John F. Callahan on Ralph Ellison’s Two Inviolable Identities
“To become a true American a white American’s identity
must partake of blackness.”
When I talked to Ralph Ellison, he’d often shake his head and say, “Well, John, it’s a crazy country.” There’s no question he had more on his mind than the shape-shifting abstraction and chaotic bits and pieces that are this country. His comic phrase called attention to the knots and tangles of American identity, and the challenge to personality that confronts anyone who aims to be a “true American.” For Ellison the challenge began in the crucible of his personality. There he mingled identities of a defiant black man (or a Negro, a word he cherished), a stubborn American, and, perhaps most daunting, a writer who was also a true artist.
Intriguingly, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision of May 1954 declaring segregation unconstitutional came at the mid-point of Ellison’s life. He lived his first 40 years in the America of Jim Crow, the last 40 in a society struggling to make integration the de facto law of the land. One senses time stop then leap ahead when he writes Morteza Sprague, his old friend and Tuskegee teacher and librarian that “the Court has found in our favor and recognized our human psychological complexity and citizenship.” Hearing the news on the radio, he felt “a heightening of emotion and a telescoping of perspective, yes and a sense of the problems that lie ahead that left me wet-eyed . . . twisted with joy and a sense of inadequacy” inside his tangled, threefold personality: black man, American, and artist, each charged with unfastening the Gordian knot of identity.
A poignant vulnerability takes hold of Ellison: “Why did I have to be a writer during a time when events sneer openly at your efforts defying consciousness and form?” he laments before fixing his “Cold Oklahoma Negro eye” on the task underway in the novel in progress he is “writing about the evasion of identity that is another characteristically American problem that must be about to change.” He then signs off that 1954 letter with a long distance toast to his friend: “here’s to the only integration that counts: that of the personality.”
Before and after the Brown v. Board decision Ellison’s letters to a collage of individuals reveal a self-shaping man proud of his complex identity. Ellison’s insistent, strenuous thinking and writing about who he was and was becoming goes back a long way. From what he called “exile” in Ohio less than a month after his mother’s sudden death in 1937, he writes Richard Wright a self-mocking take off on Marx’s famous imperative in the Communist Manifesto: “Writers of the World Must Write!!!!” Wright had been the first to encourage him to become a writer, and when Ellison returned to New York in March of ’38, the fraternal bond between the two black American writers intensified as they jousted over literary, political, and racial matters.
From boyhood in Oklahoma City Ellison brought a proud, ferocious will to bear on his given racial identity. During his friendship with Wright in the late thirties through the mid forties Ellison became even more passionate about his black experience. In November 1941 Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices left his “nerves peeled and quivering” so much that he declares to his friend: “We are not the numbed, but the seething. God! It makes you want to write and write and write, or murder.” Instead of tilting toward violence, Ellison’s chooses “to keep the bitterness submerged so that my vision might be kept clear; so that those passions that could so easily be criminal might be socially useful.”Ellison’s sense of individuality as an American writer was always inextricably bound up with interplay between his racial experience and artistic craft.
Indeed he did write and write, and began to revel in the intense particularity of his writer’s vision. In a 1945 letter to Wright, he describes with pride and amusement an exchange with Eugene Holmes, a mutual friend, in the lobby of Harlem’s Theresa Hotel.
“‘Who are you with? Common Ground?’
“‘No, I’m by myself.’
“‘So you and Wright are together?’
“‘No, Wright is by himself and I am by myself. We are individuals.’”
Ellison’s sense of individuality as an American writer was always inextricably bound up with interplay between his racial experience and artistic craft, and he stressed the advantage he believed being black gave him. As he told James Allen McPherson in 1970: “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.”
There is no finer expression of Ellison’s racial bona fides than “The World and the Jug,” his defiant and subtle response in 1963 & ’64 to Irving Howe’s presumptuous and condescending essay “Black Boys and Native Sons.” From Ellison’s initial ironic karate chop (“Everybody wants to tell us what a Negro is, yet few wish, even in a joke, to be one.”), he pushes on to deliver a triumphant haymaker: “who wills to be a Negro? I do!”
As the years go by, on matters of racial identity Ellison is often trenchantly “more myself when writing a letter than at any other time.” Consider his May 1970 letter to his “old friend and sparring partner,” Stanley Edgar Hyman. Ellison assures Hyman that his displeasure over a recent Hyman essay does not have to do with his friend’s use of the word “Negro.” Rather, he objects to “such generalizations [of Hyman’s] as ‘There can be no doubt that Negro hatred of whites is close to universal.” Bluntly and eloquently he takes Hyman to task for making “our Negro American attitudes and emotions too simple. You allow us no contempt—a quite different emotion than hate—no irony, no forbearance, no indifference, no charity, no mockery, no compassion, no condescension—not to mention that ambivalence of emotion and attitude that you so readily see in the Blues.” When shoddy thinking hands black Americans sympathy kits missing qualities that go with being a human being, Ellison relies mercilessly on his “cold Oklahoma Negro eye.” His proud phrase contains a series of handpicked adjectives that connect the dots of the human, the American, and the black characteristics integrated in the totality of his individual personality.
In the same year of 1970 when Time asked him to write an essay for its special issue on black America, Ellison turned inside out the old racist fantasy of an America without blacks. He contended simply and profoundly that there would have been no America without blacks and their culture. “Something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system, but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.” To become a true American a white person must partake of blackness.
