Monday, May 05, 2008

Review: Ralph Ellison

by Jack Bishop. This is another biography in the "Black Americans of Achievement" series by Chelsea House Publications; Library Binding edition (November 1987). We have discarded it from our library because we have more recent biographies. I am reading it because I enjoy it and am happy to learn more about this great American author.

Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1913 and died in 1994. He was trained in classical music and jazz. He attended Tuskegee Institute for music. He moved to New York to study sculpture and began to write after meeting Richard Wright and finding connections between music and writing. He worked for the Federal Writer's Project to research oral history during the 30s in New York and found it fascinating to hear the stories of African Americans that had come to New York from all over the country.

His most famous work is the Invisible Man. It tells the story of a Black man who struggles to define himself in the course of a lifetime fighting racism and abuse. Saul Bellow says about the novel,

"In our society Man Himself is idolized and publicly worshipped, but the single individual must hide himself underground and try to save his desires, his thoughts, his soul, in invisibility. He must return to himself, learning self-acceptance and rejecting all that threatens to deprive him of his manhood."

Although the main character is Black and faces the unique challenges of being African American, he is also universally human, facing the same challenges of humanity that everyone must face. Bishop says,

"Ellison's story explored issues never before discussed by a black writer. However, he has vigorously argued against interpreting it as simply a novel of racial protest. In creating a black hero with intellectual depth, he has transcended racial stereotypes. As his childhood belief in the Renaissance man would suggest, he was concerned with achieving a universal outlook on life, not a limited one."

Ellison worked all his life to develop rounded talents, studying music, sculpture, and writing, and travelling widely in performances and in the Merchant Marine. During the 60s, when Ellison was a well known writer and teaching at several colleges including Bard College, Rutgers University and Yale, he was popular with many people but criticised by some radical Black leaders. They thought he was too eager to cooperate with whites. When Ellison said he thought that Black culture had blended with European cultures in America they thought he was denying the strength and uniqueness of African American culture. Ellison saw his role as an artist offering a novel as "a raft of hope... that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation's vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal." In art we have an opportunity to consider and visualize the world as it is and as it could be.

What intrigued me most in this particular biography, written for middle school and high school students, is the way the author presents Ellison's way of developing his own identity. Earlier in the book Bishop is describing how Ellison made the adjustment from his childhood life in Oklahoma to the more difficult environment in the deep South when he attended Tuskegee University in Alabama. He says,

"Fortunately for Ellison, he was "disciplined to endure the absurdities of both conscious and unconscious prejudice, to resist racial provocation and, before the ready violence of brutal policemen, railroad 'bulls,' and casual white citizens, to hold my peace and bide my time." But his stalwartness had a price."

I had to stop and think about that for a while. Given that later in his life he was considered by some to be too easily accommodating of whites, and recognizing the times he grew up in, I wonder if those traits are really beneficial in the long run. Maybe they were survival skills that kept him alive. I wonder if they still serve Black men and boys today. And I wonder what discipline Black young men are schooled in by family and community today. What do you think? If you've read the book The Invisible Man, what did you think of that? Is it still relevant today?

Picture Book of the Day has the Nonfiction roundup today.

No comments: