Ralph Ellison | Critical Essay by Susan L. Blake

This literature criticism consists of approximately 35 pages of analysis & critique of Ralph Ellison.
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Critical Essay by Susan L. Blake

SOURCE: "Ritual and Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison," in PMLA, Vol. 94, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 121-36.

In the following essay, Blake illustrates how Ellison's use of black folklore aids him in "bridg[ing the gap between the uniqueness and the universality of black experience."]

The predominant theme in the works of Ralph Ellison is the quest for cultural identity. Although he does not realize this himself, the protagonist of Invisible Man seeks identity, not as an individual, but as a black man in a white society. He encounters and combats the problem Ellison identified in an interview with three young black writers in 1965: "Our lives, since slavery, have been described mainly in terms of our political, economic, and social conditions as measured by outside norms, seldom in terms of our own sense of life or our own sense of values gained from our own unique American experience" ["A Very Stern Discipline," Harper's, March, 1967, p. 78]. The invisible man searches for self-definition in terms of the sense of life and values gained from the unique black-American experience. His quest, however—like that of almost every other Ellison protagonist—ends in the conviction that the black experience is not so unique: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" Cultural identity becomes indistinguishable from the human condition.


One way that Ellison bridges the gap between the uniqueness and the universality of black experience is by use of black folklore. Invisible Man, most of Ellison's short stories, and the pieces of his partially published second novel, "And Hickman Arrives," are packed full of folk-tales and tellers, trinkets, toasts, songs, sermons, jazz, jive, and jokes. In his essays and interviews, Ellison has repeatedly singled out black folklore as the source of genuine black self-definition:

In the folklore we tell what Negro experience really is. We back away from the chaos of experience and from ourselves and we depict the humor as well as the horror of our living. We project Negro life in a metaphysical perspective and we have seen it with a complexity of vision that seldom gets into our writing. ("A Very Stern Discipline," p. 80)

Negro folklore, evolving within a larger culture which regarded it as inferior, was an especially courageous expression. It announced the Negro's willingness to trust his own experience, his own sensibilities as to the definition of reality, rather than allow his masters to define these crucial matters for him.

At the same time, however, Ellison insists that "on its profoundest level American experience"—and, it is implied throughout Shadow and Act, human experience—"is of a whole"; that behind John Henry is Hercules, behind specific folk expression, "the long tradition of storytelling … of myth." So when Ellison uses black folklore in his fiction, he consciously adapts it to the myths of the "larger" American and Western cultures:

For example, there is the old saying amongst Negroes: if you're black, stay back; if you're brown, stick around; if you're white, you're right. And there is the joke Negroes tell on themselves about their being so black they can't be seen in the dark. In my book this sort of thing was merged with the meanings which blackness and light have long had in Western mythology: evil and goodness, ignorance and knowledge, and so on. In my novel the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility….

It took me a long time to learn how to adapt such examples of myth into my work—also ritual. The use of ritual is equally a vital part of the creative process. I learned a few things from Eliot, Joyce and Hemingway, but not how to adapt them.

["The Art of Fiction: An Interview," Shadow and Act].

Ellison's use of terms is confusing here: the saying "if you're black, stay back" is not myth but folk wisdom; ritual is not completely independent of myth, it is the form through which myth is often expressed. What Ellison learned to do, in order to adapt black folk expression in literature, was to turn it into ritual and to put it at the service of a myth "larger," or other, than itself. Folklorists, myth theorists, and literary critics—as groups and as individuals—differ widely on the definition of "myth" and its relationship to the rest of folklore. Whether they say, however, that myths involve divine characters and folktales human, that myths take place in prehistoric and folktales in historic time, or that myths are believed by teller and audience and folktales told as fiction, they are acknowledging a not necessarily sharp distinction between two levels of folk belief—one concrete, temporal, and specific to the folk group; the other abstract, "eternal," and "universal." "Eternal" and "universal" are here relative terms; they refer to times and worlds larger than those of the immediate social context—how much larger is unimportant. For the purposes of this paper, "myth" refers to the abstract level of folk belief; "folk expression," to the concrete.

Ritual is the repetition of action for symbolic purpose. It abstracts experience from history by extending it over time and emphasizing form over context. We need not get into the question of whether myth or ritual comes first in order to say that ritual, theoretically at least, turns social experience into the symbol of mythic experience. When Ellison puts elements of black-American folk experience into series with similar elements of American or Western mythology, he is ritualizing them, making each experience a repetition of the other. He is removing the black experience from its historical time and place and replacing it in the long run of time, erasing its distinctiveness, heightening its similarity to other experience. He is translating an expression of the way things work in a particular, man-made, social world to an expression of the way they work in a larger, uncontrollable, cosmic world.

The specific implications of the difference between a social and a mythic view of folk experience can be illustrated by considering Ellison the critic's discussion of the Battle Royal scene in Invisible Man:

Take the "Battle Royal" passage in my novel, where the boys are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the amusement of the white observers. This is a vital part of behavior pattern in the South, which both Negroes and whites thoughtlessly accept. It is a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo to appease the gods and ward off bad luck. It is also the initiation ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected. This passage which states what Negroes will see I did not have to invent; the patterns were already there in society, so that all I had to do was present them in a broader context of meaning. In any society there are many rituals of situation which, for the most part, go unquestioned. They can be simple or elaborate, but they are the connective tissue between the work of art and the audience.

                ["The Art of Fiction: An Interview"]

The Battle Royal is rooted in the slave experience. It goes back to the many-versioned folk-tale "The Fight," in which Old Marster and his neighbor pit their two strongest slaves against each other and stake their plantations on the outcome. It has been used by Wright in Black Boy, Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom!, and Killens in Youngblood to dramatize social relations between whites and blacks. It encapsulates the physical, economic, psychological, and sexual exploitation of slavery (and dramatizes the slaves' comprehension of it). By identifying this ritual of a slave society as a "keeping of taboo to appease the gods" and an "initiation ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected," Ellison turns it into an essentially religious ritual in commemoration of implicitly immutable laws and connects it with other such rituals across cultures. By emphasizing the symbolic rather than the social components, Ellison transforms a social experience into a mythic one.

