Famous books by Black authors
Ralph Waldo Ellison (named for the 19th-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) was born in Oklahoma in 1914, the grandson of slaves. When he was three years old his father died, pierced by a shard of ice he was delivering. Ellison attended an all-black college named for Booker T Washington – a similar institution appears in Invisible Man – but did not take a degree. In the late Thirties he went to New York with ambitions of being a trumpeter and worked as a waiter, a janitor and in a factory, as well as getting the occasional writing job. He fell in with the Communist Party. In Invisible Man the Party reappears as the Brotherhood, a group that initially helps the narrator but ultimately turns against him.
In a Paris Review interview from 1954, Ellison made clear that unlike black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey – the basis for the sinister Ras the Destroyer in the novel – he did not believe in racial separatism. “Negroes”, as he called them, were an integral part of American society. “Through the very process of slavery came the building of the United States, ” he said. In that interview he also defended the apparently narrow focus of his work: “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn’t that what we’re all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.”
This yearning for universalism and an increasing acceptance by the literary establishment in the US – he became a professor at New York University and received a Medal of Freedom in 1969 – led to a breach with some black writers. He was attacked by Black Power poets such as Amiri Baraka (who died in January), and he in turn thought them philistine. He ignored Sixties radical movements and mixed in mainly white circles. After his death, Toni Morrison complained that he found late 20th-century African American life “largely inaccessible, or simply uninteresting to him as a creator of fiction”. (Though Morrison’s own cultural markers are more likely to be midcentury jazz than modern hip-hop.) To his critics Ellison seemed imperious but, as his biographer Arnold Rampersand reports, after one public attack he broke down crying: “I am not a Tom, I am not a Tom.”
Ellison’s other burden was his failure to produce a follow-up to Invisible Man. For 40 years he worked on a novel about the assassination of a racist politician in Fifties America who turns out to have been a light-skinned African American passing as white. He wrote thousands of pages but never finished. He claimed that a significant portion was destroyed in a fire in 1967 – a disaster from which the book did not recover, though he made more of this as years went by. An unsatisfactory section was published posthumously in 1999 as Juneteenth.
When Ellison spoke to the New Yorker’s David Remnick for his 80th birthday he still claimed to be working on his behemoth each morning. He defended his lack of direct political engagement and emphasis on the skill of writing. “I am rather passionate about some of the iniquities that are part of the country, ” he said, but writers must “master the tradition” as a surgeon or opera singer might. “We all have at least double identities.”
His emphasis on multiple voices and literary craft meant that Ellison was never going to be accepted by those who prefer their novels to propagandise for causes. Yet as Stanley Crouch has pointed out, in Ras the Destroyer Ellison cleverly predicted the “race hysteria” of a Louis Farrakhan or Jeremiah Wright.
Ellison died in 1995. In the same year a young American man who had read and admired Invisible Man wrote a memoir about the complexities of embracing his blackness without letting it define him. You could describe it as a sort-of sequel to Invisible Man. The book was called Dreams from My Father, and the author Barack Obama.