John Coltrane, gunslinger and saint (from Jazz, directed by Ken Burns, 2000)
(This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking masterpiece, Invisible Man. Below is an essay on Ellison that I wrote for n+1 in 2008.)
THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS
Some time ago I came across a skinny little book bearing the title With Borges. It is the recollection of a brief stint in a young man’s life spent reading to the Argentine giant of letters, Jorge Luis Borges. Much in the book was familiar—Borges lived with his mother into his sixties, he devoured books with a fiendish voracity, his blindness in old age necessitated that others read aloud to him—but one tiny passage, an aside, was new and striking to me: in it, the memoirist notes that though the great cosmopolitan boasted a taste for everything under the sun, from ancient Nordic folk verse to kabbalistic number games to cheap Westerns and detective stories, Borges nonetheless remarked that there was absolutely nothing he could find of universal importance in American Negro culture. It was simply too provincial. And because, as he saw it, Negroes had failed to produce a “universal culture”—like that of the ancient Greeks, the English, the Arabs, the Chinese, the Jews—because they could offer nothing of equal worth to the rest of the world, they were therefore in a sense inferior. This was Borges’s view and it is something that I have come to think about often.
In Arnold Rampersad’s recent biography of Ralph Ellison, one thing above all else stood out for me there, too: Ellison dedicated his life to debunking exactly such a view as Borges’s. And it is this, I think, not simply the solitary literary feat of Invisible Man or the subsequent failure to produce a second act or the charges of elitism and snobbery that have long dogged his name, which should be his ultimate legacy.
With Ellison, the work cannot be separated from the life of the man, both point toward a common end: a consistent refutation of a very real and problematic black provincialism, as well as a dead serious rebuke against the naked bigotry that lies just beneath Borges’s (and others’) criticism. Ellison’s life—up from soul-crushing Jim Crow-era poverty in Oklahoma and Alabama to the pinnacle of artistic acclaim in New York City—is tangible proof that African-Americans, with our unique history, with our folk traditions and communal wisdom, our flaws and our suffering, our pride and our ambition, far from inhabiting a space somehow outside the realm of the universal, far from being merely “the lady among the races” (the language of the day), possess a perspective every bit as human and universally applicable as that of the French or the Argentine, the Russian or the Indian. “I am more than ever convinced,” a young Ellison wrote privately, “that as a people our horizon is narrow less because we are intellectually inferior, than because we need to protect ourselves from the chaos and indignities of our condition.” The widening of black horizons along with the concomitant compelling of white recognition for black art was Ellison’s beautiful contribution to the world—the linking, irrefutably, of the Negro experience, through art and example, to the universal—and it was not a small one.
Yet as I read about his life I could not help but think that the work he began has not continued, it has languished; that one of the baleful, unexpected effects of the civil rights movement, and of the ’60s in general, on black culture was precisely to distance us from any commitment to producing work in the highest realms of the human spirit and intellect. Ellison took a controversial intellectual position, in the culture wars of the ’60s and after, by which he lived his life. His side lost.
Since emancipation, a fundamental divide has existed in the black intellectual discourse—a Negro dialectic. On one side there looms the figure of Booker T. Washington with his secular gospel of “Black Calvinism.” “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” he said in his historic 1895 address at the Cotton States and International Exhibition. “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.” Lest anyone be confused as to the Negro’s relationship to culture, Washington makes his point unambiguously clear: “the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.” Cultural matters such as literature, art, and philosophy are peripheral. Or, in the words of the old Harlem newspaper the New York Age: “When Race Gets Bankbook, its Troubles Will Cease.”
For anyone who pays attention to the contemporary black scene, it is obvious that this is the prevailing ethos of our day. From Harlem, where hustlers pitch coke, all the way down to the Financial District, where Ivy-educated “buppies” and “baps” secure six-figure bonuses, this school of thought is embedded in black consciousness and exacerbated by the wider American consumerist culture. And this entrenched emphasis on the strictly material as the sole means of advancement for blacks in an historically anti-black society has produced many things, among them a sizable home-owning middle-class, a miniscule aristocracy of entertainment moguls like Sean Combs and Robert L. Johnson, a breed of archetypal street legends like Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas, and virtually nothing in the way of a universal culture as Borges would conceive it.
