Invisible Man and African American radicalism in World War II.
Until recently, these contexts, especially the latter, received rather little emphasis in scholarly criticism of Invisible Man. In the most fruitful period of interpretation, the 1970s and 80s, the novel was treated primarily as a narrative of the self-creation of individual and racial identity, and it was contextualized both culturally, through studies of its affinities with African American narrative traditions, folkways, blues, jazz, and so on, and generically, in commentaries on Ellison's appropriation of the classics and especially the US canon. (1) In this period, in The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980), Robert O'Meally could remark as axiomatic, "Invisible Man is not a historical novel, of course" (103). During and before these years, a counter-trend of political criticism, by such commentators as Irving Howe (1963-64), Donald B. Gibson (1981), and Thomas H. Schaub (1991), charged Ellison with evasion of political realities. Most neglected Invisible Man's prewar and wartime contexts in favor of the critic's own or that of the Cold War. Schaub, exceptionally, does note the novel's relation to wartime radicalism, but contends that Ellison subordinates historically concrete depiction to "the a historicism of mythic form and tragic vision so typical of postwar [liberal] critical thought," creating a debilitating tension between "political specificity" and "a discourse that obscures those politics" (American 92, 101). Yet Schaub assumes, rather than demonstrates, that universalizing techniques must dilute socially specific observation, and he says little about the novel's specific treatments of prewar and wartime radicalism. Indeed, Schaub does not comment at all on Invisible Man's ideas concerning African American identity, style, or relations to the United States. (2)
Several more recent studies emphasize Ellison's complexity and continuing commitment to communitarian democratic values. Julia Eichelberger's sections on Ellison in her Prophets of Recognition (1999), for example, stress that he deconstructs US ideologies, especially the linkage of individualism to domination, through a Ricoeurian "hermeneutics of suspicion," and credit him with a "vision of an as-yet-unrealized democracy" (2-3, 22, 57). Meili Steele, in two important articles and sections of two books (1996-97), argues that Ellison neither fully affirms nor fully rejects US liberalism and that he juxtaposes the "ethical vocabularies of liberals, communitarians, and radicals" to create a "space that is indispensable for improving our deliberations about democracy" (Theorizing 176; "Metatheory" 473). But these interpreters, too, disregard historical contexts and largely ignore socially radical ideas in Invisible Man, as when Steele defines her focus as Ellison's "understanding of the subject in deliberations about identity in a liberal democracy" (Theorizing 185). (3) In a somewhat similar way, Danielle Allen's complex exploration of Invisible Man's idea of democratic reciprocity reifies what the novel presents as a historically concrete, disfiguring lack of reciprocity into a characteristic of all democratic politics (see especially 42, 48).
Specifically historical readings of Invisible Man, always a thread within the literature, have assumed some prominence in the last few years. Most focus on the novel's treatment of communism. Kimberly W. Benston's early "Controlling the Dialectical Deacon" (1984) analyzed Ellison's critique of Marxist historicism, while recent essays by Frederick T. Griffiths and Jesse Wolfe explore parallels between Invisible Man and writings by Richard Wright and Angelo Herndon, and Barbara Foley argues that Ellison distorts the Communist Party's record. Foley, however, attacks a straw man by concentrating on issues of naturalistic accuracy despite Invisible Man's predominantly non-naturalist techniques, and says almost nothing about Invisible Man's specific political ideas. (4) Recent essays have begun exploring Invisible Man's relation to the civil rights movement, in general and very specific ways. (5) Much less explored is Invisible Man's relation to African American politics and the political culture of Harlem during World War II. In an exception to this neglect, Lawrence P. Jackson relates the protagonist's move away from the Brotherhood to the emergence of the "sharpie" in wartime Harlem, and recovers the historical specificity and sociopolitical radicalism of this cultural type, among whom he includes the zoot suit youths and Rinehart. (6)
While Invisible Man's social vision extends beyond these specifics, it is rooted in and can only be fully understood in terms of them. Ellison's first intention for the novel, according to Jackson, was to write "an allegory of black American life that would resonate chiefly in the realm of politics" (Ralph Ellison 334). Much of this intention remains in the final text. Specifically, the novel's Harlem sections, implicitly set during the 1930s and World War II, portray its protagonist's political education and transition between political philosophies. (7) Here Ellison describes distinct phases in the work of his fictitious radical organization, the Brotherhood, that knowledgeable readers would associate with shifts in the work of the Communist Party during those years, and he incorporates other elements of plot, description, and atmosphere that reflect the evolution of many African American leftists away from the Communists and toward independent radicalism during the war. (8) These aspects of Invisible Man, especially the latter, give the novel's second half its specific focus, tone, and overt sociopolitical content.
Though the latter development is ultimately crucial for the protagonist's outlook, Ellison's portrayal of the Brotherhood provides its point of departure. The Harlem chapters sketch three periods in the organization's work. In the first (chaps. 13-16) the Brotherhood is pursuing an initial change in orientation, against semifactional resistance, from a more theoretical to a more popular style of agitation. Here, for example, we see Jack flatter the protagonist by contrast with Brotherhood speakers: "With a few words you have involved them in action! Others would have still been wasting time with empty verbiage" (289). Jack and others speak of the need for new methods in "the coming period" and excoriate "sideline theoreticians" (311, 351). The heyday of the new orientation (chaps. 17-18) is a period of increased presence in Harlem, mass actions, popularization of the Brotherhood's message, and alliances with community leaders: the organization challenges Ras's nationalist grouping for influence in the streets, conducts a march to City Hall, and creates a multiracial "Rainbow" poster that, Brother Tarp testifies, Harlemites "[tack] to their walls 'long with 'God Bless Our Home' and the Lord's Prayer" (367-77, 379-80, 385-86). Finally the leaders engineer a second reorientation (chaps. 20-23) in which they downgrade Harlem work in response to "a new program which had called for shelving our old techniques of agitation. There was, to [the protagonist's] surprise, a switch in emphasis from local issues to those more national and international in scope, and it was felt that for the moment, the interests of Harlem were not of first importance" (428-29). As Brother Hambro elaborates, "We are making temporary alliances with other political groups and the interests of one group of brothers must be sacrificed to that of the whole" (501-02).
These phases, of which the last will concern me most, correspond in a schematic way to similar episodes in the Communist Party's work: the turn from "maximalist" revolutionary agitation (the so-called "Third Period" policy) to the "People's Front" or "Popular Front" in the mid-1930s; the height of the People's Front, a time of mass reform work, alliances with liberal forces, and aggressive recruitment of African Americans into the party; and the later deemphasis on militant agitation in response to the USSR's entry into World War II (June 1941). (9) Secondary details reinforce the novel's specific reference to the Communist Party. For example, Jack's comment that the Brotherhood is searching for new Jeffersons and Booker T. Washingtons (306-07) recalls the CP's effort during the "People's Front" to cast itself as perpetuator of US revolutionary traditions; Jack's later statement about Harlem community notables, "[W]e've always avoided these leaders, but the moment we start to advance on a broad front, sectarianism becomes a burden" (365), evokes efforts to ally with "reformist" forces at the height of the "People's Front"; and the Brotherhood's later shift away from Harlem work has similarities in mood and consequence, as discussed below, with the CP's shifts just before and during the war. In keeping with his overall preferences in fiction, Ellison's portrayal is mythic and generalized; in particular, he omits anything corresponding to the period of the Stalin-Hitler pact, when the world's Communist parties abandoned their earlier calls for unity against fascism, denounced the war as interimperialist, and strove to intensify struggle on class and democratic issues. Ellison lets the Brotherhood's "international" turn do the work for both historical episodes. Nonetheless, those familiar with shifts in Communist policies from the early 1930s up through the war years should recognize in the novel's pages a compressed, heightened, and allegorized version of those changes.
