority over his mind and retrieves his human agency:
He relinquishes the meaning generated by other ideologies in favor of one that is
primarily self-generated. … he creates for himself a persona that develops, indeed
exists, in contradiction to the images that other projected unto him. (Smith 43)
By mastering the literary craft, he is able to tip the scales by dominating the figures of
authority who exploited his voice. They become mere characters in a fictional piece that he
can freely manipulate and humiliate as he wishes. Begetting a clearly defined self through the
practice of writing fiction alters the sociological stereotype that renders African American
fiction as mere political statements with no literary or personal merits whatsoever.
An intrinsic part of Ellison's aesthetic individualism and his metafictional project in
Invisible Man is his conscious use of intertextuality, which sets him artistically apart from his
contemporaries. Intertextuality is "a term coined by Julia Kristeva to designate the various
relationships that a given text may have with other texts" (Baldick 128). Intertextual devices
include allusion, parody, pastiche, plagiarism, quotation and translation. A number of critics,
nonetheless, argue that intertextuality is not always restricted to texts, for the plain of
reference in the novel may as well extend to parodying literary genres and conventions or
employing forms borrowed from popular and folk culture such as music, myth, folktales and
archetypes (Clayton 3-4). For Ellison, the purpose of intertextuality is twofold. On the one
hand, it intensifies the metafictionality of the text by constantly indicating an authorial
presence that seeks to establish this "network of internal cross references" among the text at
hand and other texts (Kellman 1251). Intertextuality is, in fact, a conceit of Ellison's own
resourcefulness and his capacity to master his craft as a black writer, let alone appreciate its
diverse history. An inherent quality of textual introspection and self-reflexivity also marks
such practice. On the other hand, intertextuality materializes Ellison's project of fiction that
reflects "the interaction between his racial predicament, his individual will and the broader
American cultural freedom" (Ellison, Shadow 112-3).
A rich reservoir of the black experience in the United States which Ellison is
particularly fond of drawing on is black folklore. The term folklore refers to "the tradition,
unofficial, non-institutional part of culture that encompasses all knowledge, values, attitudes,
assumptions, feelings and beliefs transmitted through word of mouth or customary example".
Songs, rituals, jokes, proverbs and tales specific to certain communities go under the category
of folklore (Brunvand 9). Black folklore in this sense serves as a chronicle of the wisdom,
struggle, triumph, disappointment, hope, betrayal, slavery and freedom of African Americans
in the United States. Unlike many of his contemporaries and critics, Ellison realizes that
folklore "depicts the humor as well as the horror of our living" (Ellison, Shadow 80; italics
mine). That a novel famous for its celebration of individualism depicts an ethnocentric aspect
of culture like folklore with such depth and emphasis might pose a serious paradox. Such
paradox, however, proves ostensible when Ellison's conscious artistry of adapting black
folklore to the American and Western myths and folklores is considered (Washington 215;
Morel 58). By so doing, Ellison intertexts black folklore in his novel in the form of references
to or direct quotations from spirituals, blues, jazz, sermons, jokes, sayings and trickster tales
to "bridge the gap between the uniqueness and universality [individuality and diversity] of
black experience" (Blake 121). With this free play on the diverse folklore tradition of the
United States and the world, he redirects the usual sociological reading of black literary works
popularized by the protest tradition of writing.
Black spirituals are the body of slave religious songs created by plantation blacks. They
are essentially "the product of Christian piety and the slavery experience" (Moore 19). Such
songs, by offering slaves a new hope of Christian salvation, serve as "shields against the
values of slaveholders and their killing definitions of black humanity" (Gates 8). Although
pervasively religious, it is the spirituals that have given birth to secular rhymes and songs
which carry the same values of hope and endurance. Invisible Man abounds with references
that weave spirituals and secular songs, and infuses them with universal meanings.
One example appears in the prologue where the narrator, during a reefer-induced
fantasy, encounters "an old woman singing a spiritual" (Ellison, Invisible 9; italics in the
original). A slave, the female spiritual singer discloses to the narrator that she has been
promised freedom by her master as she has children with him, a promise that remains
unfulfilled. Her children, now grown, decide to kill the master with a knife. The female slave,
out of love for both her master and her children, poisons him instead. Her story is an allusion
to the secular rhyme, "Promises of Freedom":
Yes, my ole Mosser promise me;
But "his papers" didn' leave me free.
