James Alan McPherson
July 30, 1969
RALPH Ellison, a pair of high-powered binoculars close to his eyes, sits by the window of his eighth-floor Riverside Drive apartment looking down. Across the street, in the long strip of green park which parallels the Hudson River, two black boys are playing basketball. “I watch them every afternoon,” he says, and offers the binoculars to me. I look down and recognize the hope of at least two major teams, ten years hence, developing. Perhaps future sociologists will say that they possess superior athletic abilities because of biological advantages peculiar to blacks; but perhaps by then each of these black boys will have gained enough sense of who he is to reply, “I’m good at what I do because I practiced it all my life.” The encouragement of this sort of self-definition has become almost a crusade with Ellison. But I also recognize that if I ran down and waved my arms and shouted to them, “Did you know that Ralph Ellison watches you playing every afternoon?” they would continue to shoot at the basket and answer, “Who is Ralph Ellison?”
“He spoke at Tougaloo last year,” a black exchange student at Santa Cruz told me. “I can’t stand the man.”
“I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He wasn’t talking to us.”
“Did you read his book?”
“No. And I don’t think I will, either. I can’t stand the man.”
If you ask him about the Tougaloo experience, Ellison will laugh and then tell an anecdote about the stuttering black student who said: “Mr. E-i-li-s-s-s-on, I r-read your b-b-ook The Inv-v-v-si-b-b-ble M-m-man. B-b-but after he-e-e-aring you tonight I f-f-feel like I j-j-ju-ust hear-r-rd J-j-je-sus C-c-ch-r-r-rist d-d-d-runk on Thunderbird Wine!” And if you laugh along with him, and if you watch Ellison’s eyes as you laugh, you will realize that he is only testing a deep scar to see if it has healed.
Ellison’s difficulty, one cause of all the cuts, is that matter of self-definition. At a time when many blacks, especially the young, are denying all influences of American culture, Ellison, as always, doggedly affirms his identity as a Negro-American, a product of the blending of both cultures. But more than this, he attempts to explore most of the complex implications of this burden in his fiction, his essays, his speeches, and his private life. He is nothing as simple as a “brown-skinned aristocrat” (as Richard Kostelanetz characterized him in a Shenandoah essay-portrait last summer); rather, he is a thinking black man who has integrated his homework into the fabric of his private life. “I don’t recognize any white culture,” he says. “I recognize no American culture which is not the partial creation of black people. I recognize no American style in literature, in dance, in music, even in assembly-line processes, which does not bear the mark of the American Negro.” And he means it. For this reason he has difficulty reconciling some of the ideas of black nationalist, who would view black culture as separate from the broader American culture. To these people he says, “I don’t recognize any black culture the way many people use the expression.” And Ellison is one of the few black intellectuals who have struggled to assess the influence of the black on American culture and the relationships between the two. But, until fairly recently, not many blacks—perhaps even college-educated blacks—knew that he existed.
In 1952 Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man, which won a National Book Award; and this at a time when the white critical Establishment was less eager to recognize literary achievement by black Americans. Now, almost nineteen years later, he is still the only black American who has received this honor. The novel has gone through twenty paperback printings and was judged, in a 1965 Book Week poll of two hundred authors, critics, and editors, “the most distinguished single work published in the last twenty years.” A second book, a collection of essays and interviews called Shadow and Act, was published in 1964, and is essential reading for any attempt at understanding Ellison, the man or the artist. While Invisible Man is a story of one man’s attempt to understand his society and himself, the essays outline Ellison’s own successful struggle to master the craft of the writer and to understand, and then affirm, the complexities of his own rich cultural experience.
Ellison likes to call himself a college dropout because he completed only three years of a music major at Tuskegee Institute before coming to New York in 1936. Before that he was shoeshine boy, a jazz musician, a janitor, a free-lance photographer, and a man who hunted game during the Depression to keep himself alive.
Today he is a member, and a former vice president, of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a member of New York’s Century club and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He is a former teacher at Bard, Rutgers, and Chicago, and presently is Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at New York University. He has an interest in noncommercial television which began with his work on the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, and continues with his trusteeships in the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, and the National Citizens’ Committee for Broadcasting. Among his awards are listed the Russwurm Award, the Medal of Freedom (awarded by President Johnson), five honorary Ph.D.’s, and one of the highest honors which France can bestow on a foreign writer: Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres, awarded to him in 1970 by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs, Andre Malraux. But all these experiences seem to have equal weight in his mind; all seem to have given equal access to information, equal opportunity for observation made when he was a shoeshine boy as he is to mention the first names of some of America’s most respected writers and critics.
Ellison’s success does not prove, as one writer says, that “a fatherless American Negro really does have the opportunity to become the author of one of America’s greatest novels, as well as an aristocratic presence and an all but universally respected literary figure.” His achievements are too enormous to be reduced to a sociological cliché, a rhetorical formulation. If anything, his success proves that intelligence, perseverance, discipline, and love for one’s work are together too great a combination to be contained, or even defined, in terms of race.
Although he lives in New York and has access to literary and intellectual areas, Ellison seems to have very limited contact with the black writers who also live there. Yet his shadow lies over all their writers’ conferences, and his name is likely to be invoked, and defamed, by any number of the participants at any conference. One man has said that he would like to shoo Ellison. Another, whom Ellison has never met, has for almost ten years blamed Ellison for his not receiving the last Prix de Rome Award, given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. On the other hand, a growing number of young black writers, among them Ernest J. Gaines, Cecil Brown, Michael Harper, Ishmael Reed, and Al Young, are quick to admit their respect for him.
He reads the work of black writers, dismisses some of it, and is always willing to give an endorsement. And although he is very protective of his time, his telephone number is listed in the Manhattan directory, and he will usually grant an interview or a few hours of conversation in the afternoon (his working day usually ends at 4:00 p.m.) to anyone who is insistent.
“A fellow called me one morning,” Ellison chuckles, lighting up a cigar, “said he just had to see me. So I consented. I went to the door, and there was a brown-skinned fellow from the Village. He brought a bottle of wine, several records, and four attempts at short stories. I looked at these things, and they weren’t really stories, so I asked, ’What do you want me to tell you?’ He said, ’Well, what I want you to do is to tell me, should I just write, or should I tell the truth?’” Ellison pauses to laugh deep in his chest. “I said, ’Tell the truth.’”
“He came to Oberlin in April of 1969,” a black girl in Seattle recalled. “His speech was about how American black culture had blended into American white culture. But at the meeting with the black caucus after the speech, the black students said, ’You don’t have anything to tell us.’”
“What did he say?”
“He just accepted it very calmly. One girl said to him, ’Your book doesn’t mean anything because in it you’re shooting down Ras the Destroyer, a rebel leader of black people.’”
“What was his answer?”
“He said, ’Remember now, this book was written a long time ago. This is just one man’s view of what he saw, how he interpreted what he saw. I don’t make any apologies for it.’ Well, she went on to tell him, ’That just proves that you’re an Uncle Tom.’”
Another of Ellison’s problems, one peculiar to any black who attempts to assert his own individuality in his own terms, is that he challenges the defense mechanisms of the black community. Because of a history of enforced cohesiveness, some blacks have come to believe in a common denominator of understanding, even a set number of roles and ideas which are assumed to be useful to the community. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, some orthodox thinkers, some orthodox writers are accepted—as long as they do not insist on ideas which are foreign to the community’s own sense of itself. But when a black man attempts to think beyond what has been thought before, or when he asserts a vision of reality which conflicts with or challenges the community’s conception, there is a movement, sometimes unconscious, to bring him back into line or, failing that, to ostracize him. The “mass man” of sociological terminology is the “right-on man” of black slang, gliding smoothly and simplistically, and perhaps more comfortably, over questionable assumptions, and reducing himself to a cliché in the process. For a black thinker such as Ellison, this assertion of individual vision is especially painful because the resultant ostracism carries with it the charge of “selling out” or “trying to be white.” Yet a white thinker who challenges assumptions held by whites about themselves is not charged with “trying to be black.” The underlying assumption is that whites have a monopoly on individuality and intelligence, and in order for a black man to lay claim to his own, he must necessarily change color.