On the other end of the debate, there has always been a competing, if minority, thesis in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Hegelian notion of bildung, or self-cultivation through cultural education and humanistic learning. In his 1926 NAACP speech on the “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois said:
I do not doubt that there are some in this audience who are a little disturbed at the subject of this meeting, and particularly the subject I have chosen. Such people are thinking something like this: “How is it that an organization like this, a group of radicals, trying to bring new things into the world, a fighting organization … how is it that an organization of this kind can turn aside to talk about Art? After all, what have we who are slaves and black to do with Art?”
Many blacks, both in Ellison’s day and today, have wondered the same thing. In 1967, a Newsday reporter accompanied Ellison on a visit to the University of Michigan: “This past week I have heard angry young Negroes here call Ellison ‘an uncle Tom’ and ‘a house nigger’ and, in rare moments of comparative civility, ‘a man 10 years behind the times.’” While the cities and campuses were exploding, Ellison hewed to a line of absolute artistic independence and even political aloofness. He paid a steep price for this. At a party at Grinnell College, after Ellison participated alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in a panel discussion on “Urban Culture and the Negro,” a leather-clad black militant from Chicago cornered him and got into a “vehement argument with him about Invisible Man.” Rampersad relates the scene: “‘You’re an Uncle Tom, man,’” the militant shouted. “‘You’re a sell-out. You’re a disgrace to your race.’ Conversations stopped in mid-sentence …” “‘I resent being called an Uncle Tom,’ Ralph responded, visibly controlling his emotions. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about… . What do you know about my life? It’s easy for you. You’re just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That’s all you’ll ever know about.’ A black student leader … broke up the confrontation,” but Ellison broke down in tears—”‘I’m not a Tom, I’m not a Tom,’ he sobbed.”
Being ostracized pained Ellison, yet he was determined not to let go of his larger vision. “He would not resign his vocation as an artist, and he would not give in to what he saw as the lunacy of the age,” writes Rampersad. When white critics, most notably Irving Howe, publicly questioned his integrity as a black writer who eschewed the call of “protest literature,” he was resolute: “Need my skin blind me to all other values?” he wrote in “The World and the Jug.” “The writer’s real way of sharing the experience of his group is to convert its mutual suffering into lasting value.”
Ellison won that battle: “Probably for the first time in modern American history,” writes Rampersad, “a black intellectual had fought a public duel against a white intellectual and won.” (According to the writer Paul Berman, later in life Howe would concede that, given the realities of the political situation in the 1960s, Ellison was right.) But in the long years ahead, he lost the war. Whereas his closest peer in talent, James Baldwin, who in his landmark essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” entered the black intellectual scene from an ideological space very similar to Ellison’s, would become ever more involved in activist politics over the years, Ellison only dug his heels in deeper. In doing so, he cut himself off, not only from the black body politic, but also from other black artists of his day, especially the younger ones. He became arrogant, prickly, and snobbish. Rampersad, who evinces a personal dislike for Ellison the man even as he produces a sweeping and ultimately sympathetic account of his career, lists all the petty and not-so-petty ways in which Ellison slighted his fellow black artists as they came to him for guidance. There were many such instances.
Partly as a result of Ellison’s extreme lack of charity, such writers as Leroi Jones and Toni Morrison, as well as many lesser names, would turn from fierce admirers of Invisible Man to outspoken critics of its author. A young Nikki Giovanni “spoke for many of her peers in dismissing Ralph,” writes Rampersad. “‘I never wanted to be Ralph Ellison,’ she insisted ,‘… as a writer Ellison is so much hot air…’” Mostly, though, it was his politics that repelled other black writers. As Black Power, Black Nationalism, and Afro-centrism swept over black America, Ellison became an island in the storm. The reduction of the novel to the question of whether or not one may be served at this or that café, for Ellison, would always seem “obscene.” Though time, from an artistic vantage, has in a sense taken Ellison’s side—what black novel has stood up to Invisible Man?—the political debate and all the ill will it generated took its toll on Ellison.