The social and mythic interpretations of a ritual of situation might coexist peacefully if the situation were not a function of so abnormal a condition as slavery. But the mythic interpretation of the Battle Royal contradicts and negates its social meaning. As a social ritual, the Battle Royal reflects the limitation of blackness in the face of white power. As an initiation ritual, it reflects the limitation of youth in the face of maturity. The youth can expect to become mature; the black cannot expect to become white. The initiation ritual symbolizes the relationship of an individual to his own community; the social ritual symbolizes the relationship of an oppressed people to an oppressive people. The initiation ritual celebrates a natural process, maturation, that has been ritualized because it cannot be circumvented: the social ritual celebrates a man-made convention that has been ritualized to prevent its circumvention. Because the social ritual and the mythic ritual reflect different relationships between people and power, they do not have compatible meanings. To equate the Battle Royal with an initiation or an appeasement of the gods is to assume that the relationship between blacks and whites that it dramatizes is divinely sanctioned and eternal. Although that relationship has often seemed permanent, black folklore is based on the premise that it is not; the folk connections between Old Master and divinity are all ironic.

In his theoretical analysis, Ellison places this ritual of situation in a context that distorts its social meaning. In Invisible Man, he makes it one of a series of initiations that finally demonstrate not the politics of slavery but the chaos of the universe. In his fiction in general, he fits black-American folk expression into the forms of American and Western myth. To do so, he must ignore, minimize, distort, or deny the peculiarities of the folk expression. Since the peculiarities of black folklore reflect those of the peculiar institution, the effort to transcend them results in the denial of the circumstances that distinguish black experience from all others. The end of the identity quest in Ellison's fiction betrays the beginning.


Some of Ellison's short stories illustrate the process of adapting black folk experience to the forms of ritual and the meanings of myth. The quest for identity is the quest for manhood (quite literally: Ellison's only significant female character, Mary Rambo, knows who she is). Ellison mounts the quest on rituals of situation like the Battle Royal—characteristic social situations that are repeated over and over again in black life, folklore, and literature because they so accurately express the conflict between black manhood and white power in American society. In his earliest stories, Ellison exploits only the social dimensions of the rituals of situation and the social dimensions of the protagonists' struggles for manhood. In "Slick Gonna Learn," an excerpt from an unfinished first novel, Slick escapes the expected retribution for accidentally striking a policeman but gets picked up by a carful of off-duty cops for a verbal assault when he thinks he is free; he escapes again when the policemen, who are planning to "give this nigger the works," get a radio call and dump him out into the rainy night with only a few kicks and some pistol shots that miss. In "The Birth-mark," Matt and Clara, who have gone to the woods with a policeman and the coroner to identify the body of their brother, are forced to accept the story that he has been hit by a car, when he has obviously been lynched with the cooperation of the police. The title refers not only to an identifying mark on the body but also to the castration wound and to blackness itself. Both stories probe the helplessness and frustration of black characters in the face of a capricious and all-powerful white law. Both use the ritual qualities of the situation to illuminate social experience.

The Buster-and-Riley stories—"Mister Toussan," "That I Had the Wings," and "A Coupla Scalped Indians"—use folklore more symbolically. Buster and Riley are two little boys looking for adventure and fulfillment in a world circumscribed by God, the white folks, and their elders, who interpret God and the white folks for them. In "Mister Toussan," they get carried away retelling the story of Toussaint L'Ouverture that Buster has heard from his teacher. In a call-and-response collective composition with the style of a toast and the rhythmic climax of a folk sermon, they create a heroic badman who makes "those peckerwoods" beg for mercy:

'They said, Please, Please, Please, Mister Toussan…."

"… We'll be good," broke in Riley.

"Thass right, man," said Buster excitedly.

He clapped his hands and kicked his heels against the earth, his black face flowing in a burst of rhythmic joy.


"And what'd ole Toussan say then?"

"He said in his big deep voice: You all peckerwoods better be good, 'cause this is sweet Papa Toussan talking and my nigguhs is crazy 'bout white meat!"

Their story of Toussan both arises from and is applied to the social conflict between blacks and whites. Buster and Riley have just been chased out of their white neighbor's yard for asking whether they could pick up cherries from under his trees—as the birds are doing undisturbed. The irony of the birds' freedom and the sound of his mother inside singing the protest spiritual "I Got Wings" makes Riley ask Buster what he would do if he had wings. Buster replies that he would go to Chicago, Detroit, the moon, Africa, "or anyplace else colored is free." The mention of Africa brings up the school books' view that Africans are lazy, and this leads to the story of the black hero. Their story of Toussan is a flight of fancy that develops the theme of freedom introduced by Buster's answer to Riley's question; identification with Toussan gives them the courage to think about another attempt on Old Rogan's cherries.

"That I Had the Wings" continues the theme of freedom through flying, but freedom in this story means freedom from the limitations of childhood and humanity. Riley, frustrated in his own wish to learn to fly, tries and fails to teach some chicks. He is defeated by his Aunt Kate, Ole Bill the boss rooster (the identity Riley would choose if he were to die "and come back a bird like Aunt Kate says folks do"), and gravity. The obstacles to manhood in this story are not social but universal—immaturity and earthboundedness.

In "A Coupla Scalped Indians," the quest for manhood is specifically sexual. Buster and Riley, who, still sore from circumcision, have been out in the woods performing Boy Scout tests (with a view to becoming, not Boy Scouts, but Indians), have to pass the house of Aunt Mackie, a reputed conjure woman, whose very name makes Riley shiver. In the course of trying to get by Aunt Mackie's dog, Riley somehow gets himself inside her yard and ever closer to her house, where he sees her dancing naked before the window and is surprised at the youthful body beneath her wrinkled face. She discovers him, brings him in, makes him kiss her ("You passed all the tests and you was peeping in my window"), demands to see his circumcision wound, and fills him with the confusing emotions of pain, need, shame, and relief. The only conflict in the story is sexual, and the elements of folklore, Aunt Mackie's "conjure" and Buster's eulogy to the dozens (a game of competitive insult usually focusing on the sexual behavior of the opponent's female relatives), are metaphors for the power of sex. The definition of manhood in the early stories becomes more and more general, and the elements of black folklore become less and less connected with specifically black social experience.

