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The Drama of Ralph Ellison

I rode freight trains to Macon County, Alabama, during the Scottsboro trial because I desired to study with the Negro conductor-composer William D. Dawson, who was, and probably still is, the greatest classical musician in that part of the country. I had no need to attend a white university when the master I wished to study with was available at Tuskegee. Besides, why should I have wished to attend the white state-controlled university where the works of the great writers might not have been so easily available?

Ellison also informed Howe that even though he had never attended a white school, he had taught at Northern white universities, just as Howe had done. Apparently he didn’t ask whether Dawson, himself a Tuskegee graduate, could have taught at white-controlled state schools, or even whether he would have wanted to. Ellison gave the impression that he, a scholarship student, could have followed Dawson anywhere.

He insisted that Tuskegee was a major musical center in the South in the 1930s. “It was to Tuskegee that the Metropolitan Opera groups came; it was to Tuskegee that the great string quartets and the Philharmonic came. It was not to the University of Alabama; it was not to white schools in this area, but to Tuskegee.” But while he convinced himself that Tuskegee was one of the leaders in his field of study, he neglected to say that another black for whom Tuskegee represented the only chance to get a college education might have dreamed of going someplace else.1 What mattered to Ellison was that he may have been poor, orphaned, and segregated, but as a Negro he refused to see himself as deprived, a cultural outsider.

Ellison’s stand about the contributions blacks had made to music as an American art, including the level of musicianship which the greatest exponents of jazz had attained, was the basis from which he judged the achievements of blacks in other forms of artistic expression. It was also why he expected blacks as artists to find freedom within their restricted circumstances. He was critical of those who wanted to dignify jazz’s rough beginnings. Blacks knew too much about the hypocrisy of respectability, and as a youth he himself had seen more nobility in socially marginal musicians than he did in the professionals and businessmen he was urged to emulate. Ellison wanted to keep jazz’s outlaw sources, but at the same time he said that the musicians he most admired were those who could jam in the roadhouses as well as read scores in the orchestra pits downtown.

He talked a great deal about things like craft, skill, and technique. No amount of emotion or raw power substituted for proper training. Black artists had to earn the mastery, a favorite Ellison word, that would let them extend any tradition they encountered. Hence his admiration for those jazzmen who were the equivalent of bilingual. Ellison spoke of black musicians as being like folk heroes, and their mastery was an example of how black artists could reclaim the debased images of folk culture, which meant something opposite to blacks from what it did to whites. Ellison agreed with the poet and critic Sterling Brown in his sense of the complexity of the folk roots of black culture, though Ellison was wary of the term “black culture” because to him it had racist overtones.

Part of what led Brown to write dialect poetry when it was considered a relic of Uncle Remus days was his contention that the psychology of the black had been erased by the minstrel images white people had imposed on him. Ellison goes further and characterizes America as “a land of masking jokers.” The darkie entertainer of the minstrel tradition was, Ellison said, an exorcist, but the black-faced figure could not eradicate the country’s spirit of unease, which was what led to the notion that the trickster, the smart man playing dumb in order to protect himself, is “primarily Negro.” “Very often, however, the Negro’s masking is motivated not so much by fear as by a profound rejection of the image created to usurp his identity.” Ellison is as concerned as Brown with how folklore gets into literature, but if Brown concentrated on the psychological reality lost because of stereotyping, then Ellison wanted to add that black artists were conscious of folklore as a subversive tradition and were discriminating about standards. Folk culture was a source of stability as well as of inspiration.

He didn’t falter when talking about music, but in his discussions of his literary education a frustrated Ellison emerges, which raises the question of how willful his interpretation of social reality was. At Tuskegee he and Albert Murray had talked of going to Harvard to study with “Dr. Kittredge.” Ellison later conceded that he wasn’t sure he could have hopped a freight to Harvard or what would have happened to him had he gotten there.

Ellison remembered the name of the grade school teacher—another cultural transmitter—who taught Negro history and from whom he’d learned about the writers of the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. They inspired pride, gave him a closer identification with poetry, excited him with the glamour of Harlem, and “it was good to know that there were Negro writers.” But he also never forgot

the humiliation of being taught in class in sociology at a Negro college that Negroes represented the “ladies of the races.” This contention the Negro instructor passed blandly along to us without even bothering to wash his hands, much less his teeth. Well, I had no intention of being bound by any such humiliating definition of my relationship to literature.