Though Ellison's treatment is ultimately critical, one cannot feel the depth and force of the criticism without understanding the power of the Brotherhood's attraction for the protagonist and thousands more. We can feel this appeal in the protagonist's words during his "dispossession" speech: "Something strange and miraculous and transforming is taking place in me right now ... as I stand here before you! ... I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human.... I feel I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity! ... With your eyes upon me I feel that I've found my true family! My true people! My true country!" (345-46) Here as elsewhere, Ellison echoes the Communist experiences of his friend Richard Wright, who wrote of his own entry into the party: "It was not the economics of Communism ... that claimed me; my attention was caught ... by the possibility of uniting scattered but kindred peoples into a whole. It seemed to me that here at last, in the realm of revolutionary expression, Negro experience could find a home" ("I Tried" 1:62). Like Wright, who describes feeling that the Communist Party could create "a new sense of reality ... a sense of man on earth," Ellison's protagonist feels, despite his criticisms, that the Brotherhood provides "the only historically meaningful life" ("I Tried" 2:54; Invisible Man [hereafter IM] 508). (10) And the strength of these hopes is felt when the protagonist, unsure at Tod Clifton's funeral whether the crowd is moved by hate or by love, wonders, "And could politics ever be an expression of love?" (452)
Against this quickly sketched backdrop, Ellison, as many interpreters have noted, targets several familiar but nonetheless valid foci of anticommunist criticism: the Brotherhood's belief that the people are a pliable mass (302, 504-05), its compromises with white sensibilities (for example, in the design of the rainbow banner, 385), its internally undemocratic structure, its betrayal of the Harlem work, and the theoretical root of these, its abstract and teleological view of history (see Benston, "Dialectical Deacon"). Ellison further provides a gallery of Communist Party types: careerist, apologist for the changing party line, apparatchik (Wrestrum, Hambro, Jack). Though he also portrays honest, noncareerist Brotherhood members like brothers Maceo (chap. 23), Tarp, and Clifton, we learn little of their motivations. (11) Most devastatingly, Ellison makes the protagonist himself the exemplar of a particular kind of second-rank Communist--both honest and self-deluded, his decent impulses compromised by an abstract ideology, deference to authority, and personal ambition, as when he is criticized and reassigned to lecture downtown (chap. 18): "[T]here was a logic in what he [Brother McAfee] said which I felt compelled to accept.... Now was certainly no time for inactivity.... [A]nd my main concern was to work my way ahead in the movement" (407).
With the Brotherhood's abandonment of its Harlem work (chaps. 20-23), Invisible Man's focus broadens to include the issues posed by World War II. These chapters offer a recognizable though mythologized version of the CP's wartime turn, when, in the aftermath of Germany's invasion of the USSR (22 June 1941), the party moved from an antiwar to a fervently interventionist and win-the-war stance, backed Roosevelt's no-strike policy, and emphasized victory over fascism as its predominant goal. For at least part of this period, the Daily Worker carried the masthead slogan, "National Unity for Victory Over Nazi Enslavement." (12) While trying to keep up work among African Americans, the party downplayed militant demands. "By the fall of 1941," Maurice Isserman's generally pro-CP study summarizes, "the Communists were arguing that a too militant defense of black rights at home would interfere with the war effort" (119). The party's reversals with regard to A. Philip Randolph's March On Washington movement for equal work in war industries (1941-43) were especially vivid. Ignoring the movement in its preparatory months (the first half of 1941), the Daily Worker offered a gingerly endorsement three weeks before the July I march date and attacked Randolph for calling off the march (June 25) when Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Commission. But in the meantime the USSR had come into the war, and the Party's line gradually shifted to emphasizing Negro rights only in the context of the war effort. When Randolph organized follow-up rallies a year later in several cities, the Daily Worker initially branded them divisive. Ultimately, it covered New York's rally of 18,000 in Madison Square Garden a day late, applauding several speakers' "[s]plendid win-the-war addresses" but attacking as "insidious poison" the evening's high point, a dramatic sketch in which Canada Lee, as a Negro draftee, roused cheers and yells by declaring, "I'll fight Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japs all at the same time, but I'm telling you, I'll give those crackers down South the same damn medicine!" (13)
Ellison's references to "sacrific[ing]" the Harlem members pursuant to an emphasis on "national and international" issues and "temporary alliances with other political groups" (428, 502) offer a recognizable version of this wartime shift. Recognizable, too, are some of the consequences--loss of members (502) and the top officials' reversals of their previous positions (464). The protagonist's pained interview with Hambro (500-06) may owe something to similar experiences of Richard Wright. (14) The force of the protagonist's hopes, corrupted but also heightened by the sense of anticipating and controlling history, suggests the impact of the Brotherhood's betrayal: loss of confidence in an agency for a fraternal society.
In Invisible Man's closing chapters and epilogue, which go beyond the critique outlined so far, Ellison's protagonist grapples with this loss first by hinting at a spontaneist form of Marxism (15) and then by elaborating a more fundamental shift in which he drops a revolutionary standpoint in favor of one of long-term ameliorative struggle, deepens his political and cultural identification with ordinary African Americans, and tries to express his newly developed sense of African Americans' relation to US ideals, US history, and the lives of other oppressed people. Like the portrayal of the Brotherhood, these aspects of Invisible Man are closely related to historical context. Their most likely sources are, first, Ellison's friendships with Richard Wright and other dissident Marxists in the period when Ellison was moving away from the Communist Party and, secondly--and more fundamentally--the March On Washington and "double V" movements among African Americans during World War II.
The first shift, felt earlier in the novel, certainly reflects Ellison's close relationship with Wright. By 1942 Wright had silently dropped out of the Communist Party, while Ellison and Angelo Herndon, in the short-lived Negro Quarterly, were maintaining ties with it while taking a more critical view of the war than the CP would then countenance. In 1944 when Wright made public his break with the Communists, Ellison regarded Wright and presumably himself as favorable to communism but not to the Party or its leaders, whom he called "bankrupt" (Letters, 29 Aug. 1944; see also 5 Sept. 1944). Ellison's continuing closeness to Wright, the dissident leftist's hatred for the Communist Party, and the maturing radical's belief in freedom and popular upheaval are all on display in a letter of August 1945, written when he was starting Invisible Man. Calling the Communists dangerous because "they still speak in the name of the only possible future," Ellison goes on:
I would like very much to talk with you concerning independence of thought. I believe we should serve notice on them [the CP] that, godamit, they are responsible to the Negro people at large even if they do spit in the faces of their members and that they must either live up to their words or face a relentless fire of mature, informed criticism.... If they want to be lice, then by God let them be squashed like lice.