Both "Mister Toussan" and "That I Had the Wings" make central use of the ability to fly as a metaphor for freedom and manhood. "Flying Home" develops this metaphor further and, through it, shows the effect of framing black folk materials in Western myth. Flying is a predominant motif in black-American folklore as well as in Western myth; its meanings vary from one tradition to another. In Greek mythology, flying represents the superhuman power of the gods; in Freudian psychology, it symbolizes male sexual potency; in black-American folklore, it means freedom. In a folk context the aspiration to fly recalls Harriet Tubman's dream of flying over a great wall, the numerous references in the spirituals to flying to freedom in Jesus, the Sea Islands legend of the Africans who rose up from the field one day and flew back to Africa, and the humorous folktale of the Colored Man who went to heaven and flew around with such abandon that he had to be grounded but who boasted that he was "a flying black bastard" while he had his wings. Although the mythic and sexual meanings of the metaphor are of course implicit in the aspiration to freedom, the emphasis in the folk concept of manhood is on the freedom, and the obstacles to freedom are seen to be in the social structure, not in oneself or the laws of the physical universe.

"Flying Home" presents at least four folk variations on the flying motif and as many more mythic ones. The story is based on the former military practice of withholding from blacks the opportunity to fly airplanes, a historical situation that so largely bore out the folklore of flying that it immediately became part of it. The protagonist in the story is a student at the Negro air school in Tuskegee, established during World War II in response to complaints about discrimination against blacks in pilot training. The story about the school was that it trained black men to fly but never graduated them to combat. Todd, the flier in this story, who feels he acquires dignity from his airplane and the appreciation of his white officers and shame from his relationship with ignorant black men, has run into a buzzard and crashed in a white man's filed. Jefferson, the "ignorant black man" who finds him, sends for help, and keeps him company while they wait, tells him two folktales—a brief anecdote about seeing two buzzards emerge from the insides of a dead horse and the comic story of the Colored Man who tore up heaven flying.

The buzzard is a common figure in black folklore, representing sometimes the black person scrounging for survival, sometimes his predators, and always the precariousness of life in a predatory society. In one story, told by Mrs. I. E. Richards, the buzzard is represented as a bird that flies higher than the average but has to come down to get food; this story is told to impress children that "regardless of what you might have … we all have to live on the same level." All these folk associations are active in the references to buzzards in "Flying Home." The birds are black; Jefferson says that his grandson Teddy calls them jimcrows. Representing not only the black man, Todd, but the Jim Crow society, they symbolize the destructiveness of both. Todd thinks of himself as a buzzard when he cries, "Can I help it if they won't let us actually fly? Maybe we are a bunch of buzzards feeding on a dead horse, but we can hope to be eagles, can't we?" But there is also a clear analogy between him and the horse's carcass ("Saw him just like I see you," says Jefferson of the horse): he is being devoured by both the Jim Crow society and his own shame at blackness. Todd (Tod 'death') is, in trying to destroy old Jefferson, also feeding on his own dead self. So the moral of Mrs. Richards' buzzard story also applies to Todd: he learns that he cannot set himself above other blacks because, as Jefferson reminds him, "You black son…. You have to come by the white folks, too."

The tale of the Colored Man in heaven also applies to Todd, who "had been flying too high and too fast" and "had climbed steeply away in exultation" before going into a spin and crashing. Todd recognizes this application in anguish: "Why do you laugh at me this way?" he screams while Jefferson is laughing at the punch line. The point of the folktale, which Jefferson emphasizes by adding the "new turn" that "us colored folks had to wear a special kin' a harness when we flew," is that the black man is a man despite the obstacles put in his way: even with the harness, he outflies the other angels: even grounded, he remains brash and confident. Together, the moral of this story and the implications of the buzzard associations compose the explicit message of "Flying Home": manhood is inherent, neither tendered nor rescinded by white society; to try to achieve manhood by escaping blackness is only self-destructive, because "we all have to live on the same level."

As Joseph F. Trimmer has pointed out, "Flying Home" also recalls the myth of Icarus and alludes to the myth of the phoenix, the Christian doctrine of the fortunate fall, and the parable of the prodigal son. The stories of Icarus, the fall, and the prodigal son all involve men trying to transcend their condition, as Todd is trying to transcend blackness. The story of Icarus parallels Mrs. Richards' comments on the high-flying buzzard. The idea of the fortunate fall and the story's final image of the buzzard flying into the sun and glowing gold like the phoenix both suggest, as the folk referents in the story do, that the flier's failure is in some way a victory. But there are important differences between the meanings of the myths alluded to in the story and those of the folk sources. First, the strivers in the stories of Icarus and the fall of man are trying to improve their position with respect not to other men but to God. Even the Prodigal Son is presented in that context in this story, through the opening lines of James Weldon Johnson's "Prodigal Son" in God's Trombones, which Todd remembers his grandmother reciting as a warning when he was a child:

     Young man, young man,
     Yo' arms too short
     To box with God….

But Todd's fault—and that of the high-flying buzzard—is to try to set himself above other men. Second, all these myths, including that of the phoenix, which cremates and resurrects itself, imply that the hero is the sole cause of his own fall. By thus obscuring the duality of the buzzard symbol and ignoring the social basis of the story, the mythic allusions dull the irony of the folk associations and shift the emphasis from manhood to mortality. In the end, Todd flies "home" to freedom in the sense of the Sea Islands legend, by flying "home" to his people and to himself like the prodigal son. But as the final image of the buzzard glowing gold like the phoenix seems to imply, he is also dying, flying "home" to acceptance of the universal human condition of mortality, which is not at all the same as the perpetual precariousness of life in a predatory society. Nor is it the same as the "home" or "heaven" of the black spiritual tradition, for there, in a reversal of the conventional relationship between the concrete and abstract terms of metaphor, both "home" and "heaven" often connote the geographical North and social freedom.

The mythic context subtly changes the meaning of the themes embodied in the folk foundation of "Flying Home." It transforms acceptance of blackness as identity into acceptance of blackness as limitation. It substitutes the white culture's definition of blackness for the self-definition of folklore.


The theme of Invisible Man is similar to that of "Flying Home." The novel presents itself as an epic statement of the need for black self-definition. The protagonist of the novel, characterized as a representative black man on an identity quest, finds himself only when he gives up his white masters' definition of reality and adopts that asserted by the black folk tradition, Ironically, however, the definition of reality that Ellison attributes to the folk tradition is the very one maintained by the whites.

