I’m walking down Elm Street, in the gathering dusk of a Sunday spring evening in New Haven. The streets are still. As I approach the corner of College, a two-tone Camaro pulls up at the red light beside me. The car’s a few years older than most others on the road and the driver is a young black man with very close-cut hair and wrap-around shades. But the sound is the thing.
Out of the Chevy’s overheated amps, engineered by its creators to exploit the tinny resonance of automotive acoustics, the drawling, sibilant insolence of rap blasts at top volume, hostile and profane. The rapper lays out the text like a card trick, explosively articulating some lines, swallowing and slurring others, appearing and disappearing phrases, slow moves following fast shuffles to the shifty boom of the bass line. It’s wild. But I don’t like it much.
Which I can’t help feeling has briefly become the point to the young man at the wheel. Maybe it’s paranoia but I think he’s aware of me a few feet away. Indeed, he glances over at me and he’s not in the least apologetic. Professor Beard, that’s me, and I don’t get it. I so obviously don’t get it that he thinks it’s amusing; and as for me, who dates from the days when cool was all, who cherished the hip and arrogantly scorned the square, where am I now? What’s his is his because it’s not mine.
The driver of the Camaro has made me see him. He’s also made me not see him. He has presented himself, intruded on my consciousness and my pittance of the public space, not as another man but as an urban phenomenon. Flying the patch, wrapping himself in the colors to the point of invisibility. I’m put out. A memory comes to me of sitting in a club on San Francisco’s Broadway and listening to John Coltrane, me dizzy with synesthesia as the brass appears in spurts of scarlet and the rhythm expands and contracts in waves of jagged hallucinatory frost. As though I belonged there, as though being there made me something, got me something. I was just another white habitué but I was paying attention. Now such illusions of social definition are old, they’re over. On Elm Street the light changes and we go our separate ways forever.
How preposterous of me to assume the right of access to the cultural artifacts of a new generation of black Americans. As though the man in the Camaro should somehow be my pal, when plainly for him I am part of something he’s trying to outwit and survive. But I regret the whole sad history of our racial failure, the great crossover that never made it over or across. It seems to me I remember an era in which more than a few Americans—however deluded, terrorized, or fatuous—felt they had to examine the country’s plural identity.
The attempted engagement of those times is often evoked today by recalling its embarrassing disasters. Foolish drunken Jack Kerouac declaring his unbounded love for everything and everyone black and getting a sock in the mouth for his gushings from a black man in a Florida saloon. And there was the night that a group of Black Panthers appeared at the apartment of the Leonard Bernsteins. Whatever actually happened there, the Tom Wolfe story that followed in New York magazine helped to break the confidence of the sentimental left in America the way Voltaire’s writings broke that of Europe’s ancien régime.
But there were some good times too, were there not? A few connections, a little camaraderie. Or did we deceive ourselves? Now, it seems, even television commercials have stopped showing adults in racially mixed social situations. Have we despaired of the possibility of community? Or have we achieved a mature and realistic appreciation of an unhappy situation? If we knew the future, we might be able to tell which is the case.
Long ago, in a different world, two years before the United States Supreme Court delivered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Ralph Ellison published one of the great works of American late modernism. Who having read Invisible Man decades ago can forget the experience? With the custodians of segregation still armed, confident and enjoying the collusion of society at large, Ralph Ellison spotted a weak, pretending devil behind the edifice of official racism and lured it into the light of day. His first novel presumed to treat the circumstances of American racial arrogance as the subject of satire. Its subversive nature was compounded not only by its sly, uncowed observation of complacent oppression but by its evocations of black myth, of trickster and outlaw figures, counterparts of the symbolic personages in the work of Eliot and Faulkner. Invisible Man had a distinctly American—and distinctly African-American—joie de vivre and humor that may never before have been employed so vigorously in the service of high art. In its incidents and Harlem setting it had a grim realism and reflected the social conditions of the time. And unfortunately its story is far from dated. It describes, among other things, the intrigues of organizing a protest against the wanton shooting of a black street vendor by a white cop. But Ellison’s prose was foreign to the aesthetic of “social realism.” In its rich details it had the vividness of nightmare.