Ellison predicts, "The moment that I begin to speak and write like a man they'll use all their energy to jam me off the airways, because, like you, I'll be speaking on the wavelength of the human heart"--a reference to the closing paragraphs of Wright's "I Tried to Be a Communist" (Ellison, Letters, 18 Aug. 1945). (16)
Ellison may also have been influenced by contact with the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, whose biographer, Kent Worcester, states that in 1942-44 "Constance [Webb, later James's wife] and C. L. R. spent a great deal of time in the company of the ex-Communist author [Wright] and his wife, Ellen. The Wrights introduced Constance and her future spouse to ... sociologists Horace Cayton and St. Clair Drake, [future] novelists Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes, and others such as ... E. Franklin Frazier" (75). James, a figure of striking intellect and personal presence who was then an unorthodox Trotskyist, had already worked out some conceptions that might have appealed to Ellison, notably that the African American movement was not to be taken in tow by the trade union or socialist movements but was itself an independent factor in the struggle for socialism. He was beginning to develop the ideas for which he was later best known, notably that expressed in a 1948 document: "Organization as we have known it is at an end.... The task today is to call for, to teach, to illustrate, to develop spontaneity--the free creative activity of the proletariat. The proletariat will find its own method of proletarian organization" (117). Wright was familiar with James's ideas on the African American movement and tried to involve him and perhaps Ellison in abortive editorial projects in 1944-45; Ellison had some acquaintance with James through Wright for several years. (17)
In Invisible Man, the close of chapter 23, all of chapter 24, and the first part of chapter 25 reflect a transient viewpoint with some similarity to Wright's and James's. In these sections Ellison's protagonist moves rapidly from an aim of undermining the Brotherhood from within or without to one of seeking independent revolutionary possibilities in spontaneously-organized mass action--the gamut of tactics adopted by leftist critics of the Communist Party. On the night of Tod Clifton's funeral the protagonist returns to his apartment resolved to oppose the Brotherhood but seeing "no possibility of organizing a splinter movement.... There were no allies with whom we could join as equals ... we had no money, no intelligence apparatus ... and no communications with our own people except through unsympathetic newspapers, a few Pullman porters[,]" and the like (510-11). The protagonist appears to be broaching but dismissing the idea of organizing a left oppositional group to the Brotherhood and building support among African American workers. Instead, following his unsuccessful attempt to glean inside information from Sybil (chap. 24), he finds himself in Harlem, falling in with a group of men who have joined the riot-rebellion that is in progress (chap. 25). (18) It is the third night since Clifton's funeral. As this group and others exchange shots with the police, loot white-owned stores, and methodically evacuate and set fire to a tenement, the protagonist is more and more impressed with their determination and improvised organization. The group's leader seems "a type of man nothing in my life had taught me to see," and as the men work they are "like moles deep in the earth" (547-48)--a reference to Marx's paraphrase of Shakespeare, "Well grubbed, old mole," to describe the undermining of the old society. (19) As the flames shoot up, the protagonist is "seized with a fierce sense of exaltation. They've done it, I thought. They organized it and carried it through alone; the decision their own and their own action. Capable of their own action ..." (548). The phrases echo the Jamesian idea that spontaneously organized mass action can bypass vanguardist organizations and strike an effective blow against oppression. (20)
The mood does not last. In compressed impressionistic moments, Ellison shows the protagonist reacting against one rioter's willingness to be martyred in a hopeless race struggle, against the impression (mistaken, in fact) that the looters have lynched a white woman, and against the realization that Ras and his organization are deeply involved in the uprising; an intuitive flash suggests that the Brotherhood itself has "planned" the outbreak by its very inaction, deliberately "surrender[ing] our influence to Ras" (552-53, 556). These scenes freely vary the roles of Communist groups in the Harlem outbreaks of 1935 and 1943; in the former, Communists and members of "front" groups tried to heighten the protests, while in the latter, in line with their general wartime support for social conciliation, they tried to damp the outbreak down. (21) Ellison's version, in which the Brotherhood's inaction clears the way for Ras, combines aspects of both situations and may additionally reflect the awareness of global politics that characterized Wright's and Ellison's milieu. Internationally, incidents such as the Warsaw partisan uprising of August and September 1944, which Soviet forces first appealed for and then allowed to the Nazis to crush, probably as a tactic to ease Polish Communists' way to power, bear some resemblance to the rebellion scenes in Invisible Man: both involve provoking an outbreak in unfavorable circumstances and sacrificing indigenous needs to an international strategy. Thus, rather than simply a response to US issues, the protagonist's charge against the Brotherhood may be read as dramatizing the role that anti-Stalinists of the time felt the Communist parties played in general. (22)
The realization that leadership groups may have set up the self-organized but losing street actions poses a second, larger problem. Earlier, musing on what he feels was his misguided role in the Brotherhood, the protagonist has had
an idea that shook me profoundly: You don't have to worry about the people. If they tolerate Rinehart, then they will forget it and even with them you are invisible. It lasted only the fraction of a second and I rejected it immediately; still it had flashed across the dark sky of my mind. It was just like that. It didn't matter because they didn't realize just what had happened, neither my hope nor my failure. My ambition and integrity were nothing to them and my failure was as meaningless as Clifton's. It had been that way all along. (506-07)
In this complex reflection the protagonist realizes that he can trust people to keep struggling on, like Steinbeck's turtle, but that they are not--as he has assumed--carefully judging him, the Brotherhood, or Ras. The underlying assumption that an actively rebellious people has been waiting for leadership, or working to organize itself, has also been wrong. The people are trying to get by, waiting for what the future will bring. The passage admits the deep irrelevance of politics, at least in the Brotherhood's sense, to most people's lives, the fact that most life simply proceeds on a different level. In addition, an unspoken logic ties these reflections to the rebellion scenes--if open and tolerant, people are also open to being fooled. It follows that they may act on race hatred and/or be goaded into useless sacrifice, and it follows that the Jamesian idea of spontaneous organization is not tenable. Hence, the specifically political problem of Invisible Man becomes what Ellison later said it was, one of finding or creating effective leadership ("On Initiation Rites and Power," West Point lecture, 1969; GT 44, CE 524-25). In sum, the first part of chapter 25 shows a failed effort to find and act on a mass-based, "spontaneist," and still revolutionary strategy for African American liberation; its failure leaves the protagonist, as Ellison's surrogate, groping for a new guiding viewpoint.
This search leads logically to an attempt to formulate the relation of African Americans to US institutions, for two distinct but related reasons. The first has to do with guiding principles of social action. If the protagonist can no longer be satisfied with either vanguardist or "spontaneist" Marxism, and has never seriously considered Ras's nationalism, an obvious alternative is some orientation toward long-term reform struggle, and one available framework for such struggle is US democratic ideology. The second consideration has to do with social agency. If the protagonist no longer believes in his own leadership status, in vanguard party organization, or in spontaneous self-organization of the Black proletarians, yet still opposes such middle-class African American leaders as Bledsoe, then he must be thrown back on conceptions of struggle that have traditional currency among African American common people. For both needs--a way of struggling on the basis of US ideals and of drawing on conceptions understood within the community--the contemporary contexts in the 1940s were the March On Washington movement and the "double V" conception during World War II.
The March movement, as already seen, waged an independent mass civil rights campaign in wartime; "double V" expressed the same idea. This slogan, usually said to have been introduced by the Pittsburgh Courier in February 1942, referred to victory against fascism at home as well as abroad. Both crystallized an attitude popular among more militant African Americans--neither uncritically embracing the war effort, as urged by the Roosevelt administration and also the Communist Party, nor rejecting the war on pacifist or pro-Japanese grounds (each of which had some support) but supporting parallel struggles for war victory and for full, unconditional, and immediate civil rights in the US. These conceptions were a step away from the previous decade's alliance of African American leaders with Roosevelt and toward the start of an independent African American movement. (However, even more radical political trends were already present, notably the beginnings of nonviolent direct action organized by the pacifists of the Committee [later Congress] of Racial Equality in 1942.)
Incidental testimony to the power of the "double V" conception is found in the novel And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962), by John Oliver Killens, an author whose aesthetics and politics differed sharply from Ellison s. (23) Set during World War II, Killens's tale chronicles the growth of Solly Saunders, an educated, upwardly mobile African American draftee, from conventional patriotism and racial assimilationism to hatred of war and racial-class fraternity with his African American army brothers. Despite this antimilitarist theme, Saunders's transformation comes through a clash between his initial point of view identifying Negro interests totally with war victory (similar to the CP's, though Killens does not say so) and the "double V" conception espoused by local NAACP activists. The "double V" functions as a recurring refrain in the first half of Killens's novel (53, 76-81, 92, 93, 94, 100, 102, 105, 139, 140, 154, 167, 203) and returns at its climax, a violently suppressed uprising by African American GI's in Australia against the army's segregationist regime (loosely based on historical fact). Standing over his comrades' bodies as one of his unit's few survivors, Saunders vows, "I promise you, my buddies, to never forget the way I feel this Monday morning. I will always hate war with all my heart and all my soul.... And I promise you a Double-V." And he seems to hear one of his fallen soulmates reply: "Where were you, Sergeant Solly? You should a been with us, cut buddy. We got our Double-V already" (482). Killens returns "double V" to its roots in 1940's African American radicalism, and reminds us that the phrase could be taken, not as an uneasy compromise with Roosevelt's war policy, but as a means of struggle and an alternative to conventional patriotism.