What functions as black folklore in the novel is everything the protagonist initially rejects as manifesting a Sambo mentality and finally learns to accept as basic to his true identity. It includes almost anything rooted in or associated with slavery, the South, the established body of southern folklore, or its northern ghetto mutations. And it comes from the traditions of both the black slave and the white plantation. Nothing could be more apparently contradictory than the images of the black man offered by these traditions, which differ simply as the perspectives of slave and master. The archetypal black man of slave folklore is John, the hero of an extensive cycle of tales, who comically but constantly says "no" to Old Marster and the slave system he represents. The stereotypical black man of the plantation tradition is Sambo, who grins, sings, fawns, and otherwise says "yes" to Old Marster, old times, and the old Kentucky home. John may appear to acquiesce, but he manages to subvert Old Master's intentions; Sambo may appear mischievous, but he is fundamentally loyal. Invisible Man attempts to reconcile the two images through both the plot, in which the protagonist must learn to stop fleeing from Sambo in order to find himself, and the pattern of folklore allusion, which treats Sambo and John as though they were one and the same.

The novel chronicles three stages in the protagonist's life—education, employment, and political activity—framed by his entry into the life of society (or, in the novel's terms, history) through high school graduation and his exit from it through disillusionment with political organization. Each stage in the protagonist's personal history corresponds to an era in the social history of black Americans. His sojourn in a southern black college modeled on Tuskegee Institute corresponds to Reconstruction; he has entered it on a scholarship presented in a parody of Emancipation, and he leaves it under compulsion, in the company of a disillusioned World War I veteran, in a manner representative of the Great Migration. His first few weeks in New York—job hunting, working in the paint factory, encountering unionism, and undergoing electric shock treatment—contain the elements of the hopeful twenties, when industry was god, self-reliance its gospel, and unionism an exciting heresy; when timidly rebellious young heirs like Emerson, Jr., frolicked in Harlem and psychology was the newest toy. His experience in the Brotherhood reflects the Great Depression, when dispossession was the common complaint and communism the intellectual's cure; his disillusionment with the Brotherhood parallels the general post-Depression retreat from communism. And the riot in which he drops out—of sight, of history, of the novel—suggests the Harlem riot of 1943.

The protagonist enters each stage hopefully and is ejected forcibly. His hopefulness is based on faith in the word or belief or method that each historical age has offered as the solution to the difficulties blackness has always presented. In school and college, it is accommodation—the principles of Booker T. Washington, as quoted by the protagonist in his graduation speech, eulogized by the Rev. Homer Barbee in his chapel-service account of "the Founder's" life, and practiced by Dr. Bledsoe in the administration of the college. In the business world, it is capitalism, individualism, Emersonian self-reliance. In politics, it is "brotherhood—whether of class, as maintained by the Brotherhood itself, or of race, as insisted by its chief competition, the Garveyesque Ras the Exhorter. The distinction between Ras and the Brotherhood is ultimately unimportant, for all the recommended solutions to the problem of blackness—accommodation; capitalism; its briefly introduced corrective, unionism; communism; nationalism—prove to be false. Reliance on these conventional principles leads the protagonist not to security but to the chaos that propels him from one stage to another—from the Battle Royal, to the melee at the Golden Day, to the paint factory explosion, to the Harlem riot. And the proponents of these principles—Jack, Norton, Emerson—merge in the protagonist's mind by the end of the novel "into a single white figure," with which Bledsoe, too, is elsewhere associated.

Opposed to the conventional and apparently rational doctrines of the white world are the wisdom and experience of the black folk tradition, which exposes the falseness of the white view of reality and offers an alternative vision testified to by the protagonist's grandfather, the pushcart man, the vet, and, ironically, Bledsoe and Emerson, Jr. Each of these characters has some link with the folk past. The grandfather has been a slave; the pushcart man talks rhymes and fables and sings the blues; the vet, though educated and erudite, is connected in the protagonist's mind with the pushcart man; Bledsoe is modeled on Booker T. Washington, a legend in himself and a real-life reflection of the traditional trickster; even Emerson, Jr., is a primitivist, who frequents Harlem nightclubs, collects African art, and reads Totem and Taboo. These characters are also linked—as Bledsoe, Emerson, Norton, and Jack are on the other side—by the advice they give the protagonist for dealing with blackness.

The protagonist regards the businessmen's smoker at which he delivers his graduation speech and receives his scholarship to the state college for Negroes as his emancipation from the degradation created by slavery, but it is also here that he is compelled to participate in the Battle Royal. Folk wisdom would show this "emancipation" and each successive one to be just variations on the fundamental condition of slavery. The protagonist's grandfather warns him in a dream that the scholarship certificate in his briefcase advises "Whomever It May Concern" to "Keep This Nigger Boy Running." The prediction recalls the trick some masters played on their illiterate slaves, writing them passes that invited the reader to administer a flogging. It is fulfilled by both Bledsoe, whose treacherous letters of introduction request the reader to help the bearer "continue in the direction of that promise which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler," and Jack, who the protagonist realizes, when he sees that the handwriting on a threatening note is the same as that which has informed him of his Brotherhood name, "named me and set me running with one and the same stroke of the pen."

The principle of emancipation through accommodation is refuted by the folk storyteller Trueblood: "I done the worse thing a man could ever do in his family and instead of chasin me out of the county, they gimme more help than they ever give any other colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was." The principle of emancipation through capitalism is punctured by the folk rhyme the protagonist remembers when he hears of Bledsoe's treachery: "They Picked Poor Robin Clean" explains not only what Bledsoe has done to him but what Liberty Paints has done to Lucius Brockway and will do to him and what capitalistic industry generally strives to do to all its workers. The irony of Brother Jack's betrayal is sharpened by the background of the John-and-Old-Marster tales: "Brother Jack," whose name is a variant of "Brother John," reminds the protagonist of "old Master," a bulldog he "liked but didn't trust" as a child, and becomes in the end "Marse Jack." Even Brotherhood—which, as both abstract philosophy and political movement, promises the ultimate liberation—offers only the same old oppression.

