The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2020

Invisible Man, (1952) reread

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I recently reread Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, and was shocked by how current it was, in light of the BLM-led urban unrest, including looting. Was also surprised by how my memory of the initial read was mistaken. This blog outlines the discrepancies.

Of course, the book is written as a confession about despair that anything will ameliorate the awful racism following slavery. Ellison moves from material over the “battle royal” to a shocked white trustee of his college at the morality of a black man guilty of having sex with both his wife and daughter, to a bar having the name of the Golden Day, to his anti-hero moving to Harlem, to a dangerous job at a white-controlled paint company, to his misadventures with a leftist (Communist) movement, to shelter with a black woman (“Mary”) to a flirtation with black nationalism (Ras The Destroyer), to his confused identity with a look-alike named Rinehart, to a looting race riot in Harlem, and his life underground.

I was struck by my recollection of the novel: I had remembered it as follows: Ellison’s invisible man had left the communist party (as I had been forcibly separated from KPFK-FM. Pacifica Radio and the local “art world”); the “hero” had moved back with Mary; and of course had forgotten how current the ending was (the looting and burning). Also failed to remember the sexual encounters with white women. Be warned about my blogs, in which I relied on memory. And of course, the big item, was Ellison’s black nationalism (disavowed in the novel, along with despair). ( I have not consulted the internet entries on Ellison or his novel.)

Was “Invisible Man,” Ellison’s masterpiece? I don’t know. But was struck by how much Ellison rhymed with the current Democratic Party.

April 9, 2018

Ralph Ellison’s ambivalence re white racism

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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was copyrighted in 1947, but the book was not published until 1952. It has become a classic of “Negro” literature. This blog is about his mixed message concerning black nationalism, for Ellison took care to separate himself from the separatist movement headed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. And yet he gave much testimony regarding the appalling degree of what would be called today “white racism.” Moreover the last one-third of the book is a round condemnation of betrayal by the Communist Party (of which, like Richard Wright and other blacks in the American branch of the CP, the invisible man was an ex-member).

And yet Ellison was heaped with honors by the literary establishment; similarly he always seemed to me to be the most level-headed analyst of the (unfulfilled) promise of American life as it pertained to black citizens. This blog is also about the Herman Melville declaration that “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” For Melville shared Ellison’s ambivalence about the future of American democracy and the rationalism advanced by the Enlightenment. The “Epilogue” to Invisible Man suggests that Ellison had backtracked on his initial mocking words about “social responsibility,” just as Melville separated himself from Captain Ahab in the Epilogue to Moby-Dick.

One review of Ellison’s masterpiece (and his single published novel) mentions that the author became more conservative in temperament as he got older. Such is the case with many ex-communists. Perhaps Ellison, like Melville, was always upwardly mobile, and yet his emphasis on (white racism), so persuasively presented in the novel Invisible Man, must ingratiate him with today’s liberals and other moderates who support such separatist movements as “Black Lives Matter.”

 

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