A dose of pizen he'ped 'im along.
May de Devil preach 'is fūner'l song. (Gates 28)
The song mirrors the struggle of the dispossessed narrator who is, like a slave, made to
"confront modern "Mossers" and "Mistisses," with their own dubious promises of freedom"
(O'Meally 82). Bewildered by the story, the narrator inquires the singer about the meaning of
"this freedom you love so well," but she refuses to give a clear-cut answer. The decisive
answer, however, comes from her son who very aggressively retorts, "Git outa here and stay,
and next time you got questions like that, ask yourself!" (Ellison, Invisible 12). This answer
introduces a twist; her son, at this point, redeems the narrator from the grave mistake of
romanticizing the past experience of slavery and, hence, seeking to define one's identity in
terms of that experience alone. This is what leads George Kent to conclude that although the
slave woman is "used to comment upon the pain of victimization, … she and her sons also
define freedom … as the ability to articulate the self, and as a question that can be answered
only by each individual's confrontation with the self" (Kent 155).
Furthermore, Ellison skillfully enlarges the connotations of the spiritual the salve sings
when he maintains that it is "as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco" (Ellison, Invisible 9).
Weltschmerz is a German term universally used to describe the frustration resulting from the
perceived disparity between reality and the ideal vision of life. It is this frustration that
constitutes the essence of flamenco songs which, although they "portray simple lyrics of
suffering, persecution and injustice", are "sung and danced with a stoic sense of pride and
fiery passion" (Rinaldi 68). This is meant to imply that the sorrowful plight of slavery, even if
it is more material to blacks than other races, is not a particular matter; man remains a slave to
earthly limitations. By the same token, black spirituals cry of the same agony and sing of the
same triumph as the Spanish flamenco.
Jazz is a genre of music that fuses spirituals, work songs, blues and European classical
music. Jazz, although squarely rooted in group experience, is a quintessential medium for
individual self-expression; it is the musical equivalent of Ellison's vision of fiction:
[Jazz] heralds the human capacity to do more than merely survive, to create an
individual self or voice that can maintain itself, under pressure, with style and
equipoise, that can confront trouble and improvise ways of coping no matter what
changes or disjunctures may get in the way. (Gates 66)
According to Ellison, it is in these moments of brilliant solo performances that the black jazz
artist transcends the chaos of existence, as exemplified by racism and segregation.
The impact and value of the art of jazz is imparted when Ellison cites Louis Armstrong's
"What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" in the novel's prologue:
What did I do
To be so black
The song does bear the horror and humor of the black experience in America. While it
protests the marginalization of blacks ("My only sin is my skin"), it promises a sense of
overcoming and offers consolation through the ancient but effective practice of self-mockery.
In a laughing moan, Armstrong sings, "even the mouse ran from my house". Such bluesy
jokes elicit laughter, but soon the laughter dissolves. A striking realization dawns on the
hearer, of the repulsive conditions of poverty and lack of health care that some blacks labor
under because of their skin color.
A revolutionary aspect of Armstrong's jazz, according to the narrator, is that it "gives
one a slightly different sense of time" (Ellison, Invisible 8). He compares the music to a
boxing match between "a prizefighter" and "a yokel". After a long fight, the yokel eventually
knocks the professional boxer down because he is able to "step inside of his opponent's time"
and get advantage of him. This is characteristically what Armstrong does when he "slips into
the breaks". Slipping into the breaks is when "the improvising soloist (usually singular) fills
the otherwise empty sonic space with dramatic solo obligatti, usually without abandoning the
overall performance's established feel or its tempo of rhythmic propulsion" (Anderson 88).
Armstrong has slipped into the breaks of the supremely white American society the moment
his music has become an indispensible part of the mainstream of American music. By hinting
at this, "Ellison seeks to make the erstwhile cultural leadership of an otherwise all but
invisible and disenfranchised minority group more visible and more audible to a nation
divided over the black freedom struggle" (Anderson 87). The slight temporal distortion
resulting from slipping into the breaks, furthermore, enunciates the soloist's individuality as
evident in his ability to "crave out and occupy an alternative rhythmic space within a
collective performance" (Anderson 86).