What the folk perspective substitutes for the "rational" programs to order chaos is acceptance of chaos as reality. Under the stream of conventional advice on how to deal with blackness runs a current of counteradvice introduced and distilled in the protagonist's grandfather's deathbed dictum: "overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction"—the "beginning" to which the narrator returns on the first page of Chapter i. The grandfather, the vet, the pushcart man, Bledsoe, and Emerson offer a vision of reality based on contradiction: yes is no, freedom is slavery, things are not what they seem. The pushcart man sings the characteristic contradiction of the blues,

     She's got feet like a monkey
     Legs like a frog—Lawd, Lawd!
     But when she starts to loving me
     I holler Whoooo, God-dog!
     Cause I loves my baabay,
     Better than I do myself …

leaving the protagonist to wonder whether the song expresses love or hate and whether he himself is hearing it with pride or disgust. "Play the game, but don't believe in it," counsels the vet. "You're black and living in the South," exclaims Bledsoe, "did you forget how to lie?" "For God's sake, learn to look beneath the surface," exhorts the vet. "Aren't you curious about what lies behind the face of things?" asks Emerson, Jr. What lies behind the face of things is, like the black dope in the white paint, contradiction.

The inclusion of Emerson, Jr., and Bledsoe as spokesmen for the "folk," as well as for the white, point of view is not self-contradictory but illustrative of the simultaneous sway of opposites that Ellison sees as the heart of the folk vision. A yam may be good and sweet and call up memories of all that is good in the past and in the South; or it may be bitter. A leg shackle may be a "symbol of our progress," as Bledsoe calls the memento on his desk; or it may be a symbol of continued slavery, as Bledsoe's seems to be in comparison with Brother Tarp's filed-open shackle. The meaning is not in the thing itself but in the way it is used.

The function of folklore in Chapter xi, in which the protagonist undergoes electric shock treatment in the paint factory hospital, applies this point to the protagonist's identity and the Sambo image. When the doctors and nurses refer to Brer Rabbit in their efforts to draw the protagonist a new personality after erasing the old one electrically, they clearly have the Sambo image in mind. They have just played with the shock treatment as the traditional cracker plays with pistol shots:

"Look, he's dancing," someone called.

No, really?"

An oily face looked in. "They really do have rhythm, don't they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!" it said with a laugh.

When they ask in sequence "What is your name?" "Who was your mother?" "Who was Buckeye the Rabbit?" and "Who was Brer Rabbit?" they are regarding folklore as the expression of a childish personality, safe and hence "normal" in a black subject. The protagonist identifies with the folklore—"Somehow I was Buckeye the Rabbit"—but while the doctors mention the Rabbit with the expectations of the nursery, the protagonist replies in the idiom of the dozens:


He was your mother's back-door man. I thought. Anyone knew they were one and the same: "Buckeye" when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; "Brer" when you were older.

Even Sambo, the image of subjugation, has simultaneous, opposite meanings. He is not only the embodiment of degradation but also, as Dr. Bledsoe, Trueblood, Lucius Brockway, and Tod Clifton all demonstrate in one way or another, a source of power. "I's big and black and I say 'yes, suh' as loudly as any burrhead when it's convenient," Dr. Bledsoe concedes, "but I'm still the king down here." Sambo represents not only powerlessness but the knowledge of powerlessness, not only the absence of identity but knowledge of the absence—and knowledge is a kind of power in itself. Tod Clifton, selling Sambo dolls, even being shot by the police, is in greater control of his own destiny than the protagonist, who is still being manipulated, like one of Clifton's dolls, by the Brotherhood. Clifton has acknowledged and rejected the Brotherhood's manipulation; the protagonist is still dancing on a string unawares.

Sambo is, in effect, the lesson the protagonist has rejected all along; that, in the terms of the white world he has been relying on for guidance and identity, he is nobody, invisible, Sambo—something his advisers have been telling him from the beginning. Whether invisibility is identity or nonidentity depends on your point of view: "You're nobody, son," barks Bledsoe, speaking for the white point of view. "You're hidden right out in the open," says the vet, from the black. "Identity! My God! Who has any identity any more anyway?" laments Emerson, Jr., from the nihilistic. The protagonist's challenge is to look at things from the black point of view, the underside, from which the contradiction, the chaos, is apparent.

The folk influences in Invisible Man define not an action but an attitude of ironic withdrawal from the white world, an attitude represented metaphorically by the lives of all those characters—Bledsoe, Trueblood, Brockway, and Rinehart—who deal with it successfully and finally by the protagonist's withdrawal into his well-lighted cellar. All the characters who function well in the white world inhabit some sort of underworld: Bledsoe's is calculated humility; Trueblood's, the subconscious; Brockway's, the cellar of Liberty Paints; Rinehart's, organized crime. And they all accept the chaos apparent from down below. "You have looked upon chaos and are not destroyed?" Mr. Norton asks Trueblood. "No suh, I feels all right." "This here's the uproar department and I'm in charge," boasts Lucius Brockway (Lucifer Breakaway) from his cellar. Rinehart does not simply live with chaos; as Rine the runner, Rine the gambler, Rine the briber, Rine the lover, and Rine the Reverend, he is chaos:

Could he be all of them?… Could he himself be both rind and heart?… It was true as I was true…. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the truth was always a lie.

When the protagonist comes to this insight, realizes that he has "no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine," and goes underground, he is following the model of these folk characters and the wisdom of his folk advisers and is acting out the lesson that folk allusions have helped to develop: that meaning is all in your mind.

This ironic withdrawal is presented as negation of the white world and its absurdity. The protagonist looks on his retreat as a relief from the "ill[ness] of affirmation, of saying 'yes' against the nay-saying of my stomach—not to mention my brain." The characters he is imitating are all, from the conventional point of view, a bit diabolical, and those whose advice he is following—the crazy grandfather, the insane vet, the neurotic young Emerson—are all a bit mad. It is against this perceived negation that Ellison sets the contrived reinterpretation of the grandfather's advice ("Could he have meant—hell, he must have meant that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men …") and the unsupported retraction of the book's dramatic statement: "Perhaps that's my greatest social crime, I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play."