Ellison too was strongly influenced by the "double V" idea. The Negro Quarterly, published in 1942-43 with Angelo Herndon as editor and Ellison as managing editor, took a more critical attitude toward the war (and a more nationalist view of African Americans' position in the US) than did the CP. The Negro Quarterly's blunt declaration, "Negroes do not support the war wholeheartedly, and all statements that Negroes 'are overwhelmingly' in back of the efforts of the Allies, are not only not true, but are misleading" (Summer 1942: ii), tacitly targeted the CP, which claimed just that. (24) The editors argued for critical participation" in the war, holding that an Axis victory would crush the world's colored peoples but that "to fail to protest the wrongs done to Negroes as we fight this war would be to participate in a crime, not only against Negroes, but against all true anti-Fascists;" they vowed, "American Negroes shall continue to seek democratic freedom regardless of where it lies, and the 'common man' of the world will be with them" (Winter/ Spring 1943: 298-99; Fall 1942: 240). (25) And concluding a long survey on "Frederick Douglass: Negro Leadership and War"--an article with its own influence on Douglass's appearances in Invisible Man--Herndon declared, "Still do you say 'Now is not the time to insist upon our freedom. It might hurt the war effort?' To insist upon freedom where it does not exist is proper at all times" (323).
Invisible Man's embodiment of the "double V" conception is the protagonist's reinterpretation of his grandfather's deathbed words (574-75). Unlike Killens's, Ellison's version of the "double V" does not use the slogan explicitly or refer to World War II, but universalizes the slogan's essential content and presents it as part of an already existing African American tradition of struggle. The protagonist, we recall, has been continually troubled by his grandfather's words--themselves based on the Black cook Fleece's sermon to the sharks in Moby-Dick (322)--urging his children to "Live with your head in the lion's mouth, ... overcome 'em with yeses, ... agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swaller you till they vomit or bust wide open!" (16) The protagonist has understood these words roughly as advocating a crafty submissiveness while advancing one's own or the race's interests, something like "To get along, go along." He has never been sensitive to the defiant implications of the grandfather's opening statement, "our life is a war," his description of himself as "a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country" (that is, the white man's country), his implication that he has continued to struggle since the end of Reconstruction, his earlier efforts to tell the protagonist of the example of Frederick Douglass, or his losing struggle for the right to vote (16, 378-79, 315). Of course, the grandfather's words are ambiguous, and the protagonist's confusion embodies an era in which at least the Washingtonian wing of African American opinion tried to advance the race within a strategic subordination to the white ruling power. Though the basis for a different understanding is all around him--in the Harlem streets, in the zoot-suit youths--he takes the advice as counsel of, at best, disloyal collaboration until the failed rebellion brings him up short: "My grandfather had been wrong about yessing them to death or else things had changed too much since his day" (564). Rather than exploring either of these possibilities, however, the protagonist reconsiders the speech in an intuitive exfoliation of interpretation that provides three meanings for it, each more socially radical than the last. In these pages Ellison, with stunning ambition and intellectual self-confidence, offers nothing less than an overall orientation for African Americans in regard to US and world society, one that his protagonist, fulfilling his grandfather's behest, will if possible "learn ... to the younguns" (16).
With the partial exception of Joseph F. Trimmer's "The Grandfather's Riddle in Invisible Man" a generation ago, most interpretations have taken no note of the divisions in the protagonist's comments, have focused on their first section, and have bled some of the radicalism even out of this part. Thus, Steele's often brilliant discussion of Ellison's individualist and communitarian commitments quotes part of the protagonist's words (without comment) in the context of the need to give "new life" to "democratic ideals," which in turn, quoting Chantal Mouffe's Dimensions of Radical Democracy, she defines as "common recognition of a set of ethico-political values ... allowing for a plurality of specific allegiances and for the respect of individual liberty" (Theorizing 191, 200-01). In effect this reading limits Ellison to advocacy of US pluralism, as his left-wing critics have charged. Similarly, John F. Callahan believes that the "principle" that the protagonist affirms is "different from his grandfather's strategy.... Invisible Man affirms America as a metaphor for possibilities that are democratic, provided individuals take personal responsibility for the country's principles" ("Chaos" 140-41). Partly adequate to explain the first part of the protagonist's reinterpretation, such views do not account well for the others, and they miss or discount the point that he sees his comments as an interpretation, not a repudiation, of his grandfather's meaning. Further, most interpreters believe the grandfather himself, as the protagonist long assumed, counseled "pretense, concealment, masking," and thus that the protagonist's reflections must be a "contrived reinterpretation" (Callahan, "Chaos" 139; Blake 129). (26) Trimmer, finally, notes that each section of the protagonist's speech begins with a redefinition of his question; that the sections focus on the relations of African Americans to the United States, the importance of African American experience, and the importance of general human experience; and that "each new question does not cancel the validity of the question that precedes it. The result is therefore cumulative, and we suspect that the grandfather would say yes to all three possibilities." But Trimmer sees the solutions as "metaphysical" or "existential," and concludes that "the solution to the novel's riddle is the novel," a version of the view that the novel validates art over politics (49-50).
In answer to the riddle of what his grandfather meant by "overcome 'em with yeses," then, the protagonist has his first partial insight:
Could he have meant--hell, he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence. Did he mean say "yes" because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name? Did he mean to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds? (574)
"[A]ffirm the principle," though surely referring to the US idea of democracy, means nothing so bloodless as "common recognition of a set of ethico-political values" (Steele). Ellison's terms are insistently historical ("chaos and darkness of the feudal past") and start from the premise that "numbers" and "vicious power" have made the principle meaningless "even in [the rulers'] own corrupt minds." The protagonist is asking if it is possible to "overcome" this structure of entrenched power by affirming its face principles, and he understands for the first time that by "live with your head in the lion's mouth," his grandfather did not mean practicing a tricky accommodation but struggling for democratic principles so far as possible without self-destruction, as he had done in life. In sum, the protagonist's longstanding view of his grandfather's words has been wrong in substance; "overcome 'em with yeses" meant using "the principle" to overcome the oppressors.
The protagonist's second answer begins with a partial revision of the first:
Or did he mean that we had to take the responsibility for all of it, for the men as well as the principle, because we were the heirs who must use the principle because no other fitted our needs? Not for the power or for vindication, but because we, with the given circumstance of our origin, could only thus find transcendence? Was it that we of all, we, most of all, had to affirm the principle, the plan in whose name we had been brutalized and sacrificed--not because we would always be weak nor because we were afraid or opportunistic, but because we were older than they, in the sense of what it took to live in the world with others and because they had exhausted in us, some--not much, but some--of the human greed and smallness, yes, and the fear and superstition that had kept them running. (Oh, yes, they're running too, running all over themselves.) (574)
These comments go beyond the first response's idea of "personal responsibility for the country's principles." The protagonist now withdraws his proviso that we affirm the principle "and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence," and insists on taking responsibility for "the men as well," in other words, for the history of slavery and race and class oppression as well as of struggle for freedom. Roughly, the idea is that only by accepting the past, US history in all its filth and violence, as it was, can one move ahead in practice--"use" the principle, not merely "affirm" it.
