A Lament for Ralph Ellison

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[By Jerry Ward]

HBW Board Member Prof. Jerry Ward responds to questions posed on the HBW Blog and Facebook Accounts
QUESTION:    The
Invisible Man creates a space outside of time where he indeed can begin to
imagine and construct new relations between the past and present as well as art
and technology.  By doing so, he creates
a new black future.  How can I expand
upon this thought with other literary examples?
With so many political issues being
discussed in black novels, how do you distinguish from political propaganda and
art?  Or, is it both?  In other words, would some black writers
write just for art’s sake and happen to have political sentiments in the work?
Throughout the novel, the protagonist
concludes that his invisibility stems from the fact that he is unable to define
himself outside the influence of others. 
There is a lack of agency that is attributed to blackness.  Nearly everyone that he encounters throughout
the novel attempts to tell him who and what he should be.  Thus, his going underground literally is an
attempt to define himself for himself outside of time and space (everyday ebb
and flow) while still confined by that same time and space.  Is this a correct reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man?  What other literary works deal with these
ideas of visibility and invisibility?  It
doesn’t have to be a literal invisibility, but perhaps being ignored or
overlooked
.

ANSWER:  Your questions are catalysts for meaningful
literary conversation as well as cultural criticism.  We have a surplus of criticism.  Conversation based on cultural literacy and
awareness of historical location is rare in the United States.
Consider
that the nameless narrator in Invisible
Man
(1952) only has voice and presence because we are reading Ellison’s
text.  It is in a reader’s mind that
marks on a page or specks on a screen (reproduced from Ellison’s manuscripts/typescripts)
are transformed into literature.
Reading
in “a space outside of time,” a reader mirrors the narrator in her or his own
image.  There is no single “correct
reading” of Invisible Man.  It is only by way of consensual argument that
readers approximate good but not absolutely correct interpretations.  When a correct reading of a text manifests
itself in this world, we no longer have a reason to read that text.  Correcting what is correct is a romantic
waste of time. By virtue of specific referentiality, on the other hand, we can
sometimes arrive at “correct readings” on nonfiction texts.
It
is a reader’s mind that constructs “new relations between the past and present
as well as art and technology.”  A black
reader no more creates a new black future than a Russian reader creates a new
Russian future.  Reading makes possible
conditions for a future. This principle liberates you to expand your thoughts
regarding space and time by selecting example from world literature.  The principle does not enable you to create a
future, except in the sense a metaphor creates a future.  The construction and deconstruction of Zeitgeist is a bio-cultural phenomenon
not an act of reading.
Reading
does create agency.  It allows you to
link art and technology.  Think of art
and technology in relation to Ralph Ellison’s novels.  For example, the first sentence in Chapter 1
of Ellison’s unfinished second novel Juneteenth
(New York: Random House, 1999) is “Two days before the shooting a chartered
planeload of Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and
attempted to see the Senator.”  The first
sentence is the Prologue of Ellison’ unfinished second novel Three Days Before the Shooting… ( New York: The Modern
Library, 2010) is “Three days before the shooting a chartered planeload of
Southern Negroes swooped down upon the District of Columbia and attempted to
see the Senator.”  Your agency
matters.  So too does the difference between
two days and three days.  So, what up?
What
is up departed with Ralph Ellison’s
soul on April 16, 1994.  What we have to
be down with is the fact that blue,
red, black, green, yellow, brown, white and pink novels all deal with art and
political issues.  As W. E. B. DuBois
asserted in “Criteria for Negro Art (1926), “all art is propaganda and ever
must be, despite the wailing of the purists.” 
All propaganda, however, is not art, because propaganda is split-tongue
trash-talk in the service of somebody’s ideologies.  The whole history of the all novels written
to date involves the weaving of art and propaganda.  It is a hellish exercise to separate art from
propaganda.  Frankly, art and propaganda
are like jazz:  if you must ask what they
are, you damned sure do not need to know.
Without
constructive malice (see Black’s Law Dictionary for a
definition), John F. Callahan tried to finish the unfinished work of Ellison’s
soul by arranging a reader’s edition of the second novel from the “notes,
typescripts, and computer printouts and disks” Ellison created over a
forty-year period.  Callahan promised in
“Afterword: A Note to Scholars” to create a scholar’s edition to document his
corrections of Ellison’s work “and include sufficient manuscripts and drafts of
the second novel to enable scholars and readers alike to follow Ellison’s some
forty years of work on his novel-in-progress” (Juneteenth 368) With the help of Adam Bradley, Callahan kept his
promise.  We now have Three Days Before the Shooting…, all 1101 pages.
This
scholar’s edition is a treasury of “ideas of visibility and invisibility,” an
icy mirror of the invisibility and visibility of Ralph Ellison’s life, a life
worthy of Greek tragedy. Read Lawrence P. Jackson’s Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002) and Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007) to get
my drift and to grasp the reason that lamenting Ellison’s life is an act of
compassion.  The white witch of fame
plucked Ellison clean as far as his writing a second novel went.
There
is no lack of agency in blackness.  If we
have an opportunity to see
INVISIBLE
MAN

adapted by Oren Jacoby
based on the novel by Ralph Ellison
directed by Christopher McElroen

This savage, hypnotic,
and impassioned adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 masterpiece explores bigotry
and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators.
we shall know just how
much agency blackness has.