But withdrawal into a hole is not negation. To say that the world is absurd, that the only reality is in the mind, is a way of saying that the world and the falsehoods that make it absurd are unimportant. And that is, if not affirmation, at least acquiescence. The goal in Invisible Man is to know, not to change; knowledge is presented as the equivalent of change. But knowledge does not necessarily produce change. Whether or not Sambo knows is something Old Marster never knows; it is only when Sambo shows he knows that the relationship changes—and then Sambo is not Sambo at all, but John, Old Marster's natural equal and moral and intellectual superior. When John says "yes" to Old Marster, he is either covering up his crimes against slavery or setting up new ones. The result is, at least, a couple of chickens in his pot; at most, some erosion of the power of slavery that Old Marster is forced to acknowledge: Old Marster gets whipped, Old Miss gets slapped, or Old John gets freedom. The affirmation of Invisible Man is neither the survival technique of John the chicken thief nor the political weapon of John the social saboteur, for the negation behind it is all in the mind. The ultimate effect of Invisible Man's reinterpretation of the black folk image is not to elevate Sambo, the cellar rebel, to the status of John but to reduce the archetypal black folk hero to Sambo. Thus the result of the protagonist's identity quest is not self-definition at all but reaffirmation of the identity provided by the white culture.

There are two folk characters in the novel who have the potential for representing a positive interpretation of the black folk perspective: Mary Rambo and Brother Tarp. Both are explicitly characterized as anchors against chaos. The protagonist thinks of Mary as "a force, a stable familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face." He regards Brother Tarp's gift of the sawed-open chain link as a "paternal gesture which at once joined him with his ancestors, marked a high point of his present, and promised a concreteness to his nebulous and chaotic future." Both offer the protagonist advice in direct opposition to the counsel to go underground:

"It's you young folks what's going to make the changes," [Mary says]. "Y'all's the ones. You got to lead and you got to fight and move us all on up a little higher. And I tell you something else, it's the ones from the South that's got to do it, them what knows the fire and ain't forgot how it burns. Up here too many forgits."

Brother Tarp echoes her with the gift of the legchain link:

"Even when times were best for me I remembered. Because I didn't want to forgit those nineteen years I just kind of held on to this as a keepsake and a reminder…. I'd like to pass it on to you, son…. Funny thing to give somebody, but I think it's got a heap of signifying wrapped up in it and it might help you remember what we're really fighting against. I don't think of it in terms of but two words, yes and no; but it signifies a heap more…."

These passages root both the activist perspective and the stabilizing effect of Mary and Tarp in slavery, the South, the past—the black folk experience. The anchor against chaos that each provides is a clear perception of the source of the chaos, not as general absurdity, but as the specific legacy of slavery, something to be confronted in the world, not just the mind. But the perspective of Mary and Brother Tarp is not the perspective of the novel. Ellison does not follow up the implications of their characterization. Their advice is never confirmed, never refuted, never even dramatized. Though they are introduced as admirable and illuminating characters, they are soon dropped and forgotten. Mary Rambo is further developed in an unused chapter entitled "Out of the Hospital and under the Bar," but even if it were included, she would still have no sustained effect on the novel. The final perspective remains that of the grandfather, who has said "no" so secretly that even his family is shocked to hear him call himself a traitor.


The long-projected novel "And Hickman Arrives" follows up on the final, universalizing sentence of Invisible Man: "Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"

Judging by the published fragments, "Hickman" explores the relationship between a representative white American and a group of blacks who are, in two ways, his. Senator Sunraider is a representative American in that he is a legislative representative, and he is a representative white man in that his views, though racist in the extreme, represent the quintessence of white consciousness of whiteness. The black characters are "his" not only in the sense that he acts as though he owns them but also, paradoxically, in the sense that he belongs to them. Senator Sunraider, like Faulkner's Joe Christmas, is a man of ambiguous ancestry. We see him in "Juneteenth," "The Roof, the Steeple, and the People," and the flashback in the title story as a light-skinned foundling in a black community in the South, a child-prodigy preacher named Bliss, foster son and pupil of Rev. A. Z. Hickman, "God's Trombone." He has grown up to be, inexplicably, a white racist senator from a New England state. As Hickman and his congregation watch the Senator from the Senate visitors' gallery, they recognize in the very rhetoric with which he humiliates black people the gestures and cadences of the southern black preacher: "'why, Reveren', that's you! He's still doing you! O, my Lord … still doing you after all these years and yet he can say all those mean things he says….'" The Senator is of what he is against; his roots are in what he so strenuously denies: and he denies it so strenuously because he is rooted in it. The implication is that the Senator's apparently bizarre relationship with Hickman is actually the archetypal relationship of white America to black: something more than brotherhood—identity, perhaps—denied.

The relationship is developed by stitching together elements of the black experience and elements of American popular culture into a patchwork myth of American identity. Like a quilter making two-color patterns, Ellison matches black folk characters to white racist stereotypes, the folklore of race relations to the conventions of southwest humor, and ultimately the emancipation of black folks from slavery to the emancipation of whites from racism. The patterns are set against a background of allusions to stories—historical and literary—that have already become myths of American identity.

Daddy Hickman, the folk preacher, and Senator Sunraider, the southern politician (though northern: North and South are one and the same) relate to each other as Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. Hickman treats the child Bliss, the grownup Senator, and all whites with the patronizing patience characteristic of the stereotypical plantation storyteller. Bliss and Sunraider portray the two sides of the white child, who is both the child and the master, both the "son" and the "son-raider," kidnapper, castrater. The relationship between Senator Sunraider and his living past culminates when he is shot from the Senate visitors' gallery in a gesture that, ironically, recalls the assassination of Lincoln the Emancipator (and seems to divine, in 1960, an element of the American experience revealed in the ensuing decade with the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King).

In a further twist to the irony, the assassination does emancipate Senator Sunraider by making him acknowledge his sonship and hence himself. In his delirium he calls for Daddy Hickman and reenacts sermons he has helped Hickman preach. The role of Bliss in these sermons has been to dramatize the theme of life-out-of-death. In the sermon in "And Hickman Arrives," he rises on cue from a little white satin coffin clutching his teddy bear and an Easter bunny. As the Senator relives the experience of the sermon, falling again under the influence of Hickman's rhetoric as he remembers it, he undergoes the rebirth that the sermon is about. The "Juneteenth" sermon, preached on the annual celebration of Emancipation among blacks in the Southwest, applies the resurrection theme to the history of a people and the awakening of Senator Sunraider to the redemption of American society. In this sermon, Hickman calls the enslavement and emancipation of his people "a cruel calamity laced up with a blessing—or maybe a blessing laced up with a calamity … because out of all the pain and the suffering, out of the night of storm, we found the Word of God." As Hickman develops this theme, Bliss acts it out. "WE WERE LIKE THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES!" he shouts. When the bones begin to stir, Bliss begins to strut. When Bliss, the child of his memory, is moved, the dry bones of the Senator begin to stir. When Senator Sunraider comes to himself, he emancipates both the blacks he has assumed power over and the blackness, the humanity, in himself.