The protagonist offers, moreover, not one but three reasons why African Americans must "use the principle." One is that "no other fitted our needs"; that is, a political ideal of equality, individual and communal, suits African Americans' interests better than conceptions of class equality or race identification, the competing claims on the protagonist's allegiances. The protagonist gives no reason why this must be so, but this acceptance of a destiny and history in and of the United States comes soon after his realization of his and his tormentors' "American identity" (559). African Americans must also "use the principle" because "we ... could only thus find transcendence"--another undefined term, probably including transcendence of narrowly racial identity but also full human development, as well as getting African Americans and the United States as a whole beyond the US game of race. Lastly, in claiming that African Americans must affirm the principle because "we were older than they" and have marginally less "greed," "smallness," "fear," and "superstition," the protagonist lays claim to the African American traditions of nondiscrimination in the face of discrimination and fidelity to democracy despite its denial--traditions of course violated some of the time but less, the protagonist would say, than by others, and already demonstrated, though he could not then see it, by Halley, the barkeep at the Golden Day: "[W]e don't jimcrow nobody" (76). The protagonist is making a claim he has articulated before, that he or his group are "more human" (346), but now he bases this claim on the quality of African American experience and history. It is a claim of cultural-historical--rather than genetic--racial superiority, or the racial possession of a more finely honed, more democratic human culture, and in this respect it anticipates Juneteenth and shows readers how oversimplified is any reduction of Ellison's views in Invisible Man to mere integrationism.
In his third reconsideration of the grandfather's intent the protagonist extends to others the line of reasoning so far applied only to African Americans:
Or was it, did he mean that we should affirm the principle because we, through no fault of our own, were linked to all the others in the loud, clamoring semi-visible world, that world seen only as a fertile field for exploitation by Jack and his kind, and with condescension by Norton and his, who were tired of being the mere pawns in the futile game of "making history?" Had he seen that for these too we had to say "yes" to the principle, lest they turn upon us to destroy both it and us? (574-75)
Here "the principle" becomes nonracial and internationalist, focusing on the ties that African Americans--to whom "we" implicitly refers throughout the meditation--have or should have with "others," inferably both non-African Americans and non-Americans. Their "loud, clamoring semi-visible world" reminds us of the protagonist's sense, after Clifton's murder, of a distinct life and culture that has "been there all along ... outside the groove of history" (443) in the subway and Harlem's streets. There, besides the US workers, native-born and immigrant, "minority" and Anglo, toward whom organizations such as the Brotherhood oriented, one would find street-corner men, prostitutes, higglers, and others, of all nationalities, whom these organizations disregard as lumpen proletarians and whom the protagonist now sees with new eyes (471-72). Beyond Harlem, the "semi-visible world" would include the peoples of colonial and imperialized countries--China, India, and much of Africa--who had emerged explosively in the world arena during and after World War II under both Communist and noncommunist leadership. These, the protagonist believes, have been sought as a power base by political manipulators ("Jack and his kind") and dismissed by philanthropic liberals ("Norton and his"). Jack's "kind," however, in the dream-closing chapter 25, included old Emerson and Norton, the capitalists, as well as Ras. This conception that the pawn-movers include capitalist-imperialist forces as well as Communists marks off Ellison's ideas from the common 1950's liberal idea that the US must become more democratic in order to compete more vigorously against Communism. Rather, Ellison suggests an international commonality of interest that can use the democratic "principle" as a counterweight against Communist and non-Communist manipulators. Ellison further suggests that in this way African Americans may give leadership to the world's emergent peoples. The closing warning of destruction if this is not done seemingly refers to the previous decades' experience of fascist as well as Communist mass organization.
This last section of the meditation recalls the internationalism and awareness of struggles against colonialism and what would now be called neocolonialism that characterized the circles that Ellison and Wright frequented. The Negro Quarterly's four issues carried articles by writers from Brazil, Cuba, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Haiti, and India. The editors spoke of Negroes' "unity of interest with India, China, Africa, the Philippines, Latin America, and all other darker peoples of the world" (Summer 1942: v). Wright's journal for 1945 proudly and somewhat critically records a meeting with V. L. Pandit, Nehru's sister and co-worker (4 Jan. 1945); James, whose relevance to Invisible Man has already been suggested, was a Trinidadian who had been politically active in London and then the US. In short, the World War II African American radical political milieu was internationalist to the core, and the idea of making common cause with colonial and semicolonial peoples was widespread among its members. Apparently more sustained and central in earlier drafts, this internationalism remains visible in Invisible Man's published text, in the furnishings of Emerson's office, in the West Indians' militancy during the eviction and rebellion, in Ras's beliefs, and in the crowd at Clifton's funeral, of whom "some had been born in other lands" (453; see 159, 180-81, 274-81, 541, 549). (27) Evoking the liminal world below the political radar and the world beyond US borders, the third portion of the protagonist's reflections embodies this multiracial and multinational viewpoint.
This three-part political meditation finds a metaphoric, quasi-mythic language for the "double V" conception of struggling for African American rights on the basis of US political beliefs and as an independent social movement, while taking this idea out of its wartime context and universalizing it as a response to oppression. In so doing, Ellison achieves a philosophic political coherence and social prescience rare among novelists. In its very lack of specific reference to the 1940s and 50s, the protagonist's rumination connects its view of "the principle"--as one dishonored in practice but powerfully valid as a fulcrum for struggle--to long-standing debates on African Americans' relation to the US, particularly to Frederick Douglass's claim, following his break with Garrison, that "interpreted as it ought to be, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT" ("What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" 385). In social reality, some version of this conception of affirming and using what Ellison calls "the principle" because "no other fitted our needs" has probably been the dominant African American attitude to the US political system for the last century and a half. Moreover, the protagonist's reflections point to the actual form--an effort to realize US democratic promises in spite of the practice of the US--that, for better or worse, adequately or not, the majority of those struggling for racial justice in the half-century after the novel's publication would adopt; regardless, too, of criticism of Ellison in the decades of greatest struggle.
Further, by presenting the protagonist's reflection as a response to his grandfather's words, Ellison ties his conception to ongoing plebeian African American tradition, which Jack had indirectly scorned in his dismissal of the "old ones" as history's "dead limbs that must be pruned away" (291). Ellison is claiming that his protagonist--and others with similar ideas back to Douglass, a self-educated ex-slave--are only discovering what, contrary to ideas of vanguard leadership, the African American common people have known all along. Finally, Ellison is asserting, as he later would in essays, that African Americans, because of their history and relation to the US's claimed democratic principles, are uniquely fitted to lead a struggle for democracy and equality for all, in the US and elsewhere. In all of these ways, Invisible Man's later chapters and epilogue distill and crystallize, into both political concept and myth, specific concepts of African American radicalism in the 1940s.
In addition to allowing more historically specific readings of the Brotherhood chapters and the grandfather's speech, Invisible Man's historical roots help to explain some ambiguities of the novel's conclusion--between art and politics as modes of confronting the world, between goals of personal and social freedom, and between competing political and social blueprints for change. As those who follow critical discussions know, Invisible Man is often read as ending in confusion and exhaustion: "[T]he next step I couldn't make, so I've remained in the hole" (575). What is sometimes wished away or seen as a formally unsatisfactory close can instead be viewed as an effort within a particular historical situation to see divergent potentialities for social activity and at least a possible future
way forward. Both these aspects are intimately tied to the protagonist's just-enunciated conception of African Americans' relation to the United States and its political system, and in this sense the epilogue has a high degree of intellectual coherence.