In response to charges by attackers that he is a “token Negro” because he is very often the only black serving on cultural commissions, Ellison says, “All right, if you don’t want me on, I’ll resign. But you had better put a cardboard Negro in my place because when decisions are made which will affect black people you had better make sure that those people who make the decisions remember that you exist and are forced to make sure that some of your interests are being met.” This impulse toward leveling, however, is not confined to the black community. It is a minority-group reaction. And while Ellison remembers a black professor at Tuskegee who tore up a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare’s plays to discourage his interest in literature, he also remembers a white professor friend who said, “Ah, here’s Ralph again, talking about America. There’s no goddamn America out there.”
“At Oberlin,” the Seattle girl said, “one of the ideas they couldn’t accept was Ellison’s statement that black styles had historically been incorporated into American life. He went on to say that in the future, don’t be surprised if white people begin to wear Afros because that’s now a part of American popular culture. Well, the kids went out screaming “Who is he to insult what we wear? No honky could wear an Afro. They’re stealing what is ours.””
One year later, disenchanted white youth, on both coasts and in between, are sporting their versions of the Afro.
Dear Mr. Ellison:
I would like to come and talk with you…
Dear Mr. McPherson:
Will you be in the East on July 7? I can see you at 3:00pm
Ellison is as practiced a listener as he is a speaker, and gives even the most naively put question thorough condiseration before responding. He is a bit guarded at first, perhaps unwinding from a day at his desk, perhaps adjusting to the intellectual level of his guest. Then he begins talking, occasionally pausing to light a cigar, occasionally glancing out the window at the street, the park, the river beyond. After a while you both are trading stories and laughing while Mrs. Ellison makes noises in the kitchen, just off the living room. A parakeet flutters into the room. Ellison calls it, imitating its chirps, and the bird comes and hovers near his hand. “Have you ever heard a dog talk?” he asks.
We go into the study, and he plays a tape of a dog clearly imitating the rhythm and pitch of a human voice saying “hello.” We listen again, and laugh again. Mrs. Ellison calls us to dinner. It is difficult to enjoy the food and digest his conversation at the same time.
“Ralph, stop talking and let him eat,” Mrs. Ellison says.
After dinner we move back into the living room and continue the conversation. Finally Ellison’s dog, Tucka Tarby, comes into the room and walks back and forth between us. Then you realize that it is well after midnight and that you have put a serious dent in the essential personal rhythm of a writer’s day. Tucka has been patient, waiting for his evening walk. Ellison puts on an army jacket and we go down in the elevator. This is an old building, just on the edge of Harlem, and most of the tenants are black. The lobby has colored tiles, a high ceiling, and live flowers protected by glass. “I’ve liver here for eighteen years,” he says. “But it wasn’t until 1964 that some of the people found out I was a writer.” Tucka pulls us up 150th Street toward Broadway. We shake hands, and he and the dog walk off into the Harlem night.
“I think that what made it hard for him,” the Seattle girl said, “was that LeRoi Jones was coming to Oberlin that next day. The kids figured that Jones the Master is coming, so let’s get rid of this cat. But I think he’s very gutsy, in a day with all these so-called militants trying to run him into the ground, coming to Oberlin saying to the kids, “You are American, not African.”
“Did anyone come to his defense?”
“One of the teachers stopped the meeting at one point and said, “Would you please listen to what the man has to say? You’re sitting here criticizing, and some of you haven’t even read the damn book.”
Among his peers Ellison’s presence or even the mention of his name causes the immediate arming of intellectual equipment. There can be no soft-pedaling, no relaxation of intellect where he is involved. At Brown University in November of 1969, novelists and critics gathered at the annual Wetmore Lecture to discuss form, the future of the novel, and each other. Critic Robert Scholes opened one discussion on form by reading from Ellison’s acceptance speech before the National Book Award Committee. “Ah, Ellison,” Leslie Fielder said, throwing his arm out in a gesture of dismissal. “He’s a black Jew.”
Ellison chuckles. “Leslie’s been trying to make me a Jew for years,” he says. “I have to look at these things with a Cold Oklahoma Negro Eye. But someone should have said that all us old-fasioned Negroes are Jews.”
Dear Mr. Ellison:
From what I have read of recent American fiction, I sense a shift in interest on the part of the reading public, and consequently in the focus of those who write the books which become popular. The trend seems to be a movement away from traditional forms (the naturalism, for example, which has always been so convenient for black writers), and a change in content as well. Science fiction, mythological experiences, journalistic accounts and pornography, for example, are very popular now. Do you see this as a passing trend, or is something more revolutionary at work? And if these present interests are only temporary, do you think that the more serious areas of the black cultural experience will still be of sufficient interest to sustain an audience for serious black writers?
ELLISON: “I think that we are always going to have periods in which we will shift toward an interest in the pornographic. But this country has a tendency to get fed up with any novelty very quickly, and then we tend to put things back into perspective. We like novelty. It’s pretty shocking to have a book which has a theme about masturbation. That’s interesting, but not unexpected; we are always interested in revealing that which is supposed to be unrevealable. That’s part of the American thing. But I don’t think that this indicates that our interest in form has changed.
“I think that our sense of formal completeness is a psychological thing that is rooted in our sense of the seasons, in our sense of lightness and darkness. I think the tendency now is to feel that an interest in form is beside the point. But I also note that those people who tell you this and who write in a supposed disregard of form are always trying to get a group of people who will accept their form. There is no art without form. The form becomes a convention. And once you get enough people to accept that as a proper way of doing a novel or of writing a play, then you have imposed a new convention of form. So you can say that form is conventional on the one hand, but at the same time our sense of a beginning, middle, and end is built into human biology. And that isn’t going to go away.
“One plays around with the form, extends form, contracts form—depending on the convention popular at the time, but I don’t think you ever get completely away from it. And I think that writers who tell themselves that they don’t have to learn form are deluding themselves, because it is in form itself that a great part of the psychology of the character, the reader, and the writer, is involved…
“I just don’t think that we can escape from form, because when you write a piece of fiction, you write it to be read. I’m reminded that when Joyce was writing Finnegan’s Wake he was spending as much time writing to critics and friends as to how those sections which were being published over a period of years were supposed to be read. He was setting them up for a formal reception of a new form.
“As for the future popularity of black writers, I’m hesitant to make a prediction because so many of them seem to be still caught up at the point of emphasizing inwardness without emphasizing the inward-outwardness. There is a rhetoric of fiction, and in order to master the rhetoric of the form, you have to be aware of the people who are outside your immediate community. And the rhetoric depends upon not only a knowledge of human passion, but the specific situations in which that passion is expressed: the manners, the formal patterns, and so on, as well as the political issues around which they are clustered. So that if our black writers are going to become more influential in the broader community, they will do it in terms of style: by imposing a style upon a sufficient area of American life to give other readers a sense that this is true, that here is a revelation of reality. I think that this is the way it works. And this is going to depend upon writers who get a clear sense of what they’re doing.
“Black writers could sustain a place for themselves in American literature. It’s possible, but I couldn’t predict it because I don’t know what’s going on. It’s just hard for me to tell. There is a lot of activity, and very often the people who make the breakthroughs are not the people who are doing a lot of talking and getting the attention. They are quietly trying to make something new out of their experience and out of their experience of literature. I can just say that I hope that as we learn to translate and to interpret the intricacies of our experience as a group of people, we can do it with enough art and with an impact which will raise it from the specific to the universal.”