Moreover, the narrator fanaticizes that he "not only [enters] the music but [descends],
like Dante, into its depths" (Ellison, Invisible 9). In a sense, he literally slips into the breaks of
music and sees the source of its agony and hope. On one level, he encounters the spiritual
singer. On yet a lower one, he sees "a beautiful girl pleading before a group of slave-owners
who bid for her body" (Ellison, Invisible 9). When he reaches the bottom of the music he
hears a sermon on "the blackness of blackness". He remains there ambivalent and scared until
the spiritual singer son sobers him again. These levels, in fact, are the levels of the American
inferno of slavery and false promises of freedom. They are the source from which the
triumphant, yet melancholic, sound of the jazz soloist issues. Jazz, hence, becomes the symbol
of overcoming such hellish experiences. Like Armstrong, "who made poetry out of being
invisible", the narrator makes fiction out of his invisibility. This allusion to Dante's Divine
Comedy serves indeed to universalize Ellison's message that is meant to reach the biggest
segment of his non-black audience.
Trickster tales, especially animal tricksters, are immensely present in Invisible Man.
Tricksters, as defined by Cristiano Grottanelli, are "breakers of rules, but though they are
tragic in their own specific way, their breaking of rules is always comical". An animal
trickster "is a crafty, rather than a powerful, beast" (Grottanelli 119). In African American
folklore, trickster tales are established forms that date back to the early days of slavery. They
chronicle fictive tricks that slaves play to outdo their masters in order to impart a technique of
survival for the younger generations. Such tales, hence, "exalt the rising of the lowly, turning
the tables on the oppressors" (Nicholas 11).
One of the tales Ellison implants in his work is that of Bre'r Dog and Bre'r Rabbit. The
work is structurally and thematically built upon the story entitled "Why Mr. Dog Runs Bre'r
Rabbit". Bre'r Rabbit, who has just bought some fish, meets Mr. Dog on the way home. Mr.
Dog threatens him that he will not let him go unless he tells him where he has been fishing.
Consequently, Bre'r Rabbit tells him that he uses his tail to catch fish, which is a trick. Mr.
Dog, upon that revelation, uses the same technique but his tail is frozen in the water. After he
releases himself, he angrily searches for Bre'r Rabbit. When he finds him, he punishes him by
keeping him running round the woods. The dog in black folklore, as O'Meally suggests, is "an
enigmatic and deceptive fellow" (O'Meally 82). The threatening image of the dog goes back
to the days when slaves used to be guarded by fierce and wild dogs.
The Invisible Man is made to run in circles by two authority figures who conjure the
image of the dog: Dr. Bledsoe and Brother Jack. While still under the illusion of Dr. Bledsoe's
accommodationist program, the Invisible Man dreams of his slave grandfather who hands him
a letter that reads, "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running" (Ellison, Invisible 33). This foreshadows
the letter of expulsion Bledsoe sends with the unsuspecting narrator as a letter of
Thus, while the bearer is no longer a member of our scholastic family, it is highly
important that his severance with the college be executed as painlessly as possible.
I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like
the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler.
(Ellison, Invisible 191)
The narrator tries to fit in at school and act upon the orders, even when he distrusts them. Yet,
he fails to trick Dr. Bledsoe and is instead tricked. As a child, he has been familiar with
Master, a bulldog he "liked, but didn't trust". He goes on to describe Brother Jack as "a toy
bull terrier", which indicates that he is untrustworthy (Ellison, Invisible 301). Like Mr. Dog,
in the folktale, Jack tricks not only the Invisible Man, but the entire Harlem community. After
the narrator's impassioned speech, he reminds him that "you made an effective speech. But
you mustn't waste your emotions on individuals, they don't count" (Ellison, Invisible 314).