Ellison's metaphor for these potentialities and the sociopolitical situation is, appropriately, the "hole" itself, the protagonist's basement dwelling. This refuge has most often been interpreted as signifying unresolved tensions in Invisible Man's plot, Ellison's aesthetics and politics, or both (e.g., Blake 129; Schaub; Thomas 88-89). Yet the "hole" cries out to be seen as a symbolic social space: it is located in a black-white "border area," in a "building rented strictly to whites," and in a "section of the basement shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century" (5-6). In short, it is a spatial metaphor for the social position of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, and the protagonist's presence there signifies African Americans' status after the events from 1895 to the 1940s to which the narrative has given imaginative form. Hence also his sojourn, the possibilities open to him while he remains, and his anticipated emergence from hibernation (6, 13) and from the "hole" itself (581) represent events in the lives of African Americans as a group during a particular historical period.
More specifically, this underground refuge is a social and historical space for recovery and recuperation. Though not an arena for active social struggle, neither is it one of solipsistic retreat; it is a presumptively temporary locale for preparing new actions. In particular, it is where the protagonist receives, from the slave woman of his reefer vision, his understanding of "ambivalence," love and hate, in his relations to the United States (12), and it is where he fashions strategic concepts that he believes may guide the race in the future (574-75). If we take seriously the cellar's historical dimension, the implication is that this retreat is necessary for the protagonist and his group to think through their positions in the US and prepare their next step.
The ambiguous possibilities for social activity present in the epilogue, none fully satisfactory or fully preferred over the others, thus represent real historical potentialities. The first, and in its own way most "American," is individual autonomy within a society of limited freedom. When the protagonist claims that the world contains "infinite possibilities" (576), he is noting its unpredictability, its potential for Rinehartian "chaos," but also positive opportunities, as Lawrence Jackson has put it, for "navigating" the "morass of white racism" while attaining greater "personal freedom" ("Sharpies" 91, 84). Within this perspective the novel's life stance is one of endurance through powerlessness; its cultural target is that Eisenhower-era bugbear, conformity; and its positive aspiration, transcending the 1950's framework, is "diversity," what today is called multiculturalism (577). To the insistence of some critics that these ideas constitute a retreat, that the novel defines only an "attitude of ironic withdrawal from the white world" that is, "if not affirmation, at least acquiescence" (Blake 129), one must reply that personal autonomy and the possibility of enduring within a protective racial culture--especially in a social world as rigid as that of the 1950s--are not inconsiderable goals.
To this perspective of limited autonomy corresponds the dedication to truth in art that some commentators have seen as Invisible Man's summative meaning. Those who believe the novel affirms artistic over political speech (John S. Wright), enacts self-liberation through narration (Valerie Smith), or projects public liberation through the medium of the artwork (Callahan) all employ some variant of this idea. This dedication to art is indeed evidenced both by the protagonist's prospective comment on the "urge to make music of invisibility"--the artistic task he will take on in his book--and his retrospective affirmation that he has "tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties," that is, to give artistic form to our lives (580-81).
However, Invisible Man presents both personal autonomy in a restrictive world and the vocation of artistic witness as insufficient in themselves, parts of a complex mix of personal and social action that is needed for true freedom even if not readily available. Ellison himself has noted the "irony" in the protagonist's affirming limitless possibility "while living in a hole in the ground" ("The World and the Jug," 1964; SA 109; CE 157). The protagonist, reveling in his ability to do so, still reflects that "the freedom to eat yams on the street" (to affirm cultural identity) "was far less than I had expected upon coming to the city," while in the epilogue he comments that he wants "not the freedom of a Rinehart nor the power of a Jack, nor simply the freedom not to run"--that is, not the individual autonomy that has sometimes been seen as the novel's guiding conception (267, 575). Further, neither the framing prologue and epilogue nor the narrative chapters resolve the tension between artistic and political goals, but maintain and even insist on it. In the opening pages, as the protagonist speaks of making "music of invisibility," he adds, "But I am an orator, a rabble rouser--Am? I was, and perhaps shall be again" (14). This echo of the Lesser Doxology is no accident; the urgency of public action as well as artistic endeavor is given in the shape of US identity and history that the protagonist has already discovered. In the epilogue, as well, the protagonist affirms that having written his tale, he "must come out," not simply to speak but to act, for there is no meaningful life "[w]ithout the possibility of action" (581, 579). Most urgently, the protagonist's dream of the iron man of totalitarianism ends with the cry, "No, no, we must stop him!" (570). As in Blake's "Till we have built Jerusalem," the choice of pronoun is the most significant aspect of this passage. Even if, as Callahan astutely notes, these words are uttered in the dark with no audience (African-American 180), they cannot simply state the importance of artistic endeavor, but testify to the necessity of collective action.
However, if Invisible Man has already described an expansive perspective of communal, and possibly multicommunal, struggle for democratic amelioration, this perspective has its own difficulties and contradictions. These too are part of Invisible Man's reference to the specific situation of African American radicalism in the 1940s.
In the political plot, both the protagonist's quasi-Jamesian spontaneist conceptions and his emerging democratic ideology lack present opportunities for organization and action. In this respect the protagonist's position in his "hole" imaginatively recreates the contemporary paralysis in US politics. Beyond these issues of goals and strategy, Invisible Man's epilogue also shows a tension between the conception of "affirm[ing] the principle" and the more utopian possibility that politics could be "an expression of love" (452). The two are not unrelated, but neither are they the same. The zoot suited youths' "heavy heel plates clicking remote, cryptic messages" (443), for example, communicate a self-defined group style rather than defined political attitudes--"an unstated, even noumenal set of values that exist beneath the surface of black American culture," which "manifest themselves in a characteristic manner, or an expressive style" (Neal 113). (28) These aspects of identity, as well as the youths' position "out of time" and their possible "ancient dreams" (441), go beyond the Brotherhood's and other reductively political belief systems. But nothing about the youths is merely individual, or transhistorical in the sense of existing without reference to historical time: theirs is a group identity, and they think "transitional" thoughts (441). Thus, their appearance in the novel reaffirms but also complicates the need for social action. Arguably, a society true to and based on the zoot-suiters' culture, style, and "ancient dreams," and on Clifton's humanity--each of these multiplied and generalized for "all the others in the loud, clamoring semi-visible world" (574)--would require a deep transformation of social purpose and structure, not simply achievement of democratic rights. The protagonist has already half-expressed this conception in his arena speech as a desire to create "the country of your vision" (346). The transformative quality of these goals is not easily encompassed by the epilogue's overt political strategy of struggling to realize the democratic possibilities inherent in the US Constitution. Hence, a substratum in the protagonist's outlook remains influenced by utopian hopes.
These alternatives--limited autonomy in a restrictive society, democratic ameliorative struggle for "the principle," utopian struggle for a world of "Brotherhood"--were all inherent in the position of African Americans at the end of the period of radicalization in the 1930s and 1940s, on the eve of the renewed struggle of the later 1950s. These were and are, in fact, alternative possibilities for social action, and Invisible Man does not so much choose among them as record their existence. But while expressing these contradictory possibilities and the social stasis that partly conditions them, the novel also forecasts--necessarily provisionally and prospectively--the end of stasis. The Prologue's apothegm, "A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action" (13), and the Epilogue's promise, "I must emerge.... I'm coming out" (581), prophesy--from darkness--what would appear in US social life only a few years later. Indeed, the change was already in the air. On 1 April 1952, just days before Invisible Man's 12 April publication, in one of four cases later consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education, Judge Collins J. Seitz ordered the integration of two Delaware schools, the first time any court had done so (Martin).
In more specific ways as well, Invisible Man anticipates the civil rights movement, whose roots after all lie in the 1930s and 40s. In overall senses, the book's combined emphases on some form of integration combined with diversity, on the instrumentality of declared US principles, and on the possibilities of love, even in the epilogue's deeply ambiguous formulation--"I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain ... And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love" (579-80)--look forward to those of the movement or, more exactly, pick up on moods in the society of the 1940s that will later inform the movement. There are, of course, divergences as well. Though the protagonist decides the Harlem uprising is futile, he does not embrace nonviolence either as philosophic principle or as strategic necessity. And while he speculates about a "politics of love" (452), nothing in Invisible Man suggests the importance of Christianity and the organized church in the later struggle it anticipates. It will remain for Ellison in the later fable of which we know part as Juneteenth to portray in Reverend Hickman a lifelong social commitment based on Christian principle and hope. Still, to a considerable degree, Invisible Man anticipates both the reemergence of African American struggle and some of the specific conceptions of that struggle.