The relationship between black and white outlined in the main plot is repeated with variations in a comic subplot in which the assassination of Senator Sunraider is parodied by the sacrifice of a gleaming white Cadillac. This episode, contained in "Cadillac Flambé" and "It Always Breaks Out," is a chain of reactions to the Senator's half-facetious but characteristic public statement that the Cadillac has become so popular with blacks that it ought to be renamed the "Coon Cage Eight." Each of the characters in this subplot is both a racial and a literary stereotype, characterized by both the content and the form of a speech on race relations.

LeeWillie Minifees, who immolates his Cadillac on the Senator's front lawn, is the Black Militant and literary Badman. He acts in the tradition of a decade of ghetto rioters, draft-card burners, and self-immolating Buddhist monks; he speaks with the style and defiance of a Shine or a Stackolee:

"YOU HAVE TAKEN THE BEST," he boomed, "so, DAMMIT, TAKE ALL THE REST! Take ALL the rest!

"In fact, now I don't want anything you think is too good for me and my people. Because, just as the old man and the mule said, if a man in your position is against our having them, then there must be something WRONG in our wanting them. So to keep you happy, I, me, LeeWillie Minifees, am prepared to WALK. I'm ordering me some clubfooted, pigeon-toed SPACE SHOES. I'd rather crawl or fly. I'd rather save my money and wait until the A-RABS make a car. The Zulus even. Even the ESKIMOS! Oh, I'll walk and wait. I'll grab me a GREYHOUND or a FREIGHT! So you can have my coon cage, fare thee well!

… And thank you KINDLY for freeing me from the Coon Cage. Because before I'd be in a CAGE, I'll be buried in my GRAVE—Oh! Oh!"

                                ["Cadillac Flambé"]

McGowan, a journalist who comments on the conflagration from the leather-upholsteredluxury of his club, while the "inscrutable but familiar Negro waiter" Sam unobtrusively serves drinks, is both the Unreconstructed Rebel and the Big Braggart of southwestern humor. The main body of "It Always Breaks Out" is McGowan's long, hyperbolic dissertation on the thesis "everything the Nigra does is political." If he buys a washing machine or more than one TV, wears a dashiki or a homburg, joins the Book-of-the-Month Club or likes Bill Faulkner, drives a Volkswagen or a Cadillac or an Imperial when he can afford a Cadillac (and so on for nine pages), he is being political. "But gentlemen," McGowan concludes, with the inconsistency of wishful thinking, "to my considerable knowledge no Nigra has ever even thought about assassinating anybody."

The journalist who narrates both Lee Willie's action and McGowan's reaction is, in his own words, "a liberal, ex-radical, northerner"—in folk-literary tradition, the Gullible Greenhorn. He reports the conflagration on the Senator's front lawn with meticulous attention to detail, and with all the insight of the narrator of "The Big Bear of Arkansas" or "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

For now, having finished unpacking, the driver … picked up one of the cases—now suddenly transformed into the type of can which during the war was sometimes used to transport high-octane gasoline in Liberty ships (a highly dangerous cargo for those round bottoms and the men who shipped in them)—and leaning carefully forward, began emptying its contents upon the shining chariot.

And thus, I thought, is gilded an eight-valved, three-hundred and fifty-horsepowered air-conditioned lily!

For so accustomed have we Americans become to the tricks, the shenanigans, and frauds of advertising, so adjusted to the contrived fantasies of commerce—indeed, to pseudo-events of all kinds—that I though that the car was being drenched with a special liquid which would make it more alluring for a series of commercial photographs.

                                ["Cadillac Flambé"]

The reporter's careful, conscientious, and convoluted report is his "speech"; he comments by his very attempt to report without commenting.

For all their difference in style, the narrator and McGowan speak from equal ignorance, obtuseness, and presumption. Neither can see the implications of his own speech; neither can conceive of a black person's destroying a symbol or representative of American society. The narrator does not see Lee Willie any more than McGowan notices Sam. The northern and southern journalists are both like the northern-southern Senator, and he is like both of them. All three deny black humanity. All three, in doing so, make themselves ridiculous. The narrator has a glimpse of this connection when he observes Sam, the one character of the four who comments by silence:

Was he, Sam, prevented by some piety from confronting me in a humorous manner, as my habit of mind, formed during the radical Thirties, prevented me from confronting him; or did he, as some of my friends suspected, regard all whites through the streaming eyes and aching muscles of one continuous, though imperceptible and inaudible, belly laugh? What the hell, I though, is Sam's last name?

In among the jibes at journalists, liberals, and advertising stunts, the episode of the burning Cadillac makes the point that the humanity of such paper-doll characters as McGowan and the narrator is tied up in that of the Sams and the Lee Willies, that it is their refusal to acknowledge the humanity of the Sams and the LeeWillies that stereotypes them and robs them of their own humanity. If the message of Invisible Man and Ellison's early short stories is that blackness is humanity, the message of "And Hickman Arrives" is that humanity—and particularly American humanity—is blackness.