This is a precursor to the political betrayal to the people of Harlem whom the Brotherhood
mobilizes for equal rights and then ignores because of matters the organization deems more
important. This also serves as a historical allusion to the Communist Party's shift of political
attention from the civil rights issue so as to respond to the necessities of Soviet Union foreign
policy during the war. As Daryl C. Dance concludes, "the similarities of theme appearing
throughout [trickster] tales from the slave anecdotes to the contemporary stories, suggest that
for Black Americans very little has changed" (Dance xvii). The message imparted by Ellison's
use of trickster tales is that survival is not a matter of tricking the oppressor as much as it is a
matter of being conscious of the oppressor's tricks.
Invisible Man also alludes to a number of "unwritten jokes" (Ken 157). The notorious
Battle Royal scene, for instance, is partly based on the folk joke where a white man overhears
a black man expressing his desire for the forbidden white woman:
Black: Oh, Lord, will I ever?
White: No, nigger, never!
Black: As long as there's life, there's hope.
White: As long as there's trees, there's rope. (Dance 101)
In that scene, the narrator and a group of other black boys are placed in a farcical situation
where they are being forced to watch a white stripper, "a magnificent blonde—stark naked"
(Ellison, Invisible 19). Normally, the scene evokes in the narrator conflicting emotions
swerving between lust and fear: he "wanted at one and the same time … to caress her and
destroy her, to love her and to murder her" (Ellison, Invisible 19). Kent highlights the
significance of this scene as "a ritual to stamp upon them [the narrator and the boys] the
symbolic castration they are supposed to experience in the presence of a white woman" (Kent
99). Ellison, however, expands the significance of this racial joke to reveal the sexist aspect it
implies. Ellison not only dramatizes the white men's bawdy expression of lust for the striper,
but also hints at "the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror" (Ellison,
Invisible 20) A larger interpretation of the joke, thus, reveals that, beyond racial barriers,
"both [the black narrator and the white striper] are exploited objects for sensual
entertainment" (Tate 167).
Although "Ellison's spiritual roots are … deep in the black American folk tradition", his
involvement with the western literary tradition remains above all immense. Such involvement
"emanates from his sincere belief that it is the duty of every writer, black or white, to be fully
aware of the best that has ever been written" (Neal 120). By setting the works of Joyce,
Twain, Dostoevsky and Emerson as intertexts for Invisible Man, Ellison actively defies
segregation rather than protesting against it à la Naturalists.
In a famous interview from Paris Review, Ellison states that while living in Dayton,
Ohio, in 1937, he "practiced writing and studied Joyce all night" (Ellison, Shadow 169). His
indebtedness to the legacy of James Joyce is indeed manifested through the thematic and
structural similarities between Invisible Man and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In
the prologue, Ellison's narrator describes an episode where he "accidentally [bumps] into … a
tall blonde man" who, as a reaction, utters a racial slur. Offended, the Invisible Man violently
demands an apology: "Apologize! Apologize!" (Ellison, Invisible 4). His demand instantly
reveals itself to the reader as a direct allusion to the opening nursery rhyme of shame and guilt
in Joyce's novel:
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
Pull out his eyes,
Apologize, (Joyce 5)
The confounding correspondence between the two, as Alan Nadel observes, consists in the
fact that "the cries for apology combine with the threat of blindness" (Nadel 35). Ellison's
narrator fails to evade the accident because of "the near darkness". He admits that the "man
had not seen me" and calls him a "blind fool" (Ellison, Invisible 5). The novel is abundant
with imagery of blindness beyond this particular incident. Joyce's Stephen Dedalus is
subjected to the savage threat that "the eagle will come and pull out his eyes", which
necessarily leads to blindness (Joyce 5). Unlike Joyce, however, "Ellison locates these traits
[blindness and sightlessness] in the antagonist not the protagonist" (Nadel 35). American
society, as symbolized by the blond man, is past the threat of blindness; it is readily blinded
by racism, as a matter of fact. Joyce's threatening "eagle" is, in the context of Ellison's work,
reminiscent of the national bird of the United States chosen by its founders and symbol of
American pride. Ironically, this eagle pulls out America's eyes. America is blind by white
pride and, therefore, robs itself of its democratic pride. By refusing to grant Negroes freedom
and equal rights and treat them as individuals, America is guilty of betraying the basic
democratic ideal upon which it is founded.