Ellison is not only interested in the fiction written by young black writers; he is concerned about young black people in general: what they are thinking, what they are doing, what their ambitions are. But his knowledge of them is limited to sessions during speaking engagements, letters, and what he hears from the media. “A hell of a lot of them are reading my book,” he observes with obvious pleasure. “I have a way of checking this. And for a long time they didn’t read much of anything.”
Yet Ellison worries that despite the increased educational opportunities available to them, young black people are becoming too involved in, and almost symbolic of, the campus reactions against intellectual discipline, the life of the mind. “It’s too damn bad,” he says. &qout;You see that men are now analyzing the song of the whales, the talk of the dolphins, planning to go to the moon; computer technology is becoming more and more humanized and miniaturized; great effors are being made to predetermine sex, to analyze cells, to control the life process in the human animal. And all of this is done with the mind. Indeed,” he goes on, “the irony is that we’ve never really gotten away from that old body business, the Negro as a symbolic of instinctual man. Part of my pride in being what I am is that as a dancer, as a physical man…” and again that distanct chuckle comes from deep within his chest, “I bet you I can outdance, outriff most of these intellectuals who’re supposed to have come back.” Now he is serious again. “But that isn’t the problem, damnit!I was born doing this! It’s a glorious thing to know the uses of the body and not to be afraid of it, but that has to be linked to the mind. I don’t see any solution for literary art. If you’re a dancer, fine. If you’re a musician, fine. But what are you going to do as a writer, or what are you going to do as a critic?” He sighs as if he were weighed down by these considerations.
“I find this very interesting,” he continues, “but not new.” When I think about Tuskegee and people with whom I went to school, I know that over and over again they really did not extend themselves because they didn’t have the imagination to look thirty years ahead to a point where there would be a place for them in the broader American society if they had been prepared.”
He says: “I understand ambition; I understand the rejection of goals because they’re not self-fulfilling. I’ve turned down too many things, starting as a youngster.”
Ellison looks out the window toward the Hudson, then continues in a lower tone. “I was married once before, and one reason that marriage came to an end was that my in-laws were disgusted with me, thought I had no ambition, because I didn’t want a job in the Post Office. And here I was with a dream of myself writing the symphony at twenty-six which would equal anything Wagner had done at twenty-six. This is where my ambitions were. So I can understand people getting turned off on that level. But what I can’t understand is people who do not master a technique or discipline which will get them to a point where they can actually see that it’s not what they want or that something else is demanded. But over and over again I see black kids who are dropping out or rejecting intellectual discipline as though what exists now will always exist, and as though they don’t have the possibility of changing it by using these disciplines as techniques to affirm their sense of what a human life should be. It’s there where I get upset.”
Ellison has a habit of pausing whenever the discussion begins to touch areas pregnant with emotion, as if careful of remaining within a certain context. But on some subjects he is likely to continue. “I also get upset when I see announcements of prizes and medical discoveries, and scientific advances, and I don’t see any black names or black faces. I believe that we are capable,” he says. “I believe that there are enough unique features in our background to suggest solutions to problems which seem very far removed form our social situation.”
The duality of cultural experience which Ellison insists on in his writing is acted out in his professional and personal life. He is just as much at home, just as comfortable, in a Harlem barbershop as he is as a panelist before the Southern Historical Association exchanging arguments with C. Vann Woodward, Robert Penn Warren, and William Styron. He is a novelist well respected by his peers (when is name is mentioned in almost any literary circle, there will invariably be an inquiry about his current project), and he brings to bear the same respect for craft in an introduction to the stories of Stephen Crane as he uses to evaluate the work of the black artist Romare Bearden. Yet precisely because of his racial identity, he is also the leading black writer in American letters. And while he disclaims this position as “an accident, part luck and part a product of the confusion over what a black writer is and what an American writer is,” the reality is there, nevertheless, and has to be coped with.
MCPHERSON: “It seems to me that much of writing has been, and continues to be, sociological because black writers have been concerned with protesting black humanity and racial injustice to the people. It also seems to me that we can correct this limitation either by defining and affirming the values and cultural institutions of our people for their education, or by employing our own sense of reality and our own conception of what human life should be to explore, and perhaps help define, the cultural realities of contemporary American life. In either case, do you think that naturalism is sufficient to deal adequately with the subtle complexities of contemporary black cultural experience?”
ELLISON: “I don’t think that naturalism is enough for us because so much that is negative has been made of our naturalistic or our physical variations from other Americans. Besides, the implicit mode of Negro-American culture is abstract, and this comes from the very nature of our relationship to this county.
“First, we come from Africa. We had to learn English. We had, in other words, to create ourselves as a people—and this I take right down to the racial, the bloodlines, the mingling of African blood with bloodlines indigenous to the New World. A few people can trace their connections back to a given African tribe, but most of us can’t. We can’t even trace our blood back only to Africa because most of us are part Indian, Spanish, Irish, part any and every damn thing. But culturally we represent a synthesis of any number of these elements, and that’s a problem of abstraction in itself; it’s abstraction and recombining.
“When we began to build up a sense of ourselves, we did it by abstracting from the Bible, abstracting the myths of the ancient Jews, the early Christians, modifying them as we identified with these people and projecting ourselves. This was an abstract process. We knew we were not white; we knew that we were not Hebrews; but we also knew something else: we knew that we didn’t have to be in order to make these abstractions and recombinations. This was a creative process, one of the most wonderful things which ever happened on the face of the earth. This is one of the great strengths which now people seem to want to deny. But this was the reunification of a shattered group of people.
“Now, American Negro music was not simply the product of remembered African rhythms. It took Western melodic forms and modified them, took Western rhythmical forms and combined them, and produced a music. American Negro dance is a result of abstracting the courtly dances which were danced in the manor houses. The jigs and flings which the Irish and Scotch had brought over from the British Isles were appropriated by the slaves and combined with African dance patterns. And out of this abstraction and recombination you got the basis of the American choreography.
“Our experience in the acculturative process differed from the European’s because he didn’t have the necessity. This can be said about American culture in general: it was an extension of European culture. What is new about it is the presence of the African influence as projected by black Americans. Irish folklore, English folklore, Scottish folklore, the music and so on all found a place in colonial America. Not only was there a conscious effort to preserve the forms of high European culture, but at the same time there was a vernacular stylethe speech which people spoke on the streets as they came to grips with the nature of the New World—the plants, the rivers, the climate, and so on. There was a modification of language necessary to communicate with the slaves and with people who came from other parts of Europe. All of these created a tension which in turn created what we call the vernacular style. Our technology was vernacular. And it grew so fast precisely because they had to throw off the assumptions of European technology and create one which was in keeping with conditions in the New World: the availability of materials, the wide distances, the need to build things which could be quickly assembled and abandoned without much waste. Nevertheless, on the level of the educated classes, there was an effort to preserve the European heritage which did not stop when we made a revolutionary break with England.
“But we didn’t have that. We had some of the same pressures to assert identity in another place at another time—which the Irish and the Germans had. But they could do it. And you had this fact too: these people came in waves, but many of them still spoke the brogue. Other people from other European countries, the first generation at least, didn’t speak English. But we happen to be a people who can’t remember when we didn’t speak English. So we had that to help us, and the Bible, the language of the King James version, to shape whatever literary or religious efforts we made. And nothing else. We couldn’t fall back on African language. Thus we see immediately that there was a vast difference between our options and the options of Americans of European background.”
Before he accepted the professorship at New York University, Ellison earned a good part of his income from college speaking engagements. He accepted around twenty each year. He tends to favor the East Coast or the Midwest and avoids the West Coast, partially because of the great distance and partially because of the political nature of the West. He is much in demand, although his fee is usually $1500 to $2000. In the past year he has spoken at such colleges as Millsaps, East Texas State, Rockland, Illinois, West Point, and Iowa State University at Ames.