A violent encounter on the opening page of Invisible Man echoes an incident in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. In Dostoevsky’s original, an obscure clerk, jostled on the Nevsky Prospekt by an overbearing young officer, extracts obsessive revenge as if he is caught in a dream. Ellison’s nameless narrator, driven to refuge in a secret warren under the city, describes another urban moment which is both startling in its queerness and wholly convincing. He has accidentally brushed against another man, a “tall blond man,” who “looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me.” The narrator viciously attacks the man, beating him to the ground, kicking him half-senseless. He is at the point of drawing his knife when “it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the middle of a waking nightmare…almost killed by a phantom…mugged by an invisible man!” Only by degrees do we discover that the Invisible Man is, to use the word Ellison always insisted on, a Negro.
The self that the narrator of Invisible Man asserts is not a category of being. To insist on anything that might somehow be called “black identity” would be, in Ellison’s terms, to opt for just another mode of invisibility. Even what our society sees as the ultimate act of autonomy and empowerment, murder, would not free the eponymous figure of the novel from his invisibility. Rather it would cause him to disappear altogether into the abyss of commonplace expectations. This insight is his awakening.
Ellison’s character is a man of acute sensibilities, trapped in the darkness of America’s racist perception. To be rendered invisible, Ellison knew, is to be mortally threatened. To appear in a form no one chooses to see is to be utterly at the mercy of things. Woe to the invisible man. With everyone looking the other way, he may be sure that something terrible is about to happen, something that, out of self-protection, no one cares to see. God help you when the world defensively hardens its heart and blinds itself to your condition. Whom men would destroy, they first put out of sight.
The Harlem of Invisible Man appears as if reflected in a dark, distorted mirror and it calls to mind the countryside of Vladimir and Estragon. The assertion of identity in such a situation is the vocation of the madman-hero, the absurdist résistant who speaks for sanity and light against insuperable odds. In satirizing the specific, the cruel buffoonery of Jim Crowism and the opportunism of the Communists, the novel reveals something universal. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies,” the Invisible Man suggests, addressing all of us, “I speak for you?”
Ellison’s reduction of American racism to a metaphor for the absurdity of the country’s blindness was an act of supreme defiance and self-confidence. In refusing to be literally “discriminated against” the narrator implicitly asserts the interior life of black America, its soul if you will, the iron resilience beneath its postures. What most of the country was still insisting was a secondary debate about quaint regional customs and incurable cussedness was set forth by Ellison as raising fundamental questions of the human condition. In doing this, Ellison evoked what Conrad referred to in his preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”: “that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.”
It’s hard to overestimate the persuasive intensity of good prose. Appearing when fiction counted for considerably more than it does today, Invisible Man, so far as race was concerned, changed the literary and intellectual landscape. It also placed on the shoulders of its thirty-eight-year-old author a double responsibility, both to art and to history. Add the measure of Ralph Ellison’s talent and ambition to the gravity and complexity of his ideas, and we can sense the situation in which he had placed himself.
According to his letters, Ellison began his second novel before he had altogether finished his first. This is an excellent strategy, easier stated than carried out. In retrospect, how much better it would have been for him and for us if he had gone ahead and risked a second work perhaps less impressive than Invisible Man. Given his talent and vision he could not have gone too far wrong.
Years ago Norman Mailer expressed the hope of hitting what he called “the longest ball” in American fiction. In the age of Hemingway, who once pictured himself as having been in the boxing ring with “Mr. Turgenev” and “Mr. Tolstoy,” the competitive sports metaphor, not to say its ethos, prevailed. Ellison seems to have been waiting for the perfect pitch, testing the breeze, his eyes fixed on the dark space beyond the bright lights. “C’est un art trop difficile,” as the Frenchman said.
In his first novel, Ellison revealed a gift for prophecy that distinguishes a handful of American writers. Prophets foretell the future as he did and, like him, they do more. They remind us of our condition, they chastise folly and speak truth to power. Ralph Ellison’s vision might have done much to shape the nature of the struggles that Invisible Man foreshadowed. Two years ago in these pages, Darryl Pinckney thoughtfully examined Ellison’s published work since the Fifties, the two volumes of his collected essays and stories.* Drawing on biographical detail, Pinckney’s review reminded us of the author’s intimate knowledge both of American literature and African-American culture. Ellison incessantly pondered the ways that race pervaded America and he wrote about them with originality and eloquence.
"The Drama of Ralph Ellison," The New York Review, May 15, 1997.↩
“The Drama of Ralph Ellison,” The New York Review, May 15, 1997.↩