Placed in the context of 1940's African American radicalism, Invisible Man loses none of its universal application. Indeed, arbitrary oppression, the emergence of "marginal" populations into historical action, the complex interplay of multiply defined identities, and the capacity, behind whatever mask of "invisibility," to dream the "ancient dreams" are among the most universal human experiences. But its contemporary contexts reveal Invisible Man as historically more specific, and incidentally more socially radical and prophetic, than do literary and cultural contexts alone. It is more historically specific because in addition to portraying an individual or even communal history in general terms, it also provides a mythic representation of African Americans' evolving sociopolitical commitments and ideology in two crucial periods of recent history. It is socially more radical because the concept of "affirm[ing] the principle," rather than appearing as an awkward bow to US ideals within an epilogue focused on personal and artistic autonomy, emerges as the novel's central strategic outlook, a logical culmination of the protagonist's and African Americans' experience of social struggle. This central conception, moreover, itself partly bridges the false divide between the novel's "political" and "universal" applications, because Ellison would view "affirm[ing] the principle," in its closeness to US reality and African American plebeian tradition, as the best available means by which to realize what Wright called "the inexpressibly human" ("I Tried" 2:56; Black Boy 453). Finally, Invisible Man is more socially prophetic because in addition to forecasting its hero's possible emergence as mature citizen and artist, it envisions African Americans' return to the center of national politics, and conceptualizes new methods of social action. Viewed against the backdrop of the history that shaped it, Ellison's novel gains the richness and concreteness of cultural and national history.
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--. Theorizing Textual Subjects: Agency and Oppression. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Stepto, Robert B. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 2nd ed. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Thomas, Valorie D. " '1+1=3' and Other Dilemmas: Reading Vertigo in Invisible Man, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and Song of Solomon." African American Review 37 (2003): 81-94.
Trimmer, Joseph F. "The Grandfather's Riddle in Invisible Man." Black American Literature Forum 12 (1978): 46-50.
Watts, Jerry Gafio. Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.
Webb, Constance. Richard Wright: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1968.
Wolfe, Jesse. "Ambivalent Man: Ellison's Rejection of Communism." African American Review 34 (2000): 621-37.
Worcester, Kent. C. L. R. James: A Political Biography. Albany: SUNY P, 1996.
Wright, John S. "The Conscious Hero and the Rites of Man: Ellison's War." O'Meally, New 157-86.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.
--. "I Tried to Be a Communist." Atlantic Monthly 174 (1944):  Aug.: 61-70; : Sept.: 48-56.
--. Journals, 1945, 1947. Richard Wright Papers. JWJ MSS 3, Box 117, Folders 1860-61. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
(1.) See Callahan (African-American, "Chaos"), Smith, Stepto, and John S. Wright for notable identity-based readings; Baker, Kent, O'Meally, Porter, and (from a negative stance) Blake for cultural contextualizations; Frank and especially Nadel for genre discussions; Dickstein 200-10 for a recent partial historicization.
(2.) In addition to Schaub, see Gibson; Howe, "Black Boys" and "Rejoinder." Wolfe's valuable (if sometimes inaccurate) discussion uses Schaub's historical schema to reach distinct, pro-Ellison conclusions. (Schaub's own "Ellison's Masks and the Novel of Reality," published a few years before American Fiction in the Cold War, is considerably more sympathetic to the novel.) Among hostile overviews, McNeely criticizes Americanist ideology in the novel, essentially arguing that as US ideology is irremediably racist, so is Ellison's commitment to "the principle" (194-96). Watts's attack on Ellison's politics focuses on his nonfiction.
(3.) Steele's Theorizing Textual Subjects 176-201 closely follows her "Metatheory" 473, 477-96, but the discussions are framed differently. See also her Critical Confrontations (chap. 2) and "Democratic Interpretation."
(4.) For example, she spends nearly three pages (536-38) trying to determine whether Emma's remark, "[D]on't you think he should be a little blacker?" (303) might actually have occurred, rather than asking if it captures a felt sense by some African American Communists about the party's hypocrisy.
(5.) See Morel's edited collection (2004) for excellent general essays by Seaton and Engeman and for Brophy's discussion of parallels between Invisible Man (hereafter IM) and the legal background to the 1954 Brown decision.
(6.) Jackson reuses portions of his discussion in his Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (2002), but for his full argument one should consult the original.
(7.) Time cues provide an ostensible chronology for the Harlem sections covering about 16 months, probably in 1933-34. With a fictitious present "about eighty-five years" after the end of slavery and an action commencing at his high school graduation "some twenty years" earlier (15), IM brings its protagonist to New York in the spring of his junior year in college, perhaps 1933. We can trace a detailed chronology through chapters 8 (about two months); 9-10 (two days); 11 (indefinite); 12 (his "first northern winter"); 13-16 (two days); 17 (four months later, commencing 1 Apr.); 18-20 (which bring us to "summer"); 21-23 (a week); and 24-25 (two days), climaxing on a "hot dry August night" in the protagonist's second year in New York (169, 260, 356, 358, 423, 516). It should now be about 1934, but references to Joe Louis, government production, and riots in Harlem (1935 and 1943) stretch the implicit time scheme into the next decade.
(8.) However, note Bison's repeated denials that the Brotherhood represents any specific party, such as his assertion in his 1969 West Point speech that it exemplifies "patterns which still exist and of which our two major political parties are guilty" (GT 59, CE 538). For some other discussions of Communist parallels, see Fischer, Mills, and Reed. Busby typifies several general writers in noting vaguely that the Brotherhood "suggests the Communist Party and other left-wing groups" (54).
(9.) On the CP and African Americans in the 1930s, see Naison and Record; in relation to writers, see Maxwell, who focuses on 1920-1937 and covers Wright's and Ellison's breaks with the CP very briefly (200-01). The "third period" policy, based on the view that capitalism had entered its third phase since World War I, one of increasing revolutionary crisis, was mandatory for Communist parties from 1928 to 1934-35.
(10.) Wright's account of his CP experiences was originally published as "I Tried to Be a Communist" in two issues of the Atlantic Monthly in 1944, which I quote because Ellison read and discussed it on publication (Ellison, Letters, 29 Aug. and 5 Sept. 1944). The longer text from which "I Tried" was excerpted includes a lengthy passage following the first quoted sentence whose phrasing also anticipates Ellison's: "I felt that without a common bond uniting men ... there could be no living worthy of being called human" (Black Boy 374; my emphasis). Other parallels include descriptions of and reflections on party discipline and characterizations of the organization and its members as "blind" (IM 398-408, 462-78, 500-510; "I Tried" 2:53-56). Wright's articles, condensed from ultimately deleted sections of his 1945 autobiography, were reprinted in the 1949 anthology The God That Failed; the whole deleted section was published as American Hunger in 1977 and reincorporated into the now-standard autobiography text, Black Boy (American Hunger) from 1991 on; for the sections used here, see 434-42, 450-53, and quotations on 374, 438, 450. Ellison may also have seen the deleted chapters in ms. or when Constance Webb privately circulated them in 1946. For the textual history see Hobson. Wright did not actually break with the party in the manner described in his works; he resigned or dropped out in Chicago but rejoined in New York in 1937 and remained a member there until 1942, through the first several years of his friendship with Ellison.