Ellison takes pride in being able to deliver a ninety-minute speech without the aid of notes. He will make some few digressions to illuminate his points, but will always pick up the major thread and carry it through to its preconceived end.
Ralph Ellison stands on a stage broad enough to seat a full symphony orchestra. Before him, packed into a massive new auditorium of gray concrete and glass and deep red carpets, 2700 Ames students strain to hear the words of the man billed as “Ralph Ellison: Writer.” Ames is almost an agricultural school, and its students still have fraternity rows, beer parties, frat pins and ties, white shirts and jackets. Most of them are the beardless sons of farmers and girls whose ambitions extend only as far as engagement by the senior year. The American Dream still lingers here, the simple living, the snow, the hamburgers and milk shakes, the country music and crickets and corn. This is the breadbasket of the country, the middle of Middle America. And yet, ninety miles away in Iowa City, students torn from these same roots are about to burn buildings. “When the pioneers got to your part of the country,” Ellison tells them, speaking again of the vernacular, the functional level of the American language, “there was no word for ’prairie’ in the Oxford English Dicitonary.” His speech is on “The Concept of Race in American Literature.” And he delivers just that. But it is abstract, perhaps over the heads of many of the students there (even though parts of it later appeared as a Time essay in the issue of “Black America”). Still, the students are quiet, respectful, attempting to digest. Speaking of the ethnic blending which began with the formation of the country, he says, “And, to make it brief, there was a whole bunch of people from Africa who were not introduced by the British, but quite some time before were introduced into what later became South Carolina by the Spanish. Whereupon they immediately began to revolt—” Here loud applause floats down to the lower audience from black students in the second balcony. Ellison pauses, then continues: “—and went wild, and started passing for Indians. I hear a lot about black people passing for white, but remember, they first started passing for Indians.” There is some giggling and laughter at this, but behind me I notice a black student cringing.
During the question-and-answer session afterwards, the students ask the usual things: the conflict between Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the order of symbols in Invisible Man. One girl wants to know if racial miscegenation is a necessary ingredient of racial integration. He laughs, “Where’d you get that word?” he says, and answers, “I don’t think that any of us Americans wants to lose his ethnic identity. This is anther thing which has been used to manipulate the society in terms of race. Some few people might want to lose their identities; this has happened. But I would think that the very existence of such strong Negro-American influences in the society, the style, the way things are done, would indicate that there’s never been the desire to lose that. There’s just too much self-congratulation in so much of Negro-American expression. They wouldn’t want to give that up.” He says, “The thing that black people have been fighting for for so long was the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to give it up or not. And the proof is that in this period when there is absolutely more racial freedom than has ever existed before, you have the most militant rejection of integration. These are individual decisions which will be made by a few people. But if I know anything about the human being, what attracts a man to woman he’s had contact with. There is very early from the first woman he’s had contact with. There is enough of a hold of tradition, of ways of cooking, of ways of just relaxing, which comes right out of the family circle, to keep us in certain groups.”
At the reception after the speech, the whites dominate all three rooms; the few black students cluster together in one. Ellison moves between the two, sometimes almost tearing himself away from the whites. He talks to the black students about books, LeRoi Jones, Malcolm X, color, their personal interest. They do not say much. A white woman brings a book for his autograph; a professor gives a nervous explanation of the source of the miscegenation question: the girl has been reading Norman Podhoretz’s essay, “My Negro Problem and Ours” in his course. Ellison smiles and shifts back and forth on his feet like a boxer. Everyone is pleasantly high. The black students, still in a corner, are drinking Coke. I am leaving, eager to be out in the Iowa snow. We shake hands. “This is awkward,” he says. “Call me Ralph and I’ll call you Jim.”
In 1961 you predicted that a period would come “when Negroes are going to be wandering around because we’ve had this thing (assumed restrictions imposed by sociological conditions) thrown at us so long that we haven’t had a chance to discover what in our own background is really worth preserving.” Despite the present movement toward “black awareness,” and despite the attempts of blacks to assert their own values and attitudes over those of the white group, do you think that we are any further along in discovering or defining whatever there is in our cultural traditions, beyond reactions to externally imposed restrictions, which has contributed to our strength as a people?
ELLISON: “I think that too many of our assertions continue to be in response to whites. I think that we’re polarized by the very fact that w keep talking about ’black awareness’ when we really should be talking about black American awareness, an awareness of where we fit into the total American scheme, where our influence is. I tell white kids that instead of talking about black men in a white world or black men in white society, they should ask themselves how black they are because black men have been influencing the values of the society and the art forms of the society. How many of their parents fell in love listening to Nat King Cole?
“We did not develop as a people in isolation. We developed within a context of white people. Yes, we have a special awareness because our experience has, in certain ways, been uniquely different from that of white people, but it was not absolutely different. A poor man is a poor man whether he’s black or white. A white man might rationalize and get a sense of satisfaction out of his whiteness, but as far as meat on the table and clothes on the back are concerned, he’s still a poor man. And if he isn’t in the position to get more clothes, then he’s in no better position than the black person. And that’s one of the things that various groups are now beginning to emphasize: the unity between black and white on an economic level, a unity of interest between poor people, black, white, Indians, Mexican-Americans. To move into some sort of black awareness which is narcissistic is a mistake because it’s false. For me to try to look at American literature written by whites—say Melville, for example—and not know that I’m there, my people are there, not just in terms of speech, in terms of mythology#133;The stuff is there. If you go back and look at photographs or paintings, Early American or nineteenth-century, you’ll always see us. We’re there. We are part of the scene. Constance Rourke [American cultural historian (1885-1941), author of The Roots of American Culture] is right when she points out the role we have played as archetypal figures. So the movement backwards to get a fuller sense of ourselves, to get a sense of the community and its needs, of the traditions and so on, is good. There’s an assumption that every black person knows the traditions. Many don’t, but many do. And those who don’t should talk to those who do.
“That’s one of the advantages of a Southern upbringing: a lot of things which got lost up here were not lost back there. I mean just things you took for granted, things I assumed everybody knew. I had friends who grew up in New Jersey telling me that Southern Negroes didn’t know how to box. I said, ’Where the hell do you think Jack Johnson came from?’ But they had built up that notion of Northern Black Superiority. I remember serving on a ship during the war where one of the messmen referred to Southern negroes as ’boogies.’ I said, ’Well, I’m from the South.’ And he said, ’But you’re not one of them.’ He was just as prejudiced against Southern blacks as whites were. But you got that sense of a loss of continuity with has to be regained. Part of the tragedy—one of the pathetic and ironic things—about Stokely Carmichael’s activities is he went down South and condescended. No one has pointed this out, but there was a hell of a lot of condescension from this West Indian boy toward blacks. And he did a lot of damage.
“You can look at Booker T. Washington, for example—and I’m very critical of the man, but any objective view which isn’t hung up on the black-white issue as such, and which tries to look at the man in terms of the distribution of power, would make you realize that Washington was one of the most powerful politicians the South had ever known. That was reality. You don’t have to like the circumstances which allowed him to assume that kind of power—and I’m talking about his relationship with government and great economic powers. We have to come to grips with this. It has to be a part of our awareness of who we are. And simply by moving back and saying, ’Well this was slavery, and this man said that we should get education and not worry about political rights’ is not enough. We have to learn why DuBois never became the same kind of power figure, no matter what we think of DuBois. We have to know what happened to those linkages with power after Washington left. We’ve got to quit imposing second-class standards on ourselves. When you tell me tat a man is a great sociologist, and you tell me that he was a student for a while of Max Weber’s, then I am compelled, out of my own sense of Negro humanity, to compare his achievements with those of Weber. My wish, my hope, my dream is that he achieve more than Weber, but if he didn’t, damn it, he just didn’t. And the next man who comes along will have to go beyond not only him but given will have to go beyond not only him but beyond Max Weber. And out relationship to reality is such that, given the mind and the energy and industry, our social thinkers will go beyond. But they won’t go beyond. But they won’t go beyond by simply receiving the ideas handed down to them and just making it by simply repeating these ideas. They have to be more creative.