Invisible Man is a great and thoroughly black book full of slang and folk knowledge—it turns the particular quirks of southern black culture into universal art, creating the very thing that Borges in his casually racist remark claimed could not be done. Yet Ellison was doomed to be only partly successful in deflecting the deeper implications of Borges’s charge, if that charge is interpreted to mean not that black America is incapable of producing, here and there, individual geniuses who create universally resonant work, but rather that the culture, when taken on the whole, operates primarily on the level of the provincial. Because the terrible truth is that black America has never—not even during the Harlem Renaissance—produced a whole class of mature cultural elites working and consuming at the very highest standards. In the figure of Ellison we can see, on the individual level, the tremendous odds against breaking through the local. Unlike his friend and peer Saul Bellow, who wrote prolifically, using his Jewishness as a launch pad from which to set out into the world beyond and in the process make the Jew a mainstream figure, Ellison was practically excommunicated from the black community. Charles Johnson, a National Book Award-winning black novelist whom Ellison once overlooked for a MacArthur grant, furnishes Rampersad with an especially poignant anecdote that hints at the extent to which Ellison was uprooted: “Johnson, then a student at Southern Illinois University, remembered asking a librarian in the new black studies program for a copy of Invisible Man. ‘We don’t carry it,’ she told him. ‘Really? Why not?’ ‘Because Ralph Ellison is not a black writer.’”
But let’s forget literature and readers for a moment: Even jazz music, the most widely respected and acknowledged black contribution to world culture and one of the great modernisms of the 20th century, was not primarily consumed or supported by other blacks. The poet and critic Lorenzo Thomas has noted that black artists and jazz musicians were measurably isolated from the wider African-American community and therefore subject to overwhelming outside influence from white critics: “Neither black audiences nor the musicians themselves seemed to be able to control the aesthetic or commercial direction of [jazz].” Harold Cruse described this problem most powerfully in his classic 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual:
The Negro intellectual has never really been held accountable to the black world for his social role [because] the black world cannot and does not support the Negro creative intellectual. The black bourgeoisie does not publish books, does not own and operate theaters or music halls. It plays no role to speak of in Negro music, and is remote from the living realities of the jazz musician who plays his nights in the effete and soulless commercial jungles of American white middle-class café culture.
In order for jazz to properly connect the black experience to the universally human one, it would first have to be autonomously black. Without the adequate black cultural institutions and reciprocal engagement with the form, this proved impossible.
It was Ellison’s explicit hope to single-handedly change the image of his community, his readers, in outsiders’ eyes, to write the American Negro into history once and for all, as Joyce had done for the Irish. “He looked beyond himself to make Invisible [the unnamed protagonist of the novel] an Everyman in whose face the world might see its own,” writes Rampersad. Or in Borgesian terms, he sought to render Harlem an aleph, through which all else might be visible. And in fact Invisible Man demonstrates that Harlem, like Dublin or Buenos Aires, is also the world. What Ellison could not do was change his community of readers. Harlem has not kept up its end of the bargain.
We live today in the era of hip-hop, when all about both politics and serious culture has fallen by the wayside, where the dominant ethos amounts to little more than the Booker T. Washington school of thought stripped of context and carried away to the point of absurdity. It is an era that can be summed up in Kanye West’s play on Malcolm X: “Buy any jeans necessary.” Kanye is being witty, of course, and the line is at least partly ironic. But mostly it is merely self-aware, criticizing black materialism even as it parades its garish embrace of it. It does not begin to transcend the problems of materialism. To be sure, this is by no means a uniquely black phenomenon. From Benjamin Franklin to Paris Hilton, white America has genuflected most ardently and most often at the altar of materialism. And with the institution of slavery whites hit rock bottom, reducing man himself to mere commodity. The problem for black America, then, is not one of kind but one of proportion: whereas white America has produced its William Faulkners, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Ralph Waldo Emersons, Harvard Universities, Edmund Wilsons, New Yorkers, etc., to serve as hefty counterbalances to the Lindsay Lohans, Donald Trumps, and John D. Rockefellers it creates—i.e., there is a small but healthy highbrow tradition set in place—black America is all too skewed in the direction of P Diddy and the vulgar, without the benefit of adequate opposing forces. Anyone willing to spend an hour in the company of Black Entertainment Television or to venture into the “Urban” section of the bookstore could argue that today black culture has lapsed into a greater provincialism than ever before. It would not be hard to argue that.
