September 29, 2023

Ralph Ellison’s
Visible Century
by Eugene Holley, Jr.

In 1952 Ralph Ellison, published his first novel, Invisible Man. The book told the story of a nameless black man’s racist, bewildering and terrifying journey from the south to the north toward self-identity. It moved beyond the black protest fiction of Richard Wright’s 1940 work, Native Son,and it encompassed both the African-American and the overall human experience, and won the National Book Award in 1953. Ellison became one of the celebrated authors of the 20th century. In 1964 and 1988, he published two books of essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, and was working on his much-anticipated second novel when he died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 80. Ellison’s writings have always been in print, translated into many languages and his works and views are the subjects of several hundred books. The megaseries, Ken Burns Jazz, featured Ellison’s writings and his influence on writers and musicians, from Stanley Crouch to Wynton Marsalis, is as strong as ever.

2002 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1952 publication with several high-profile releases and projects. Random House has released a commemorative edition, with the original book jacket. Last February WNEW/PBS aired the spectacular, 84-minute American Masters documentary, Ralph Ellison: An American Journey, produced, written and directed by filmmaker Avon Kirkland. The film features rare archival footage and Avon Kirklandnever-before-seen private photographs. There’s also astute commentary and analysis by several leading scholars and critics including O’Meally and Farah Griffin also from Columbia University, Stanley Crouch, Harvard University’s Cornel West, Amiri Baraka and Ellison biographer, Lawrence Jackson, author of the forthcoming book, Ralph Ellison: The Emergence of Genius.

Kirkland presents a compelling and complex overview of Ellison’s astounding literary and cultural achievements to a wider audience. “In a 1999 poll by some leading scholars and writers regarding the most influential works of fiction written in the 20th century, Ellison was in the top twenty,” Kirkland says from his Berkeley, California office. Shadow and Act was included in the non-fiction list. Ellison was the only writer of any race or nationality writing in the English language to make both lists. So his achievement was quite extraordinary.” As Cornel West puts it in the film, “It is impossible to be a student of American culture and Afro-American culture without working through Ellison. He’s the brook of fire through which one must pass.”

With permission from the Ellison Estate, Kirkland’s film also features the first dramatic adaptations from IM, “The Princeton educated actor, Jacque C. Smith, recently seen on the HBO series Oz, plays the nameless hero. He’s forced to fight other black men for the entertainment of wealthy whites. The Uncle Tom, Booker T. Washington-type black college president of a southern black college is brilliantly portrayed by John Amos (Good Times, Roots), and Paul Benjamin plays the hero’s dying grandfather who encourages the protagonist to “yes ” white people “to death.”

Kirkland also chronicles the legacy of Ellison’s ill-fated second novel about a mixed-race U.S. Senator who was raised by black jazzman-turned-preacher. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire in a summer home, Ellison and his wife, Fanny, owned in the Berkshires. He worked for three decades, rewriting and revising the manuscript. There is invaluable footage of Ellison dictating passages from those pages into a tape recorder and playing them back. After he died, the book was posthumously released in 1999 as Juneteenth. The documentary concludes with an impassioned reading from the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison.

Anyone who has ever read Ellison’s novels, speeches and essays knows that music — specifically African-American music — was a major influence on his literature. The best sonic illustration of Ellison’s debt to jazz is the forthcoming CD, Living With Music, produced by Robert G. O’Meally, the author of the companion book, Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings (Modern Library). The recording is a compilation of Ellison’s favorite jazz and blues selections, which were featured in his fiction and non-fiction. There’s Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the Andy Razaf/Fats Waller classic “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?” Duke Ellington’s ragtime-ish and dirge-like numbers, “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” and “Black And Tan Fantasy” show the multi-hued American democracy Ellison championed. Count Basie’s “Moten Swing” and Jimmy Rushing’s “Harvard Blues” recall Ellison’s driving, wide-open Oklahoma City musical heritage, as does the down-home, spiritual vocals of Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. The addition of the flamenco selection, “La Farruca Vincente Escudero” sung by Vincente Escudero, shows the wide berth of Ellison’s interest in blues-paralleled music. The lone spoken word on this collection is a 1964 tape of Ellison reading from his essay, “Hidden Name and Complex Fate.” As Mr. O’Meally writes in his liner notes, “This collection echoes the work of Ellison the trumpet player and composer-in-training who became a writer, and offers Ellisonian equipment for those deciding not only to shun the noise but to live with the momentum implied in jazz music.”