“We need to get a human perspective, and if we could get this we could put things into a more fruitful, creative prospective. So many of our kids who are most militant really believe that whites are superior to them. That’s why they keep asserting ’Blackness! Blackness! Blackness!’ The thing to do, I would think, would be to recognize that there have been certain advantages. There’s no doubt that many of theses whites have had better educational opportunities, and it’s going to be difficult competing with them for a while. But it seems to me that if you recognize that they’ve had the advantage and that you are going to have to work harder, once your brain is programmed with the proper amount of information you’re going to catch up. I’ve seen this happen. But I see some of these kids at universities all clustered together, and they look a little bit pathetic. I want to say to them, ’Look, its just isn’t so. It just isn’t so! Just drop this and take some chances. You’re as good as anybody here.’
“As for those charges of white paternalism, part of this business is a way of relating, which becomes offensive because it’s presumptuous. My experience with that kind of conversation came from the left, from the Communist Party. They had their theories straight from wherever they came from, and they interpreted everything. That was one of the problems with Wright; they were always trying to tell Wright that he wasn’t following the line. This was so because they thought they had the complexity of his experience down on paper. I guess that’s inevitable in this country, and our kids are going to have to learn what their forefathers learned; that there is a certain forbearance, and a certain acceptance of our own maturity, our own human maturity. And in some ways Negroes are much more mature; we damn well should be because we’ve had a harder time. But we keep getting this mixed up with obsequiousness or with fear, which is the way the white man interprets it. When blacks come right along they say. ’You’ve been brain washed.’ Well, they don’t realize that they are the ones who have been programmed.
“I remember my mother talking to me about a friend of my family’s who kind of went off her rocker. Her father was very, very fond of me, and she began to say that she thought maybe he was my father, which just upset me because I was an adolescent. I went to my mother telling her how offended I was, and my mother didn’t get angry. She simply said, “Now, look. You’re old enough to know that this woman is kind of crazy. You keep that in mind.’ And that was that.
“Some years ago when I was making certain statements, there were critics who in conversation would say, ’Ah, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But what I couldn’t get across a few years ago has become more and more clear to people who are really thinking about it. You see, the one thing that happened in this country after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise was that the whole focus upon the relationship of black people and their culture to the broader culture was sort of shut down. Not much light could come through. Historians wrote histories of the Civil War, and social critics wrote interpretations of American culture and society which did not give us very much of a role. We were pushed to the back of the head, to the underside of the mind, so to speak. And it wasn’t until the agitations started in the South and began to spread that they began to look back. Now I don’t mean to imply that we were the sole force which made for the re-evaluation of the culture, because there has been revisionism going on across the board. But the agitations made it a little bit more impossible to ignore out presence. They made it a little bit more impossible to ask the questions: who are they? what are they doing? what have they done? what is their influence? After all, there are millions of them and they’re always present. How have they been affecting us other than in terms of music and dance?
“In 1942 when I was on the Negro Quarterly I sent around a lot of letters to critics asking, What is it you would like to see discussed as to the relationship between the Negro cultural background and the larger American culture? Only a few responded. They had never thought about it. But I knew that the relationship was there because if I, in order to make something out of the folklore which I knew, had to go often to white writers because we didn’t write about it much, I knew that there had to be some reciprocal action on their part because they could live with the assumption that we were not important, while I never could. And I think that political development and the sheer pressure of time—the role in the world which the nation achieved after the Second World War—made all these questions come to force. So that now when I make a statement which previously would have sounded wild, it isn’t wild anymore. We’ve had enough people studying the music, collecting the folklore; just a simple thing like traveling in the South and seeing black people in their natural habitat—seeing some of the contrasts—has done a lot. There are questions about American society which need to be answered, and if a black critic can answer them, these answers will be accepted. If an American sociologist can take the theories of E. Franklin Frazier and use them to partially against us in all good faith, and these theories can find their way into legislative programs, there is not reason why literary interpretations—interpretations of the culture coming from us—can’t be just as effective. Because the kids want to know.”
There are thousands and thousands of books in the rooms of Ellison’s apartment, and besides the pieces of sculpture, paintings, African violets, self designed furniture, and other symbols of a highly cultivated sensibility, there are deep drawers and file cabinets which , if opened, reveal think sheaves of notes and manuscripts. Ellison’s huge desk, which sits in a study just off the living room, is covered with books, a red electric typewriter, well-thumbed manuscripts, and tape equipment. In conversation, he always sits away from it, in the leather-strap chair by the window, looking out on the Hudson and the street bellow.
He is a very direct and open man, even though there are silent levels of intimidating intelligence and unexpressed feeling beneath much of what he says. And he tends to approach even the most abstract idea form a personal point of view, usually including in any observation some supportive incident drawn from his own experience.
He talks freely of his mother, who died when he was in his early twenties, his relatives in Oklahoma, his professional relationships with other writers and critics, conversations with people on the subway or in the streets of Harlem, a recent chance meeting with Kurt Vonnegut in the streets of Manhattan, his respect for Saul Bellow as an extremely well read novelist. There is not an unkind, unprofessional, or imperceptive word for anyone, not even his most rabid critics. But he does become irritated if you question him too closely his sense of identity as an American writer as opposed to a black writer, and is likely to react when he senses a too containing category being projected onto him. “Let’s put it this way, Jim,” he says, irritation in his voice. “You see, I work out of American literature. In order to write the kind of fiction that I write I would have to be in touch with a broader literary culture than our own particular culture.” He pauses, and then says, “This is not to denigrate what we have done, but in all candor we haven’t begun to do what we can do or what we should have done. I think one reason why we haven’t is that we’ve looked at our relationship to American literature in a rather negative way. That is, we’ve looked at it in terms of our trying to break into it. Well damn it”—and his voice rises, and his hand hits the arm of the chair—”that literature is built off our folklore, to a large extent!” Then he laughs that deep honest chuckle, and says, “I ain’t conceding that to nobody!”
I was very pleased to have met you during my stay in Ames. Now, before the spring holidays begin, I wish you would tell me your impressions of Ellison as an artist, as a black man in touch with young black people as a man of idea…
As an artist the man is beautiful. I think that is what was so captivating about his book. The symbolism that he uses and the combination of literary mechanics that he employs will probably make his work much more lasting than that of his black contemporaries. Invisible man is a classic, and to say any more or less about it would be an understatement.
As for being in touch with the ideas of young people today, I think that he is quite aware, but he doesn’t have the charisma that one would expect after hearing his reputation as a speaker and taking into account the acclaim his book has received. Part of my feeling is due to the disappointment of hearing him explain the figure in Invisible Man. So many concerned blacks had read the plight of the Afro-American into this figure with no face and no name. So many people saw the author riding to champion the cause of the black man. Those same people heard him say that the symbol was representative of a universal man. I found that most disheartening.
We are unfortunate at Ames, as well as at many other places across this nation, to have a group of young people who have been introduced to new ideologies and a new rhetoric, and are attempting to adopt both when they do not understand either. Therefore when they see or hear anyone who does not speak in their rhetoric they cannot, do not, and will not try to communicate with him. This was very true of Ellison.