Like Joyce's protagonist, Ellison's narrator is facing "the general challenge of balancing
the values of individual integrity and racial solidarity" (Anderson 84). Throughout the novel,
Stephen's individual freedom as demonstrated by an immense love for art and sensual beauty
is constantly stifled by religion, politics or problems pertaining to the Irish race. The Invisible
Man, like Stephen, is "boomeranged" from one experience to another where he seems to
conform but fails eventually. He is subject to indoctrination by Bledsoe, Brother Jack and Ras
as much as Stephen is by his father or at school. Ellison's narrator contemplates this
dichotomy after he delivers an emotionally charged speech, sponsored by The Brotherhood, to
mobilize the black residents of Harlem into action against the government. In this speech, the
potential race leader claims that he derives from his race's "fraternal land" what makes him
"more human" (Ellison, Invisible 346). Yet, he then ponders the phrase and wonders what it
could possibly mean. This brings him to the vivid memory of his teacher and "the blackboard
chalked with quotations from Joyce …" (Ellison, Invisible 354). More vividly, the narrator
remembers his teacher's insightful diagnosis of Stephen's, and the Invisible Man's, plight:
I could hear him: "Stephen's problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating
the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his
face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is
the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record . . . We create the race by
creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created
something far more important: We will have created a culture. Why waste time
creating a conscience for something that doesn't exist? For, you see, blood and
skin do not think!" (Ellison, Invisible 354)
These words evoke clearly Ellison's attitude to the "Negro problem" in America. Instead of
resorting to ethnic solidarity as a survival technique in the face of racism, Ellison believes that
salvation for Negroes begins with dismissal of the homogenizing ideologies cultivated by
pragmatic race leaders. Racial equality, according to Ellison, will free the black race but not
necessarily black individuals. Therefore, he urges the African American individual to "forge
in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race" (Joyce 228). Both Ellison's
protagonist and Joyce's re-create themselves through fulfilling the very personal vocation of
writing. Stephen rejects all the authoritarian voices ("my home, my fatherland, or my church")
and professes to "express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly
as I can" (Joyce 222). Similarly, Ellison's narrator heeds to "the compulsion to put invisibility
down in black and white" (Ellison, Invisible 14). They both reach a level of transcendence
where "the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above
his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent" (Joyce 191).
The impact of Mark Twain and his enduring American classic, The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn, on Ellison is indubitable. In his essay, 'Twentieth Century Fiction and the
Black Mask of Humanity', Ellison hails Twain's novel for evoking "the compelling image of
black and white fraternity". The fusion in Huck's character between the virtues of humanism
and individualism is what makes Ellison regard Twain "as a highly moral an artist as he was a
believer in democracy". This retrospective review, however, brings Ellison to the realization
that Twain's is the century's last depiction of the Negro as "a rounded human being" who
transcends naturalist sentimentalism and white stereotypes (Ellison, Shadow 32-4).
Through his allusion to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ellison seeks to defy this
limitation of Negro portrayal and revise the American understanding of Twain's work. In
chapter nine, Ellison's narrator is encountered with young Emerson, the son of one of the
school's white trustees. He is sent there with Dr. Bledsoe's letter of recommendation, which is
in reality the complete opposite. Young Emerson, knowing the real content of the letter,
vaguely implies to the narrator that meeting Mr. Emerson is unadvisable. When the narrator
protests against what he deems an arbitrary decision stemming from anti-black prejudice,
Emerson Jr. apologetically reassures the narrator that "with us it is still Jim and Huck Finn …
I'm Huckleberry, you see". Ironically, this is immediately followed by the narrator's
exclamation, "I tried to make sense of his ramblings. Huckleberry? Why did he keep talking
about that kid's story?" (Ellison, Invisible 188). Indeed, young Emerson is no Huck Finn. He
is rather subconsciously the liberal philanthropist, a young Mr. Norton in a sense. It is white
guilt, rather than a firm belief in equality, that compels him to offer the narrator his help. This
appears more clearly in such slips as "some of the finest people I know are Neg—" (Ellison,
Invisible 190). Unlike Huck, who, by insisting to keep Jim, "[makes] independent responsible
decisions in the face of a pervasively corrupt society", Emerson Jr. is incapable of such action
Nadel 127). "Ellison has stressed the importance of this decision not as fantasy but as action"
(Nadel 129). Young Emerson only secretly fantasizes about resisting the American racist
society but is put off by his fear of the social consequences. Therefore, he tells the narrator,
"you're free of him [Mr. Emerson] now. I'm still his prisoner … I've still my battle" (Ellison,
Invisible 192). The black narrator thus assumes the role of a black Huck, with its sheer
roundness; he frees himself and bears the responsibility of his own actions.