O’Meally’s book, Living With Music includes excerpts from Ellison’s novels, short stories, letters to his lifelong friend and literary kindred spirit Albert Murray, and his treatises on the blues, bebop, the spirituals and flamenco from Shadow and Act, to Going to the Territory, along with three interviews. For O’Meally, Ellison, a former trumpeter who studied classical music at Tuskegee University who turned down an offer by Duke Ellington to join his band, was nonpareil in applying the techniques of jazz to fiction. “Some people define jazz in terms of improvisation, rhythm, call-and-response … one hears that all through Ellison,” O’Meally says at an Upper West Side restaurant near Columbia. ” If you read the speech that [the nameless protagonist] gives at Tod Clifton’s funeral in Invisible Man, he’s riffing when he says ‘we’re here standing in the sun and there’s nothing to say … The man is dead. His red blood ran down, it ran down the street that we’re standing on now.’ You see Ellison playing a phrase like Louis Armstrong would do. Anytime one of the character’s Ellison loves stands up to speak, It’s almost like you feel the presence of Ben Webster coming to the microphone.” Ellison’s writings about jazz and the blues include his immortal essays “The “Charlie Christian Story.” “The Golden Age, Time Past,” recalls the chaotic creative atmosphere at Minton’s Playhouse, Harlem’s legendary birthplace of bebop. “On Bird, Bird Watching, and Jazz” is a poetic look at the brilliant and tragic alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, whom Ellison described as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, onstage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public…”

Ellison’s prose visually swings with the same sense of cultural comprehension and sense of surprise, which surfaces in his admiration for Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson and his Oklahoma homeboys Christian and vocalist Jimmy Rushing, along with his apprehension of bebop. “That was true of many people of his generation,” O’Meally said. “He loved that blues based, danceable southwestern music. There’s a scratch in Jimmy Rushing’s voice that gives it a sense tragedy that he’s always writing about. As much as he wants that tragic note, there’s that southwestern sense of promise that’s also there.”

Ellison had no time for the misapplication of social science to black music, as evidenced by “Richard Wright’s Blues” and his scathing review of Amiri Baraka’s book, Blues People, which according to Ellison, “is enough to give even the blues the blues.” The collection also cites the influence of Tuskegee’s William L. Dawson, the African-American composer/conductor and Hazel Harrison, a respected classical pianist. What emerges from these pages is the lucid and lyrical jazz voice of an African-American writer, who hears the black, brown and beige cultural notes that signify our civilization. “He hears jazz as an African-American celebration music,” O’Meally said. “There’s a sense of communion … black folks getting together, saying we are ourselves. We created this style; it’s rocking, telling the truth through the lyrics of the blues. And out of that ceremonious celebration, he hears a great affirmation, not only of the African-American spirit, but the human spirit.”

Ellison’s swing-tinged affirmations resonate throughout the book Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America by Horace A. Porter (University of Iowa Press). Like O’Meally, Porter, the Chair of African-American World Studies and Professor of English at the University of Iowa, is a formidable Ellisonian literary and cultural critic. He writes that “Ellison celebrates the cultural variety within the United States — the seemingly random blending of styles, values, and ways of living. The definitive element that is ‘American’ is the improvisational process of cultural development.” Ellison voices his themes through his “major chords: unity, ambiguity, possibility, discipline and transcendence,” terms which also describe jazz. Porter also cites Ellison’s view of Ellington and Armstrong as cultural heroes who embody the best American values.

There’s more Ellison material to come. In 2003 Biographer Arnold Rampersad will publish a major biography on Ellison, and 2004, Ellison’s 90th birthday, will feature more conferences, papers and essays on this pivotal African-American intellectual, who proved that genius swings.