He has a lot to say to a people who will listen to him. Today’s youth are angry, and many times this anger closes their ears to a different rationale. Ellison’s language and approach, I fear, attach to him the stigma of black bourgeois and conservatism. This figure does not communicate well with the vocal black youth…
There is a popular phrase, widely circulated now by militants, to the effect that the present “movement” cannot afford any individuals, that id you “are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
For the black writer, I assume this means that he cannot deal analytically with the complexities of black experience in fiction unless he asserts the current ideological thoughts of the group as constructed by it s “spokesmen.” This, of course, is an ancient argument (food, usually, for those abortive black writers’ conferences), and I know that your position has always been that the writer, whether or not he is black, must assert his special vision above all other considerations, go it alone, even at the risk of eliciting criticisms from the community and from “friends of the Negro.” But do you find that maintaining this position has alienated you and your work from the masses of the black community and has made you a symbol, a point of convenient attack for certain members of the white critical establishment whose simplistic conceptions of black people and black life are threatened by your constant assertions of the complexities? Have you altered in any way the views your expressed in the essay “The World and the Jug”?
ELLISON: “I’m a little tougher than that. In the first place, I suppose I was disciplined for the predicament-by all of my life. I’ve always had the strange role of being before the public and yet not quite part of the crowd. As a kid, I was always in the plays and programs; as a trumpeter in the school band I, in couple of years, was student conductor. I played varsity football, I was part of the popular set, and yet I was a loner. That was temperamental, and it made for certain difficulties. I guess I lived far too much in books, or took books far too seriously, to allow some of my schoolmates to feel comfortable. But my own role was inside and outside. And it continued to be that way. I was never really shy, but I was never one of those individuals who had absolute approval; nor did I want it.”
“Now I’ve studied enough of the lives of writers and other artists to know that it costs you something to function in this field with any sort of individuality. I know that the pressures toward conformity are not just imposed by whites; they are part of the defense mechanism of the black community itself. Years ago, when I was in the Federal Writers’ Project and was just beginning to write, there were friends of mine, some of whom were also in the Project, who happened to be at a party. It was reported to me afterwards that my name came up, and they decided, then and there, that I would never write anything. Now it isn’t just that these people were no in the position to judge, because I can say quite frankly that not too many of them knew much about writing. But somehow they made the decision that I was never going to produce anything. This friend came and told me about it, and we had a big laugh. But I was hurt, I won’t deny that, because they weren’t giving me a goddamn chance! And yet already I was publishing in the New Masses and the New Republic and slowly trying to find where I was going. Later I realized that this activity was a way of protecting them from being too ambitious. What they were saying was, ’He’s too damn ambitious.’ Well, maybe I was. But I think that we should be more generous.
“I also know this: whether you really have achieved anything or not, in this country we are so under the spell of publicity that if your name appears a little bit too frequently you’re going to become a target.
“I responded to Irving Howe in that way because these issues go beyond me. They become important for young black writers who are trying to orient themselves. I’m just saying to them that there is something about their experience which other people might tend to overlook because they’re outside it. I’m saying that I’m in a better position to see certain things about American literature or American culture precisely because I’m a black man, but I’m not restricted by those frames which have been imposed upon us. I think that one has to keep this constantly in mind; otherwise, somebody else is going to be interpreting your experience for you, and you’re going to be repeating it. And they might be in error.”
Presently, as part of the increased public and academic interest in literature written by blacks, there is a movement under way to re-evaluate the position of Richard Wright. And, because of the double standard of criticism, Wright’s work is not measured against the works of his peers (Native Son was published in 1940, along with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls), but against the works of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. So in order for Wright’s legend to rise on the black scale, the esteem of Baldwin and Ellison must be lowered. Consequently, a review in the May 8, 1970, issue of Life magazine, called, honestly enough, “Black Fiction: A Second Look,” suggested that “Ellison himself, and James Baldwin after him, both helped to create the image of Wright as a novelist too much given to social protest, too preoccupied with one level of black society and too constrained by the limitations of his brutish protagonist really to qualify as a master.” The author, a mysterious critic named Clifford Mason, notes that much of the “grandiloquent praise” of Wright’s accomplishments by black writers issues from a “strong reaction to the obsequious bleatings of white appeasement that has characterized Ellison’s politics.”
Ellison admits that this sort of thing annoys him. “But here,” he says, “I was just as annoyed by the fact that this man calls himself a teacher and a critic, and he hasn’t done his homework. I never wrote a review of the Native Son, nor did I ever call Bigger Thomas a brute. Nor did I lead the attack on Native Son. I was Wright’s best man,” hey says, nostalgia clearly in his voice, his head turned toward the Hudson. “I led to the reconciliation between Wright and his wife. I think my essay on Black Boy is a tribute to Wright, and I’ve praised his achievements in any number of places.” Now his tone is severe; his head shifts back to the room. “But somehow this man wanted to set up something. And what he knows about my politics, I don’t know. I’ve been criticized because I was not political. Privately,” he says, his voice steady but rising, “my politics are my own! I’m not a spokesman. I’m not a politician. And I’ve very, very carefully tried to avoid pretending to be what I am not. But that kind of thing is cheap. Whatever the quarrel between Wright and Baldwin was, I don’t think that is should be generalized into a principle. People meet, people exchange ideas, and hopefully the exchange is creative. Sometimes it isn’t; but why kill off someone? I wrote a review of Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea and was very critical of it. I think that it hurt him a little, but it was not a vicious review. It was a considered review, written as well as I could at the time. But I never felt the need to attack Langston Hughes to raise up Ralph Ellison. I could never be a Langston Hughes, no matter how good he become or how poor he became as an artist. I can only be myself. So that I don’t have to envy other people. It seems to me a waste of time and a discredit to oneself.”
MCPHERSON: “In the novel The Outsider, Richard Wright seems to have attempted a sort of projection of the possibilities which would become available to American black writers as out people gained greater participation in the society. In the novel a white district attorney says to Cross Damon, Negroes, as they enter out culture, are going to inherit the problems we have, but with a difference. They are outsiders and they are going to know that they have these problems. Thery are going to be self-conscious; they are going to be gifted with a double vision, for, being Negroes, they are going to be both inside and outside of our culture at the same time. Every emotional and cultural convulsion that ever shook the heart and soul of Western man will shake them. Negroes will develop unique and specially defined psychological types. They will become psychological men, like the Jews. They will not only be Americans or Negroes; they will be centers of knowing, so to speak. The political, social and psychological consequences of this will be enormous.’ Considering the quality of the fiction presently being produced by black writers, do you think that Wright’s prediction was accurate? “
Ellison: “This is one of the greatest advantages of being black; you have a perspective which is fairly uncluttered if you will use it. By being in it and outside you can evaluate. Housekeepers, bellhops, domestics, have done this for years. You can listen to women talk about what happens in the white family. They’re not always malicious in their discussions, but they have a standard, and they can see. And they’re wise in certain ways; they’re wise in the ways of human folly and aspiration. This isn’t limited by color. But in terms of their position in the social hierarchy, they were outside but right in the bedroom. So what better position can you have? A psychiatrist doesn’t have the advantage of observation.
“Wright was right. We have that, and have always had it. American writers have not yet learned to se what has been available to us: that listening post, that point of observation, which puts on in the position of making judgments, of seeing, or of exercising sympathy. And the suspicion of this haunted whites in the South. That’s why they’re just as obsessed with what Negroes are doing. That’s what’s not talked about. But, they have as much curiosity about how the maid is faring and what Negroes do.
“But this is an opportunity to make judgments and to use the imagination. One problem that I’ve always felt as a writer was the restriction placed on me by racial status to be in those areas where important decisions are arrived at. And what I find most ironic about the separatist positions taken by black students is that they are removing themselves from those areas where they can observe and even participate in the formation of values on the part of their white fellow students.