One of Ellison's major dissatisfactions with the policy of the New Masses, a leftist
magazine Wright has helped Ellison to work for, is that "they hated Dostoevsky, but I was
studying Dostoevsky" (Ellison, Shadow 86). It is understandable, thus, that the legacy of
Dostoevsky exerts such an immeasurable influence on Ellison's Invisible Man. Notes from
Underground is the immediate classic that Ellison's novel conjures due to what Joseph Franks
considers "the self-evident resemblances between the two works" (Frank 232).
Ellison's opening statement, "I am an invisible man" (Ellison, Invisible 3), evokes
Dostoevsky's "I am a sick man" (Dostoevsky 15). Both statements are written in the first
person, thus affirming the narrator's agency even when undermined by metaphysical
(invisibility) or physical (sickness) conditions. A more noticeable correspondence, however,
is the "underground" motif in both works. The Invisible Man is a replica of Dostoevsky's
Underground Man. In fact, this motif, in the cultural context of Dostoevsky's use of it,
coincides with Ellison's attempt to make clear his position in relation to the dominating white
and black ideologies. The Underground Man, a member of the Russian intelligentsia, retires
to his hole in a symbolic indication of
… the impossibility he feels of being able to live humanly within categories that,
although he has learned to accept them about himself, have been imposed on him
by others … The revolt of the Underground Man is a refusal to accept a definition
of himself, a definition of his own nature, in terms imposed by the alien world of
European culture. (Frank 232)
Similarly, the well-educated Invisible Man escapes to his hole from the reductive definitions
imposed on the Negro individual. The accommodationist college wishes to eradicate his
Negro roots, Mary and Ras cast him as a Messianic figure who sacrifices himself for the racial
struggle, whereas The Brotherhood reduces him to a mere tool for their political interests. He
thus distrusts all these definition which "violate some aspect of his own integrity" as a Negro
and a human being (Frank 233). Moreover, there is an unmistakable structural similarity
between the two works. Invisible Man is an episodic novel; the narrator enters into several
episodes that are in fact encounters with several ideologies such as accommodation, unionism,
nationalism and communism. The same pattern appears in Dostoevsky's novel which is
divided in two parts; each parodying the narrator's encounter with a European ideology
imported to Russia such as materialism (Part I) and utopian socialism (Part II).
The diversity, moreover, that marks Ellison's literary influences starts with his name. He
is named Ralph Waldo Emerson after the great American thinker and proponent of staunch
individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Harold Bloom maintains that Ellison's name "[reflects]
a father’s hope that his son’s life would not be constrained by the color of his skin and would
by its own virtue and power advance the standing of the black race in America" (Bloom 14).
It is, thus, no coincidence that the central metaphor of blindness upon which Invisible Man is
based emanates from Emerson's seminal work, Self-reliance. In his essay, Emerson decries
the uncritical conformity to society's institutions as "a blindman's-buff". "Most men", he
proceeds to say, "bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves
to some one of these communities of opinion" (Emerson 23).
In Invisible Man, where "invisibility is a function of blindness", Emerson's "blindman's-
buff" is fully at work (Nadel 122). Part of the Battle Royal spectacle, for instance, is a boxing
match where black students fight blindfolded in an undignified manner to please the white
audience. The narrator, however, admits that "all ten of us … allowed ourselves to be
blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth" (Ellison, Invisible 21; italics mine). This
indicates that Negroes in America are not helpless as portrayed by some; they are capable
individuals who have the will to choose not to be blinded and forge their way on their own.
Furthermore, the statue of the college Founder has "empty eyes" (Ellison, Invisible 36). The
blindness of the statue mirrors the blindness of the Founder, potentially Booker T.