Given Ellison's acute consciousness of literary tradition and national myth, it is probably more than coincidence that Hickman bears the same name as the focal character in Eugene O'Neill's Iceman Cometh, another mythic rendition of the American experience. Each of them, Theodore Hickman ("Hickey") the salesman and A. Z. Hickman the preacher, is both preacher and salesman. Each comes to his potential converts—Hickey, as Iceman, "cometh" to Harry Hope's saloon, Hickman "arrives" in Washington—with a gospel of self-recognition. Each preaches birth into a new life through death to a false one. Each establishes a sense of identity between himself and his subject. Though Hickey's gospel is ultimately ironic and Daddy Hickman's straight, Ellison uses the mythic character of the consummate salesman to touch the themes of illusion and identity and to tie his conception of the American experience to what American society already accepts as an American myth. The distinction between black and white, Daddy Hickman is saying, is one of those illusions we think we need in order to live, but we do not really live until we see it as an illusion and give it up. "And Hickman Arrives" is a mythic and metaphorical amplification of the theme of an essay Ellison wrote for Time entitled "What America Would Be without Blacks" (6 April 1970, pp. 54-55). In this essay Ellison identifies two fundamental contributions of blacks to American culture: a cultural style and a moral center—"for not only is the black man a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence, but Jim's condition as American and Huck's commitment to freedom are the moral center of the novel." A patchwork of American archetypes and stereotypes, "Hickman" attempts to give a moral center to the myth of American democracy. In the Time essay Ellison says that the presence of an incompletely free group of people represents both the performance and the possibilities of American democracy, and in the novel he suggests that the function of black suffering is to emancipate white humanity. As Hickman, looking back on the night in which he now realizes his foster son "began to wander," confesses to Sunraider, "all that time I should have been praying for you" ("Hickman"). Ellison's manipulation of folklore in "Hickman" subordinates black experience to American redemption.


Ellison's ability to adapt, rather than simply to include, black folklore in his fiction is regarded as his special contribution to the literary interpretation of both folklore and black culture. A few commentators have criticized this adaptation of black folklore for its dependence on Western mythology. Larry Neal, who singles Ellison out for his broad and profound understanding of Afro-American culture, considers the fact that Ellison "overlays his knowledge of Black culture with concepts that exist outside of it" a sign of confusion. George E. Kent regards Ellison's use of the folk and cultural tradition in Invisible Man with "a certain unease," "inspired by the elaborate system of interconnection with Western symbols and mythology, and our awareness that Blackness is more in need of definition than Western tradition, which has had the attention of innumerable literary masters." Both these comments treat the elements of blackness and Western tradition in Ellison's fiction as separable. But Ellison's adaptation of black folklore produces an alloy rather than a plate. The process of ritualization itself changes the meaning of the folklore.

Although rituals do undergo change, they do so much more slowly than other aspects of life, and fixity remains the principle of ritual as a form. People use ritual to deal with "those sectors of experience which do not seem amenable to rational control," or as Ellison himself puts it,

People rationalize what they shun or are incapable of dealing with; these superstitions and their rationalizations become ritual as they govern behavior. The rituals become social forms, and it is one of the functions of the artist to recognize them and raise them to the level of art.

                ("The Art of Fiction: An Interview")

Thus ritual, by its very nature, formalizes the relationship of individuals to an order they do not understand and think they cannot change. By formalizing, it perpetuates; by perpetuating, it celebrates. As a form, ritual tends to affirm the powerlessness of human beings and the permanence of a fixed order.

Emulation of ritual in literature applies the implications of the form to the conflict between characters and the social, natural, or metaphysical forces controlling their lives. It diminishes the role and responsibility of individuals for shaping their own world, personifies impersonal forces and dehumanizes social institutions, homogenizes human experience by emphasizing continuity rather than development, and reduces any particular human action to an insignificant gesture among many in the long run of time. Ultimately, it reduces the significance of the very conflict it expresses by setting it in the context of innumerable others, past and future, by foreordaining the outcome, and by approving the outcome as a contribution to maintaining the order.

Ritualization of black folklore applies the implications of ritual to the specific social conflict between black people and the institution of slavery or Jim Crow. It implies that this conflict is part of a general, eternal, and inescapable conflict between human beings and their limitations. It transforms the social conflict at the heart of the folk expression into the metaphysical conflict of the framing myth, thus denying the social conflict any importance of its own. But the relationship between an oppressed people and an oppressive society is social; it is the result of human action and can be changed by human agency. To imply otherwise is, in Ellison's own words, to rationalize.

Rationalization is in fact just what Ellison's ritualization of black folklore accomplishes. It implicitly justifies the relationship between black people and American society by effectually denying it. Putting the experience of the flier in "Flying Home" into a context that includes the stories of Icarus, the prodigal son, and the fall of man changes it from an experience with racism to an example of hubris. It changes the image of the buzzard, a folk symbol of the destructiveness of racism, to that of the phoenix, a mythic symbol of the redemptiveness of destruction. The folk advisers in Invisible Man offer the protagonist a way of looking at society that allows him to live with it as it is. They teach him to consider invisibility a personal asset, rather than a social liability, to embrace chaos as the natural order, to regard Sambo as John, yes as no. But invisibility in the novel is a social liability; chaos is racism; Sambo is an attitude of acquiescence; and yes means no only in the mind of the speaker. In both Invisible Man and "Flying Home," Ellison offers folk expression as a definition of blackness, then uses folk characters and allusions to deny the social reality that has created the folk identity.

In "Hickman," Ellison uses the materials of black folklore and American popular and literary culture to broaden the context of black experience and reduce the significance of its social dimension. "Oh God hasn't been easy with us because He always plans for the loooong haul," Hickman preaches. "He's looking far ahead and this time He wants a well-tested people to work his will" ("Juneteenth"). As Hickman, in folk-preacher tradition, puts the experience of slavery into the context of Christian myth, Ellison puts it into the context of American myth. "And Hickman Arrives" characterizes the black experience as a test of American humanity and takes the same patient and paternal attitude toward its failure that Hickman takes toward the prodigal Senator Sunraider.

By enlarging the context of the relationship between black people and American society, all these works come to a positive conclusion. They suggest that the nature of the relationship can be changed by changing the perspective from which it is viewed and thus, implicitly, that the relationship exists only in the minds of the victims, as the invisible man's exists in his mind. This shift in perspective shifts the burden of change from the racist society to the oppressed race. Even in "Hickman," where Senator Sunraider, who represents American society, does apparently change, it is Hickman's uniquely paternal and pastoral attitude that effects the change. By denying the need for real change, broadening the context of black folklore perpetuates the oppressive relationship on which it is based. Thus the definition of black experience achieved by Ellison's ritualization of black folklore is ultimately not black but white—white not only because the "larger" contexts into which ritual fits the folklore are those of predominantly white American and Western societies but also because the very idea that a change in mental context can change social reality supports the interests of white society by implicitly denying those of the black. Ellison's adaptation of black folklore, however involuntarily, exchanges the self-definition of the folk for the definition of the masters—an effect it would not have if it did not undertake to define black identity.

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