(11.) For instance, in chap. 17, Ras is allowed a powerful critique of African Americans who work in integrated organizations, without either Tod or the protagonist offering a real answer (370-77).
(12.) See Daily Worker, various issues of 1942; for an alternative wording, read "Fascist Enslavement." I have not attempted to trace use of the slogan throughout the war years.
(13.) See Daily Worker 10 June 1941: 6 (the paper's first specific reference to the march movement); 27 June 1941: 6; 16 June 1942: 4; 18 June 1942: 4, 6. For some typical coverage of race issues at this time, see "A Real Slap at Jim-Crow," 13 June 1942: 6 (on election of two Negroes to a state CIO executive); "Negro, White Units Join AEF," 14 June 1942: 1; "'Our Chance to Serve,' Say Negro Nurses," 14 June 1942: 6; Davis, "Negro People." The CP was for civil rights during the whole period, but its attitude toward militant civil rights demands can fairly be called squeamish. It is likely that the delay of a day before reporting the 16 June 1942 rally reflected uncertainty about how to characterize it; the party first attacked the rally for not being explicitly pro-war, and later elided its demands with the CP's own (see Daily and Sunday Worker 14 June 1942: 2.5; 30 June 1942: 5). See Garfinkel 42-53 for the CP and the 1941 movement, 62-96 for events from June 1941 to June 1942, and 93 for the sketch that the CP's reporter (Ben Davis, Jr., a leading African American member) deplored. For other CP statements on African Americans and the war, see Ford, The Negro People and The War. See also Kryder 55-70 and Naison 310-12 for the 1941 events. Isserman argues that the CP regained strength in Harlem as the March On Washington movement declined after 1942 and overall patriotism became stronger. Fabre, Unfinished Quest 228-29, Jackson, Ralph Ellison 232-33 and 265 (based on Fabre), and Webb 153-55 (partly used by Fabre) all confuse events of 1941 and 1942.
(14.) See Webb's account of one such argument over the March On Washington movement (153-55). Webb's dates and details are garbled, but she is probably presenting some version of what she heard from Wright.
(15.) "Spontaneist" and "spontaneism" in Marxism refer to the idea that workers can develop socialist, revolutionary consciousness and organization on their own, without direct leadership by a Marxist party. In a famous passage What Is To Be Done? 1902, Lenin denied such spontaneity, insisting that there "could not have been Social-Democratic [Marxist] consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness" (chap. 2A; 375). Hence Leninist parties believed in the indispensability of their leadership. Ellison represents this view in IM with Jack's avowal, "[W]e do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!" (473).
(16.) For analyses of the Wright-Ellison relationship and Ellison's wartime politics, see Fabre, "From Native Son," which quotes portions of this same letter (204; my transcription corrects one or two errors) and Neal; for biographical background, Fabre, Unfinished Quest; Jackson, Ralph Ellison; Rowley.
(17.) James, with a solid background in pan-Africanist and socialist activities, then belonged to the "third camp" Workers Party, a dissident branch within US Trotskyism. His ideas on Negro self-organization, which he had developed earlier while in the "orthodox" Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and elaborated in conversations with Trotsky, had some influence within the SWP, which he rejoined in 1947 before finally quitting in 1951. It is unclear when Wright met James, but the Wrights were on good terms with James and Webb by August 1942 (Rowley 267). By the mid-1940s James was developing the anti-vanguard stance elaborated in his Notes on Dialectics (1948), quoted in my text. For Wright's response to James's ideas on the African American movement, see his Journal, 13, 14, 16 Feb. 1945. Sources on Ellison and Wright suggest but do not conclusively establish that Ellison met James at this time. Jackson's date of 1938 for a three-way acquaintance is not supported by his sources (Ralph Ellison 211). Firsthand sources are also inconsistent on whether Ellison was directly involved in the 1944-45 editorial projects, but he seems to have been consulted about a proposed magazine (his experience on the Negro Quarterly would be apposite) and may have been at a meeting on a book project along with James. (See Wright, Journal , Cayton 249-50, Fabre, Unfinished Quest 268, Webb 210-21, Worcester 77; Worcester, in an 8 July 2002 communication, was unable to shed additional light on these contradictory accounts.) Ellison and James were at least superficially acquainted as late as 1947, when both attended a shipboard party for the Wrights, who were moving to France (Wright, Journal, 30 July 1947).
(18.) For the events of 1935 and 1943, see "Harlem Disorders," "Police Shoot Into Rioters," "Police End Harlem Riot"; Brandt 183-206; Ellison, "Eyewitness"; Greenberg. I am indebted to my students Donna Greci, Anitra Lauro, Gerianne McArdle, Flora Slamet, and Tabitha Watson for research on the events. Ellison adapts one story about how chapter 25's events begin from 1935 (541); from 1943, the August date, a distinct version of the precipitating incident (540), and details about looting (539-40, 542, 544), some with parallels in his contemporary New York Post account ("Eyewitness"). He omits time-specific details such as anger over Italy's invasion of Abyssinia (1935) and an attack on an African American GI (1943).
(19.) See Marx 121, paraphrasing Hamlet's "Well said, old mole. Canst work i' th'earth so fast?" (1.5.170).
(20.) Callahan's view of these incidents misses their reference to intra-Marxist debates (African-American 173-76).
(21.) See "Harlem Disorders" 16; "Police Shoot Into Rioters" 15; "Police End Harlem Riot" 1; Greenberg 407, 415; Naison 140-46.
(22.) For the Warsaw uprising, see Ciechanowski; for a firsthand account by its military leader see Bor-Komorowski 199-396, esp. 199-223, 257-67, 322-23; see also Churchill 128-45. For recent views, see Davies 472-78, Keegan 483-84, and Hanson, whose assessment that "it would seem that Stalin saw it as advantageous to his future plans to stand back and let the city and the Polish underground elite be destroyed" (1262) is fairly representative.
(23.) In 1952 Killens attacked IM in a magazine friendly to the CP, Freedom, June 1952: 7. He remained a naturalist in method and became a nationalist.
(24.) For examples see Daily Worker 30 June 1942: 6; Ford, The War and the Negro People 9.
(25.) See the "Editorial Comment" sections in the following issues: 1.2 (Summer 1942): i-v; 1.3 (Fall 1942): 195-96, 240; 1.4 (1943): 295-302. The articles are unsigned; Ellison is believed to have written at least the last, but all reflect an editorial position that he shared. Negro Quarterly ceased publication after the fourth number. Foley has suggested in two articles that Ellison's politics remained close to the CP's until late in the war ("Proletarian"; "Rhetoric" 240-41). She concentrates on the articles Ellison wrote for publications close to the CP in 1939-42 (which makes her case somewhat self-confirming), fails to note that he no longer wrote for them after October 1942, and discusses only the last NQ article, which she presents as differing little from CP positions; on the latter, Foley cites a defensive polemic by Davis ("The Communists") rather than the party's daily coverage and actions.
(26.) Similarly, McSweeney's contention that the meditation expresses not what the protagonist believes but "what he would like to believe" (118) misses the point that it embodies a principle of action.
(27.) Jackson notes that in early drafts the protagonist was influenced by a Marxist-internationalist diary found at Mary Rambo's and joined the Brotherhood "hoping to learn the best method of fighting colonialism" (Ralph Ellison 415-16, 426-27).
(28.) However, see Jackson, "Sharpies" 73-79 for an argument that the "sharpie" culture involved definite, though not organizational, political attitudes. For background, see Cosgrove.
Christopher Z. Hobson, Associate Professor of Humanities and Languages at SUNY College at Old Westbury, has published The Chained Boy: Orc and Blake's Idea of Revolution and Blake and Homosexuality as well as articles on Richard Wright, George Eliot, and others. This article is part of a work-in-progress on traditions of prophecy in African American literature.
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|Author:||Hobson, Christopher Z.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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