“When we study the lives of the great writers by social class, or by function, we find that they were in the position to observe from the very top of the society to the very bottom. Dickens moved among the very top people of England while he was studying the abuses of child labor. Cervantes was in prison most of his life, asn when he was not, he moved in the circle of clericals. Stendhal had the same advantage. I don’t know of any European writer who didn’t manage to do some of this. And in our country, the Hemingways certainly had access to the top intellectual and artistic circles and, when they wanted it, to political circles. This was true of Faulkner, and right down the line. Well, this isn’t just for fun. These are positions of observation, positions where values can be studied in action. And we have to do more of that. We have to project the imagination.
“One reason why I tell black kids to read novels is that we’ve been chocked off from knowing how society operates. And often American novels, even those we don’t think highly of, do tell us something about the dilemmas of people and institutions, of areas of American life from which we are restricted because of our race. So that one of the main objectives of black writers certainly should be to use that gift in disguise which has been given us though the history of segregation.
“You see, what happens in this country is that many of us come from the South or the Southwest or the Midwest. And we come to New York or we go to the West Coast, and we’re sorf of processed; we’re kind of stylized, blacks and whites alike. Much of what gets into American literature get there because so much is left out. I think the problems of the writings of a man like Wright Morris come precisely because he has written so extensively about a little known part of the United States in a very understated way. He’s a very good writer, but people don’t really know enough about the reality out of which he writes to make them fully appreciate what he’s doing. I think that this happens over and over again and builds a need in the minds of writers, even those who become successful, to have more information, to have imaginative projections of the great variety of the country. That’s a central problem of American literature. Always has been. Under the great emphasis on the novel of manners what do you get? You get Jewish boys whose parents were peasants often assuming the values of Boston mandarins. I’ve always found this ironic, and yet I can’t overlook the fact that some of them did this very well. America is a country in which these strange transformations occur, and can be made to occur consciously; even tough often we end up like Gatsby, following the wrong green light under the wrong name.”
Ellison is still a first novelist, despite his reputation. And the one novel was published over eighteen years ago. He contributes a steady flow of articles to intellectual journals and periodicals, and scholars and critics are rapidly making a permanent place for him in the archives of American literary criticism. But while students continue to read and his critics continue to write, there is the expectation of his long-awaited second novel. So far he has read from it in universities and on public television, published sections of it in intellectual journals, allowed a few close friends to read some of it, and has remained strangely silent about publication of the rest. Inestimable numbers of people, black and white, in and out of universities, friends and enemies, await the publication of the complete novel. Whenever his name is mentioned among a group of writers or literati, the immediate response is, ” When is his novel coming out?” One man has heard that he has pulled it back from his publisher again for more revisions; another says that Ellison worries about it being dated; a third says the has heard that Ellison cannot finish it.
Concerning that novel there are many other stories. Perhaps the best one is that which some friends of the Ellisons supposedly heard from the writer’s wife. “She says she hears him in his study at night, turning pages and laughing to himself. He enjoys the book so much that he isn’t in a hurry to share it with the public. “
Whether or not this is true, Ellison is extremely reluctant, at first, to discuss the book. A fire in his summer home in Plainfield, Massachusetts, destroyed a year’s woth of revisions, he says, and he is presently in the process of revising it again. “I want what I do to be good, ” he says.
“Are you worried about the quality of it? “
“No,” he says. “But you want to be sure when you write slowly, because if it’s not good, if it’s just passable, they’ll be terribly disappointed. “
He has enough typed manuscripts to publish three novels, but is worried over how the work will hold up as a total structure. He does not want to publish three separate books, but then he does not want to compromise on anything essential. “If I find that it is better to make it a three-section book, to issue it in three volumes, I would do that as long as I thought that each volume had a compelling interest in itself. But it seems to me that one of the decisions one has to make about long fiction is whether the effedt of reading it is lengthy. If you don’t get the impression that you’re reading a long thing, then you’ve licked the problem of the battle time. “
The setting of the novel, he says, is roughly around 1955. The form of it, he says, chuckling to himself, is in the direction of a “realism extended beyond realism. ” There are several time schemes operating within it, and the sections already published heavily suggest that it is complexly involved with the Negro church and its ritual. In fact, three of its major characters, Bliss, Eatmore, and Hickman, are ministers.
On an afternoon, after a martini and before dinner, if the flow of conversation has been relaxing, and if the mood is right, Ellison might read a few sections from the book. It may take him a while to thumb through several huge black-bound manuscripts, perhaps numbering thousands of pages, to find an appropriate section. But when he does begin to read there is the impression, from the way rhythms rise and fall and blend and flow out of him, that is he is proud of every word. He chuckles as he reads, stops to explain certain references, certain connections, certain subtle jokes about the minister whose sermon he is reading. And in those sermons his voice becomes that of a highly sophisticated black minister, merging sharp biblical images with the deep music of his voice, playing with your ears, evoking latent memories of heated Southern churches and foot-stomping and fanning ladies in long white dresses and sweating elders swaying in the front rows. And suddenly the sermons are no longer comic, and there is no writer reading from his work. You see a minister, and you feel the depth of his religion, and you are only one soul in a huge congregation of wandering souls hearing him ask, over and over, “Oh Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, DO You Love, Ah DO You Love?“
You once stated in an interview that American Negro culture is expressed in a certain dramaturgy which is generally unrecognized as such because it is still tied to the more folkish Negro churches (Some Negro Preachers are great showmen). It is my belief that since the church plays a major part in his life, the Southern black is closer to his cultural institutions, his evolved values and way of life than hi Northern brother. His relationships are far more organic and whole than the fragmented relationships found among blacks in the North. But since the church as this kind of institution is largely restricted to the south, what other areas are available for Northern black writers to study the values of our people? Also, do you think that a Southern background gives a black writer, who is concerned with the Southern black aspects of American culture, pronounced advantages over his fellow black writer who was raised in the North?
Ellison: “e;I would think that people working in the theater would be experimenting with anything and everything which is available in an attempt to forge useful dramatic forms. One way would be to take the theatrical activities of the Nationalist Movement in Irish letters, Sean O’Casey and Yeats, and see what we can learn from them as a way of utilizing the dramatic forms implicit in the black community. We know that we have the church we know that the rituals Episcopalian, modified by the Negro idiom. We know that in lodge ceremonies or other secret and public ceremonies there are rituals which have been put together from many places. It would seem to me that we could abstract from these if we studied them and looked at them as ritual, as theater, and not just as a bunch of Negroes having a good time or burying their dead.
“There are certain forms which have been repeated and proved valid, if only through the fact that they have existed for so many years. That is a place to study. Anywhere you get our people gathered together for ceremonial purposes has something to tell us about drama, about what we could use as drama. For example, I see certain of these fellows getting into the life of bars where people gather. I know that there is a sort of ritual pattern: certain things are discussed at certain times; certain people come at certain times; certain things are not discussed when one group of people is there. A certain atmosphere will prevail after football games or after someone has made a big numbers hit. You have many of these patterns which no one has done anything with.
“Now, in terms of capturing the idiom, we are not restricted to the stage. When you’re dealing with oral tonalities you need bodies and you need the stage. But when you start translating this kind of thing into speech, you do what Joyce did, I think that he has a lot to teach us, especially in Finnegans Wake. It’s annoying at first, but when you get into it you begin to see how he plays with rhythms, how he will extrapolate from popular songs and everything else. The problem is that you’re not going to put the actual sound on paper, but you can evoke it. Or you can study the verbal play of Negro children, who can do a hell of a lot with words and sounds. So much of this is highly rhythmical precisely because the intellectual content is not too great, and you have, and you have models for translating this into prose forms. When I was on the Writers’ Project I worked on a subproject collecting folklore. I went into hundreds of apartments and talked to people about folklore and took some of the stuff down. Often I was able to get it on paper by using a kind of Hemingway typography, by using the repetitions. I couldn’t quite get the tone of the sounds in, but I could get some of the patterns and get an idea of what it was like. One of the things said over and over again by people who have read Invisible Man is that they can hear the difference in talk, in the speech patterns between Ras and Tarp. And this is a matter of playing with the rhythms, indicating pronunciation without falling into an attempt at the transcription of dialect.
