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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)

[7852] Arthur Rothstein, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Students (1942), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-000237-D].

Ralph Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City and attended college at the Tuskegee Institute, where he was a music major who admired both the classics of the European tradition and Kansas City jazz. After graduation he moved to New York City, where he met Richard Wright, who encouraged him to pursue his writing career. Invisible Man (1952), the result of seven years of writing, won the National Book Award and brought Ellison into the national spotlight. Critics disagreed about whether the book made a statement about African Americans, but Ellison felt both sides had missed the point. He had never aimed to be a spokesperson and asked to be judged simply as a writer. After the enormous success of Invisible Man, Ellison began teaching, and from 1970 until his retirement he was the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University. His essays are collected in Shadow and Act (1964).

In the 1930s the communist party attracted much community attention as a force in the civil rights movement, and many African American intellectuals gravitated to it. Ellison found his way into the party because it seemed at the time to be the strongest and most promising force for change in African American life, a major presence in inner-city neighborhoods, with skilled organizers and an agenda that offered hope in the midst of a worldwide depression. Like Richard Wright and James Baldwin, however, Ellison broke with communism when he came to understand that the party, under the control of the Stalinist Soviet Union, was exploiting black Americans rather than genuinely championing their causes. This disappointment with the communist party is a central theme in Ellison’s Invisible Man, contributing to the novel’s pervading sense of alienation and dashed hopes. That mood is also palpable in his short story “Cadillac Flambé,” in which a black man acts out of anger not only against the complacent racist remarks of a national politician, but also against his own susceptibility to consumerism, the dream that something purchased, something material, can bring fulfillment and peace.

By the early 1960s, Invisible Man was being praised at American universities as the greatest novel by an African American; later in that decade, however, as campus radicalism shook up literary and scholastic life in the United States, the book and its author were faulted for showing too much respect for traditions both literary and social. Ellison’s wry humor and his public demeanor were liabilities at a time when artists tended to take themselves and racial politics very seriously. When the politics of the 1960s subsided, Ellison’s reputation recovered.

Teaching Tips

  • Have a class discussion about the links between American capitalism, conspicuous consumption, the expansion of the suburbs, and the postwar era’s movement toward assimilation and complacency. Also discuss the idea prevalent in the 1950s that, in a dangerous world where communists and enemies of the state lurk around every corner, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Discuss the complexities of what happens when you are “not allowed” to fit into or conform within the dominant society. Where are ethnic minorities left at such a time?
  • Ask your students to rewrite a paragraph or two of the Battle Royal scene from Invisible Man using a different kind of narrator–either third-person or omniscient. Read several of the paragraphs aloud in class. How does narrative change affect the mood or tone of the text? Why is perspective so crucial to the scene’s power and meaning?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In “Cadillac Flambé,” what seems to be the implied threat when Lee Willie Minifee says he no longer wants a Cadillac, a Ford, a Rambler, a Ninety-eight (Oldsmobile), a Chevy, or a Chrysler?
  2. Comprehension: Minifee states, “It is enough to make a citizen feel alienated from his own times, from the abiding values and recent developments within his own nation.” How might this statement relate to the African American veterans who had just returned from serving in World War II?
  3. Comprehension: What does the blindfold symbolize in Chapter 1 of Invisible Man? How does the narrator’s limited sight inform the way we read the story?
  4. Comprehension: Define surrealism for your students and situate it historically. Ellison likes to place his characters in surreal circumstances: illuminated holes in the ground; lush lawns on which expensive cars are burning; lurid evenings during which African American boys beat each other for the amusement of a white audience. What does this surrealism accomplish? Is Ellison focusing on something particular about contemporary life? What things can make “real” life seem surreal?
  5. Context: How does the use of the first-person narrator in Invisible Man enhance the reader’s understanding of what is happening to the protagonist during the Battle Royal in Chapter 1?
  6. Context: At the opening of both Invisible Man and “Cadillac Flambé,” the main character portrays himself as essentially alone. If Ellison means to speak for a large American minority group, what are the advantages and risks of beginning with an isolated hero?
  7. Context: In the video, John Callahan says that Ellison believed that “every one of us is black” in a sense. How do “Cadillac Flambé” and the excerpt from Invisible Man convey the sense that something universal is being explored?
  8. Exploration: Compare characteristics of the various works from the 1950s in this unit. Can you find specific instances of existentialism (writing that embraces the view that the individual must create his or her own meaning in an unknowable, chaotic, and seemingly empty universe) in works by Ellison, Bellow, and others? Do these works seem to differ substantially from works that fit into the categories of literary realism, naturalism, or modernism? How so?
  9. Exploration: In Shadow and Act, Ellison writes, “I did not know my true relationship to America … but I did know and accept how I felt inside. And I also knew, thanks to the Renaissance Man, what I expected of myself in the matter of personal discipline and creative quality. … I rejected all negative definitions imposed on me by others.” How does this quotation ring true not only with Ellison’s writing but also with that of other key figures in this unit, such as Momaday and Roth?

Selected Archive Items

[7140] Emory, One of Our Main Purposes Is to Unify Brothers and Sisters in the North with Our Brothers and Sisters in the South (c. 1970),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-10248].
Political poster for the Black Panthers. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panthers and black nationalist writers emphasized the need for soli-darity among African Americans and people of African descent throughout the world.

[7852] Arthur Rothstein, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Students (1942),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USW3-000237-D].
The Tuskegee Institute was the lifelong project of Booker T. Washington and also the site of George Washington Carver’s revolutionary agricultural experiments. Tuskegee was the model for the college in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Note the neoclassical architecture.

[7865] Charles Keck, Statue of Booker T. Washington (1922),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-103181].
“I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. The narrator’s comment reflects the debate over how African Americans should be educated. Born into slavery but freed after the Civil War, Booker T. Washington devoted his life to the advancement of African Americans. Although he was respected by both blacks and whites, Washington came under criticism for his willingness to trade social equality for economic opportunity.

[8613] Vito Marcantonio, Labor’s Martyrs (1937),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.
This socialist publication describing the “great labor martyrs of the past 50 years” discusses the trial and public execution of the “Chicago Anarchists” who organized the Haymarket bombing in 1887 as well as the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. It also talks about the thriving state of the 1930s labor movement. Labor activism is depicted in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.

[8849] John Callahan, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
John Callahan discusses Ralph Ellison’s conception of African influence on all Americans.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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