(One remembers with amazement that the current president of the United States insisted that his duly elected predecessor, Barack Obama produce his birth certificate to prove his American citizenship. One also remembers Governor Sununu’s subsequent rage at President Obama more than three years after his inauguration: “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” Against these memories I hear Ralph Ellison’s tragicomic chuckle: “Well, John, it’s a crazy country.” I brood on his call for “tolerance which takes the form of humor,” and his warning that “when Americans can no longer laugh at each other, they have to fight one another.”)
Ellison had an original gift of bringing sanity-saving comedy to bear on inbred, false assumptions about racial experience and human personality in America. His was the gift of a storyteller who understood the power of stories to catch people unawares and loosen the corsets of their minds. Weary of arguing against simplistic categories of race with Stanley Hymn in a 1970 letter, Ellison makes his point with a story. “Said a young white professor of English lit. to me after a lecture out in northern Illinois, ‘Mr. E., how does it feel to be able to go places where most black men can’t go?’ Said I to him, ‘What you mean is, how does it feel to be able to go places where most white men can’t go.’ My point was that I was no abstraction in the black and white division of American society, but an individual with countless connections that over-rode my status as a ‘Negro.’ For while my status and statistical identity is that of a black, I am also an individual with an individual destiny, and an individual past.”
Like his principles, like his racial complexity, individuality was at the core of Ralph Ellison’s personality and not to be bartered or trifled with by anyone. His letters show traits of intimacy, solitude, vulnerability, defiance, and openness mixed with caution and caginess and fervent loyalty. As he grew older, his loyalty intensified, especially to the “dear folks” in Oklahoma, some of whom he had not seen in decades but who had kept the special place he reserved for them in his heart when he was a fatherless, often lonely boy in the black neighborhood of Deep Deuce in Oklahoma City.
In a delighted letter like the one to Hester Holloway, who gets in touch more than thirty-five years after leaving Oklahoma City, Ellison comes across as a loyal, dedicated, and grateful member of the “tribe” as he playfully called African Americans in his 1964 rejoinder to Irving Howe. From beginning to end his letter to Miss Hester echoes the intimate, loving letters he wrote his mother from Tuskegee and New York. He catches her up on his and his brother Herbert’s lives since their mother, who was Miss Hester’s best friend, passed away in Ohio in 1937. These personal memories lead to and prepare for the tribute he pays Miss Hester in the letter’s last section. An individual to the bone, she also represents the enormous human influence on Ralph of the elders of the African American tribe who took him under their wings and sheltered him until he learned to fly on his own.
And like J. D. Randolph, Ellison’s surrogate grandfather, what prompted gratitude toward Miss Hester was a tribal maternal connection fused with her intense “feeling for life” which, he writes, made him “know that I’ve been extremely lucky to have grown up in that place and in that time and thus around you. Thanks to those like you I never had to apologize to myself, or make excuses to anyone, for being a Negro. That is much more than anything I got at Tuskegee,” he adds, though many of his letters testify that he got a great deal there, though not so much from elders as from younger teachers and fellow students. Not a man who revealed his vulnerabilities lightly, Ellison confides “her letter arrived at a moment when I was feeling depressed here [the University of Chicago] and a bit worried over my first big public lecture. It was all I needed to lift my spirits and very much as though my mother was encouraging me through her best friend.”Ellison projects a kindred reality in his writer’s stance toward experience and the person behind that stance.
Touching on citizenship, patriotism, and personality in a 1983 letter to me, Ellison admits bluntly he has “never been able to dismiss democratic ideals so easily as have some of my colleagues whose racial background makes the rewards of democracy more easily available. Therefore I would affirm the principles while insisting that they be extended to all and on the basis of equality. It ain’t the theory which bothers me, it’s the practice. My problem is to affirm while resisting.”
These three words, “affirm while resisting,” are diamonds that describe the creed behind two fluid yet inviolable identities, American and African American that create the artist in Ellison. It is the human ideal he leaves us with through Invisible Man’s resolve to be a whole person in the epilogue to his story. In his phrase Ellison projects a kindred reality in his writer’s stance toward experience and the person behind that stance.
To “affirm while resisting” is never a simple proposition for Ellison. The three words are his way of experiencing the world and the “crazy country”; they are the words of a person and a personality who claims the best of America as his due. They underlie his respect for the tragic-comic sense of life behind the blues and so much else of African American culture, including his own work, finished and in-progress.
Aptly, movingly, in his last years he follows the command passed down by Invisible Man’s grandfather: “Learn it to the young’uns.” Nowhere does Ellison do this better than in the advice he asks his friend Jim McPherson to pass on to the young black woman whose fiction McPherson has asked him to read: “Our sense of comedy is one of our weapons of survival, the American blackness of our laughter our saving grace . . . Of course there are times when force is called for, and when such times arise I am far from non-violent. But even so, I prefer to pick the time and place in which I strike back.”
I imagine Ralph Ellison, hands poised and held in check at his sides before he explains how to “change the joke and slip the yoke.” Hidden in plain sight, his advice is easily ignored in these glib, categorical times. “One of the hidden jokes in the Tar Baby fable is the fact that he looks black but is really white,” Ralph Ellison tells the young woman he has not met. And he adds with that cold Oklahoma Negro eye of his blazing: “Step around the bastard and proceed to get your cornmeal made.”
So saying, cryptic, cagey Br’er Ellison shows the Tar Baby to be American, and, therefore, whoever else he may be, this enigmatic figure is also somehow black.