Washington, who manipulates blacks into upholding the myth of a progress that makes sure
they stay in their place, marginalized and "without individuality" (Ellison, Invisible 111).
Homer A. Barbee, the reverend who preaches a sermon exalting the heroism of the Founder
is, ironically, blind. The narrator remembers seeing "the blinking of sightless eyes" (Ellison,
Invisible 133). Barbee is one of one of the Founder's victims; he is blind to the Founder's iron
authority and his betrayal to his own people. Brother Jack, one of the novel's most darkly
intimidating figures and a representative of the Communist Party, wears a "blind glass eye"
(Ellison, Invisible 475). Jack, when this fact is revealed, is invested in an angry rant where he
tries to substitute the narrator's belief in "personal responsibility" with an ethic of "sacrifice"
(Ellison, Invisible 475). At this point, it becomes clear to the narrator that blindness is the
equivalent of sacrificing one's own individuality.
By drawing on diverse literary and non-literary sources that serve as a textual backdrop
for his novel, Ellison proves that the black writer's imagination transcends the color line: "if
we are in a jug, it is transparent … and one is allowed not only to see outside but read what is
going on out there" (Ellison, Shadow 116). With Ellison's brilliant use of intertextuality,
Indivisible Man becomes a miniature of the America he envisions, one whose "greatness lies
in the diversity of individualism" (Leary 64). The colorful fabric of America's literature
necessitates the recognition of its colorful demography.
The term 'ethnicity' is used to refer to a set of distinctive cultural markers such as
ancestry, appearance, cuisine, dress code, history, language or dialect, religion, symbols, and
traditions commonly shared by a certain group of people. Due to such shared characteristics,
ethnic groups are communal by nature as well as by definition. Usually, this communalism
evolves into a complex system of ethnic solidarity when members of a certain ethnic group
are impelled by prejudice to become more vigilant of their distinctive characteristics. As a
result, individuals within ethnic communities generally veer toward group-oriented
identification. In the United States, where both racism and individualism are simultaneously
upheld, individuals who belong to marginalized ethnic communities have always been faced
with a serious paradox. They are clueless as to how to reconcile the communal (ethnic) and
the individualist (American) parts of their identity. Such individuals find themselves required
to live up to the communal obligation of fighting along with their struggling ethnic
communities for equality and liberation. Meanwhile, they are supposed to emulate the long-
standing American principle of individualism by defining themselves in terms of achieved
rather than ascribed identities. In the ethnic literature of the United States, this dilemma is
fully at work and is perfectly epitomized by the art-propaganda binary which dominates the
interpretations of ethnic literature.
Throughout the history of African American literature, there have been numerous
literary altercations over the definition and purpose of black literature. Debate has raged
unabated over whether African American literature is art or political and social propaganda,
and has been naturally informed by political, economic and social conditions. The
individualist side of the debate has argued for literature as a medium for the black artist's
innovative self-expression and a celebration of the artistic imagination's vision of the human
condition. The communal, and rather ethnically nationalist, side, nonetheless, has submitted
that black literature is purely a political statement whose sole purpose is to mobilize society in
favor of equal rights and political enfranchisement of blacks. The heated exchanges between
both sides are championed by renowned figures such as Alain Locke, Du Bois, Langston
Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. A famous and subtle example of
this conflict is Baldwin and Ellison's outspoken advocacy of giving precedence to artistic craft
over political protest, of which Richard Wright is a major proponent. Wright's school of
protest fiction has been well established in the literary world by the time Baldwin and Ellison
decided to challenge it. Rooted in the naturalist literary tradition and the ideological tenets of
Marxism, Wright's protest has a set of major limitations. Both Ellison and Baldwin explain
that protest fiction confines the black artist to the parochial realm of his race's social and
political repression, thus actively exerting further repression by stifling the artist's imaginative
faculty. Furthermore, although protest novels seem to draw solely on ethnocentric sources,
their treatment of such sources remains shallow. The portrayal of the Negro in protest fiction
is strikingly reductive, depicting only the weak and vulnerable side of the black experience
and emptying it of the natural contradictions that define blacks as humans above all. Thus,
aesthetic individualism that innovatively synthesizes material derived from literary and non-
literary traditions, black and white, and leaves room for artistic improvisation and
experimentation has been deemed by Ellison and Baldwin as a method to redefine black
literature and the mission of the black writer.