At Tuskegee in 1935 Ellison read The Waste Land on his own, and this encounter with Modernism was a turning point. “I was much more under the spell of literature than I realized at the time. Wuthering Heights had caused me an agony of unexpressible emotion, and the same was true of Jude the Obscure, but The Waste Land seized my mind.” Its rhythms, he judged, were somehow closer to jazz than were those of Negro poets. The Waste Land and its footnotes began, he said, his conscious study of literature. He moved on to Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. “Perhaps it was my good luck that they were not taught at Tuskegee.”


In his later essays, Ellison gives his departure from college a romantic gloss: Manhattan was his Paris and Harlem his Left Bank. In the summer of 1936 he went to New York, already aware of radical movements in politics and the arts. Ellison said that he had begun to write almost in secret, but he still thought of himself as a student “symphonist,” or maybe a sculptor, while he worked odd jobs, such as being a waiter at the Harlem YMCA, hoping to earn the tuition for his senior year at Tuskegee. He never went back to college. The day after he arrived in Harlem Ellison met Langston Hughes on the street. He recognized Hughes from his photographs. Hughes took him to the Broadway play of Tobacco Road, and also arranged his introduction to Richard Wright.

In 1937 Wright invited the yearning Ellison to write a book review and then a short story for New Challenge, a magazine he was editing. It folded before Ellison’s story could be published. Wright was then also working in the Harlem bureau of The Daily Worker. There Ellison read some of the stories that would go into Uncle Tom’s Children, the collection that made Wright’s name. “He guided me to Henry James’s prefaces, to Conrad, to Joseph Warren Beach and to the letters of Dostoevsky.” Then again Ellison also once said in an interview that he’d already read everything by the time he met Wright and had had to suppress his annoyance at Wright’s assumption that he had not.

In 1937, when his mother became ill, he went to Ohio, where she was then living. There, with the help of one of Dayton’s black lawyers, he began to devote himself seriously to writing. His mother died, and after three months of “ice and snow and homelessness,” he abandoned an attempt at a novel. Back in New York he found work, with Wright’s help, collecting Negro folklore for the Federal Writers’ Project. He became managing editor of The Negro Quarterly in 1942. It ceased publication after a year, and Ellison joined the merchant marine, which did not get in the way of his literary application. By war’s end he had published a number of stories in such magazines as Direction, Common Ground, Tomorrow, and The New Masses.

The work in Flying Home and Other Stories, respectfully edited by John F. Callahan, who has also served Ellison well as editor of the Modern Library edition of his Collected Essays, dates from this period. One of the thirteen stories was written in the 1950s, but its characters belong to a series from the 1940s. The story that opens the volume, “A Party Down at the Square,” is a first-person account given by a white boy from Cincinnati visiting his uncle in Alabama. He witnesses a lynching and simply relates what happens, how the crowd taunts the victim until a storm blows an airplane off course, how the crowd flees when falling wires electrocute some of the whites.

Ellison had read Wright’s apocalyptic poem about a lynching, “Between the World and Me.” Maybe Wright’s passionate lyricism about tar and flame provoked Ellison to look at lynching through an innocent and therefore more effectively condemning observer. But “A Party Down at the Square” probably owes more to Faulkner’s courthouse loafers and soused demobilized World War I pilots. Though one might expect to find in this collection of stories signs of Wright’s influence or of Ellison’s struggle to overcome it, there aren’t any. Wright’s intense and anguished early stories of rural blacks thrown into violent confrontation with whites are completely different from Ellison’s low-key investigations of how racial situations affect an individual’s perceptions. In later life Ellison would say that Wright’s importance to him was intellectual, not literary. At most the work of both shows that Wright and Ellison belonged to the same social era.

Callahan has arranged Ellison’s stories so that they follow the stages of a man’s life. They are all about men and maybe that comes from Hemingway. Ellison was young when he wrote them and life would have presented itself then as a series of solitary discoveries. But writing about young black characters also involved the theme that some day arbitrary limitations would be placed on them as social beings. Three stories, “Mister Toussan,” “Afternoon,” and “That I Had the Wings,” for instance, depict two young black boys, Buster and Riley, at boisterous play, telling themselves tall stories about Toussaint L’Ouverture, cheering each other’s baseball skills, trying to fashion parachutes for baby chicks. They don’t know how dangerous it is for them to grow up with dreams of heroism. Because of their own experience the grandmothers and mothers are fearful for boys who are too bold and loud and too blatant about their wanting to be something, even if it’s just a game.

  1. 1

    I see that Jerry Gafio Watts makes the same point in Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics and Afro-American Intellectual Life (University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

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