What, then, is to be done? W. E. B. Dubois, answering his own question posed above, urged blacks to pursue a universal culture by means, in the Hegelian sense, of a heightened slave consciousness:
We black folk may help [mankind] for we have within us as a race new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, of a new desire to create, of a new will to be … and there has come the conviction that the youth that is here today, the Negro youth, is a different kind of youth … with a new realization of itself, with new determination for all mankind.
Ellison’s answer to the question of how to reconcile the local with the universal was to build on Du Bois’s idea of the talented tenth, to argue for “a corps of artists and intellectuals who would evaluate Negro American experience from the inside, and out of a broad knowledge of how people of other cultures live, deal with experience, and give significance to their lives.” But he also insisted that it was a mistake to dwell on the seeming unfairness of Negro life. To do so would be to live a life fueled by resentment, which is really not to live at all. Blacks are “in such haste to express our anger and our pain,” he told Harper’s in 1967, “as to allow the single tree of race to obscure our view of the magic forest of art.” The emphasis on suffering instead of on visions of life’s beauty as glimpsed through black eyes is “where assumptions of white superiority, conscious or unconscious, make for blindness and naiveté.” Only through the freedom and discipline of art, Ellison believed, could blacks unequivocally transcend their local social reality.
Things have changed since the publication of Invisible Man (though perhaps they have not changed enough). Since those early post-war years blacks have had a profound and alienating experience in the great American cities, an experience which the rest of the world has primarily learned of through rappers and entertainers. This experience has been alluded to, sometimes with skill, in the fragmentary poetry of Grandmaster Flash, Nas, Gang Starr, and so many others—but as the pools of critical ink that continue to spill over the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur might indicate, the field of genuine description is still very much open. Who will describe this experience in something more than mere fragments? Who will piece this complex black reality together at the highest level of art?
Among the many aspects of our cultural and racial situation brought to light by the historic presidential campaign of Barack Obama, one in particular holds real significance for today’s black artists: This is the chasm that divides the black community between an ascendant black middle- and upper-middle-class, heirs to the civil rights movement and a more egalitarian post-‘60s educational system, and the large minority of black citizens who continue to feel that for them there is no hope. A few months ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writing in the New York Times, cited an “astonishing” Pew Research Center report that found that 37 percent of African-Americans felt that “‘blacks today can no longer be thought of as a single race’ because of a widening class divide.” The report also found that a vast majority of blacks believe that while poor and middle-class blacks are growing further apart in their values, most blacks feel blacks and whites are growing closer together. Class, in other words, is actively trumping race. This is simultaneously very encouraging and very depressing.
It may explain, too, why so many poor blacks have been so reluctant to embrace Senator Obama, and why, dismayingly, this past Martin Luther King Day, the Reverend Calvin Butts of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.‘s own Abyssinnian Baptist Church in Harlem endorsed Hillary Clinton as the candidate with “the vision to return [the black community] to a place of prosperity.” The black bourgeoisie and lower class have not only lost the ability to see eye to eye, they have lost the ability to trust each other, too. This development is detrimental to both art and politics: while the lower class cuts itself off from potential leaders like Obama, whose victory would be a deeply symbolic one for all blacks, the bourgeoisie, though economically remunerated and at home in mainstream America, loses touch with its rich local reserves of cultural vitality and tradition. Neither side can complete itself in this scheme. It is the task of the black artist to try to bridge this divide. But will anyone be paying attention if and when he does?
Reading Rampersad’s book, it occurred to me to ask a black childhood friend, a second-year at one of the country’s best law schools, what he thought of Invisible Man. “It’s okay, but honestly I can’t get into some shit about country Negroes in overalls,” was his only reply. My friend is very smart, with both hands wrapped around Washington’s proverbial bankbook. But then the argument was never that blacks couldn’t make fine lawyers.