Ralph Ellison's magnum opus, Invisible Man, embodies his belief in aesthetic
individualism that rejects and resists categorization and reduction of the black writer's
individual talent. He experiments with metafiction and metafictional devises such as self-
begetting and intertextuality, thus employing and reproducing a literary form new to African
American literature in the 50's. Within a self-begetting frame, the narrator provides a first-
person account of his remarkable transformation from the spokesperson of several political
organizations to be the writer of this novel, revealing in the process the de-individualizing
pressure exercised by such organizations and the ideologies they stand for. Moreover, the
novel self-reflexively explores how the narrator attains self-discovery and self-achievement
through writing. The black narrator's encounters with ideologies of accommodation,
nationalism and communism are dramatized through implanting several speeches, and are
simultaneously mocked by the writer's intrusive comments laying bare the short-sightedness
of these ideologies and their failure to serve the black struggle.
Furthermore, the use of intertextuality in Invisible Man is by all means revolutionary. It
defies the conventions of Marxist realism which, purely concerned with politics, lays little
emphasis on the black writer's duty to assimilate diverse literary traditions and exhibit a
reasonable awareness of the textual heritage informing his career as a writer. Ellison, thus,
draws on numerous cultural sources ranging from Homer to racial jokes to serve as a textual
backdrop to the novel. On one hand, this intensifies the textuality of the novel, places it in the
international literary canon and pays a tribute to the innovative authorial presence behind its
creation. On the other hand, it establishes a dialectical interaction between the black tradition
and the larger tradition of American and world literatures. The novel, for instance, re-
examines and re-interprets black folklore. Instead of romanticizing folklore, Ellison
introduces a balanced vision of folklore as a symbol of black humanity bearing marks of the
black struggle as well as signs of hope, self-definition and overcoming. Ellison's complex and
multifaceted allusions to folklore further enlarge the connotations of black spirituals, jazz,
folktales and jokes by illustrating the individual aspect of these communal forms and relating
them to the larger heritage of international myth and folklore. Moreover, Ellison alludes to
works by Joyce, Twain, Dostoevsky and Emerson so as to show that what some African
Americans see as their ethnic plight of oppression, injustice, and inauthenticity is, in fact, a
universal plight that can be only overcome by self-confrontation and bearing one's own
personal responsibility. This diverse textual background, moreover, serves to illustrate that
diversity and pluralism, which preserve every individual's unique identity, are the key to
realizing the original democratic principle upon which America is originally founded.
To conclude, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man creates an aesthetic universe of its own
which only Ellison himself, as a self-achieved individual and artist, controls and manipulates.
It breaks away, aesthetically and conceptually, from all the reductive political and literary
norms to introduce a conscious black hero who defines himself by following his own
vocation. The novel establishes the principle that the individual's freedom is the core of
freedom and equality in society as a whole. The black artist's freedom to transcend the color
line and write creatively and imaginatively rather than act as a spokesman for a political cause
is, as shown in the novel, where the liberation of the black race begins. The novel also serves
as a miniature of the future America Ellison envisions—an America no less diverse than the
culturally plural tradition which molds the novel. Invisible Man's diverse heritage suggests
that American culture and African American culture are as much preconditioned by the
presence of each other, and that both are inescapably a product of the universal human
condition which knows no color.
IV. Works Cited
Anderson, Paul Allen. "Ralph Ellison’s Music Lessons." The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison. Ed. Ross Posnock. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. 82-104.
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Baldwin, James. "Everybody's Protest Novel." Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon, 1990. 13-23.
Blake, Susan L. "Ritual and Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison." Pmla. 94.1 (1979): 121-136. Web. 16 September 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2907134>.
Bloom, Harold. Ralph Ellison. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism, 2010.
Brown, L. Susan. The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism. Montreal: Black Rose, 1993.
Brunvand, Jan H. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Clayton, Jay, and Eric Rothstein. Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
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