Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Ralph Ellison

Today is Ralph Ellison’s birthday. Invisible Man is one of the great American novels. Also see Lucas Morel’s book on Ellison, the best on him, in my opinion. This is the PBS, American Master’s spot on Ellison. If you have read nothing of Ellison’s, read the very short story "In a Strange Country," in the volume Flying Home and Other Stories. Also see former Ashbrook Scholar Carolyn Garris’s thesis, Improvisation and Self-Emancipation in the Novels of Ralph Ellison. She got the Charles E. Parton Award for it in 2005. Happy Birthday Mr. Ellison!

"Whitman viewed the spoken idiom of Negro Americans as a source for a native grand opera. Its
flexibility, its musicality, its rhythms, freewheeling diction and metaphors, as projected in Negro
American folklore, were absorbed by the creators of our great nineteenth-century literature even
when the majority of blacks were still enslaved. Mark Twain celebrated it in the prose of
Huckleberry Finn; without the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No
Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it. For not only is the black man a co-creator of
the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence, but Jim’s condition as
American and Huck’s commitment to freedom are the moral center of the novel." R.W.E.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Great post. I always thought "King of the Bingo Game" was Ellison’s best short story; what an amazing treatment of what power must be to the powerless.

Thanks, Dr. Schramm. I have been writing a bit for Dr. Edwards on Frederick Douglass and will begin working on a short essay for him on Ellison. I guess when you’ve found something that you love to study, opportunities will always present themselves to write and think about them.

I recently read Ellison’s book of short stories and wasn’t as impressed as I thought I’d be. However, his novels and essays still are among my favorites. Thanks for highlighting his birthday.

Another African American with a great voice shared the same birthday: Harry Belafonte.

"Why, if he’d stay in Wales, I wouldn’t rest until he joined the club," Mr. Morcan said. "What about it, Mr. Parker?"

But Mr. Parker could not reply. He held Mr. Catti’s flashlight like a club and hoped his black eye would hold back the tears.

These closing lines of "In a Strange Country" sum up at least one of Ellison’s many astute observations about the legacy of American slavery/segregation: in this case, raising the question of what it would take for black Americans to be accepted into the club that is the United States of America. Our founding principles still stand as the surest ground for this to happen, but as Ellison put it in his novel, Juneteenth, too many Americans feel "caught between what they profess to believe and what they feel they can’t do without." Let’s hope that holding fast to what we profess to believe will lead more of us to let go of what we feel we can’t do without--at least when it comes to the false mystique of race.

Mr. Morel,

I don’t have the book in front of me right now, so I’m not sure if this question will be clear:

I’ve never understood what’s going on at the end of Juneteenth. Invisible Man ends with a wonderful reflection on the expereince of reliving the events by rewriting them, and it causes the main character (IM) to emerge from his hole, (I think) recognizing that rejecting the world is a rejection of self and therefore human nature. That it is a rejection of duty created by an idea (justice?), not man (and therefore not reality) and that to reject the idea is unjustified. He then ends with those famous words (paraphrased, I have no book right now) ’Who knows but if I write for you.’

Juneteenth has a similar ending, but its of a much different nature. It looks like that new car and the people with it are of a different type. A type that the rest of Juneteenth, with its discussion of Christianity and friendship in light of the political nature of man, the discussion of the shaky foundation, and the "look" in Lincoln’s eyes that makes him "one of us," would reject.

I was wondering if you had an explanation of it.

Also, I’ll raise a glass for Ellison tonight. The class I read his work in was the best I had, and was entitled appropriately (Human Being and Citizen; pay attention to it Ashbrook Scholars. All kinds of stuff is going on in that class). Cheers.

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