“As for the possibility of a deeper understanding of cultural values and institutions on the part of Southern blacks, I will just say that it’s dangerous to generalize in this area. One man brought up in the North who has done his homework as far as reading is concerned and who has that respect for the mysteries of black cultural experiences in the South— to which he is not necessarily superior because he enjoyed a broader social freedom in the North—might well make up more of that Southern experience than a writer who is so caught up in it that he doesn’t achieve objectivity. On the other hand, I believe that a black Southern writer who does know his traditions has some of the advantages which William Faulkner or other white Southern writers have had: the advantage of contact with a long accumulation of history in a given place and experience which has been projected in other forms of artistic expression, which has traditional values and variants, and which has been refined by being defined by generations of people who have told what it seemed to be. ’ This is the life of black men here. Theses are the variations. This type of character turns up over and over again.’ For example, you get many guys who nickname themselves Jack the Bear or Peter Wheatstraw.
“What we have in the South is an oral tradition which extends right back tinto slavery and which has been projected in terms of archetypal characters: John the Slave, John Henry, Stagolee, a whole group of them, and they’re real-life versions of local characters. People know them by word of mouth rather than their having been written about. For example, a man like Kingsberry who shot up a whole bunch of Texas Rangers in Oklahoma City when Jimmy Rushing was a little boy. People still talk about Kingsberry. And fabulous fishermen, fabulous hunters, fabulous bootleggers, fabulous cooks, fabulous headwaiters, fabulous hustling bellhops, fabulous evangelists. I can go south now and mention an evangelist named McDuffy whom I knew when I was about five years old, and there’ll be people who know about McDuffy.
“This is one of the advantages of the South. In the stories you get the texture of an experience and the projection of values, and the distillation of a kind of wisdom. And this must never be laughed at or rejected, because this was precisely what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote his historical plays; it is what Aeschylus and others were doing when they wrote their plays, because these things go back to myth. This is one of our great heritages, but we haven’t learned how to get the most out of it. One way of getting the most out of it is to recognize that these figures are universal; they are our versions of universal figures who repeat the broader patterns of human life on this earth. And we can see the human implications of them when we put them side by side with some of these great characters. In some essay I point out that if you put John Henry beside Hercules, they’re the same figure given the differences between the cultures out of which they come; they’re both men with clubs, they’re both heroes capable of fabulous feats of strength, and they’re both sacrificial heroes because they die to affirm something about human life.”
” Stephen’s [Daedalus] problem,”Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, ” like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.” Ellison is fifty-six. His face does not show very much of it, but enough is visible. He has a receding hairline, a broad forehead, and deep curved lines on either side of his nose running down to the corners of his mouth. It is a handsome brown face, from either point of view and there is a healthy stubbornness, besides all else inside that forehead, which helps him to protect it. The face can be cold, severe, analytical, pensive, even smiling. But it is not going to change.
Dear Ralph:Some of the bravest words ever written by an artist are these: “But there is also an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to maser and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain or sympathy, which springs not from a desire to deny the harsness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done. It takes fortitude to be a man, and no less to be an artist. Perhaps it takes even more if the black man would be an artist. If so, there are no exemptions.” Considering this pain, and considering what it has done to certain of your fellow black writers, what have you done that they did not do which has helped you to survive as an artist? Have you ever revised your credo in eighteen years since publication of Invisible Man? How have you been able to maintain that double discipline as artist and Negro?
Ellison: ” No, I haven’t revised my feelings about those words. Maybe I’ve gone on to generalize them. I think that at our best we’ve contained our pain. We didn’t like to have white folks see us crying. I was in Jackson, Mississippi, recently, and one thing a fellow kept saying was, “My father had his own home, and he didn’t let any goddamn white insurance man come around!” He was also saying that what was in his home was his own private business, and it was to be kept there.
” I don’t think that I’m in a position to discuss the pain of other writers. Individuals deal with it as they can. But I do say that sometimes you can get to uptight about your disadvantages that you ignore your advantages. And sometimes we are encouraged to talk about how bad we’ve been treated, and this becomes a sort of perverse titillation for white people. It has this negative effect: a man who is a very elegant and eloquent man, a very gifted man, begins to overemphasize his disadvantages as a black man and finally sets up a reaction. Someone will say ’Well, goddamnit, what’s he complaining about? This was good for him. I’m out here slugging in the rat race, and he’s a celebrity What the hell is this?’ It happens that way. But you’d better be objective about what you’re doing if you want to have some sort of psychic peace.
“I notice that over and over again some of our black writers treat whites as though they were omniscient, requiring a perfection of them which we don’t have ourselves and which, in the South, whites have tried to pretend they have. That’s insanity. I want to say Look, damnit! Don’t you know who that is? His father was a small-time groceryman who struggled to send him to school. And he’s learned a few tings. It didn’t transform him into any great humanist or into any great sophisticated intellectual. This is only a relative matter. You’re dealing with a man who still doesn’t know what to do when he goes to the opera or a football game, and who would be completely lost if he had to go to a dice game, so don’t overrate him.’
” A writer writes out of his own family background, out of his own immediate community, during his formative period. And he writes out of his own talent and his own individual vision. Now if he doesn’t, if he tries to get away from that by bending it to some ideological line, then he is depriving the group of his uniqueness. What we need is individuals. If the white society has tried to do anything to us, it has tried to keep us from being individuals. There’s no reason why the individual can’t be a member of the group. And, incidentally, the people who make the greatest cry against individuals are themselves trying to be leaders. You can’t miss this irony. Thy’re doing all they can to suppress all individuality except their own. This is nonsense. This we do not need. We need as many individuals developing their individual talents as possible, but dedicating some part of their energies to the experience of the group. And damnit, I’ve done that. I’ve always written out a sense of the group as filtered through my individual experiences, talent, and vision. And I think this kind of accommodation has to be made. In fact, its inexcusable. We can be proud of Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges, we can be proud of any number of people, but we’re proud of them not because they were anonymous bumps within the crowd, but because they were themselves.
” I think that now a very articulate group of young writers doesn’t quite know what to make of me. I’m standing up there — speaking in terms of metaphor now —like a black militant leader with his bodyguard. I don’t have a bodyguard, but there’s nothing like that to compel people to see if they can’t knock you off. I think that since I have not embraced some of their literary theories, they feel that I am the enemy. My position has always been that ideology is one thing. Show me what you make of it. If you make art out of it, I will praise the art even while I argue with the ideology. But I haven’t seen enough of the art. I suspect that I have annoyed a few people by insisting upon the mastery of craft. Craft to me is an aspect of morality. I don’t mean that I’ve mastered it. I thing that this irritates some writers and makes them thing, ’That guy, he things he’s so good.’ Well that’s not what I’m talking about. Everytime I walk into my study or into another room of books down the hall I see the great masters. They’re the ones I have to measure myself against, not because I want to but because that’s what is stuck up there. Those are the standards. I didn’t create the,; they were there. Lord knows it would be much easier if you didn’t have to work out of a knowledge of what had gone before.
“These arguments over theory will continue. It bothers me to see this generation repeating so many of the mistakes which were around during the 1930s and 1940s. Sometimes these people can be as aggressive in their attacks on writers as the Communists were.
“Well, so what? I’ve been a Negro-American—a black American if you will— for a hell of a long time, and I know one thing to be true: we haven’t changed that much.—