In an attempt to get caught up with some of my daily readings, I found myself speed reading through a number of back issues of the Economist and the Chronicle of Higher Education. While doing so, I came across the July 27th issue of the Chronicle Review that published a story about Ralph Ellison as a one-hit wonder. What amused me the most was the fact that I was just talking to Diane Creekmore, the English Department chairperson earlier about Ellison as a one-hit wonder….I used this exact wording in my conversation with her.
David Yaffe, in this article, stated that Ellison addressed issues of the civil rights before it was called so; of course, this is not entirley true. Yaffe points out that Ellison was not like other black contemporaries such as Richard Wright or Langston Hughs. Ellison would state that “I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos.” Yaffe stated that while cities such as Detroit were going up in flames during the race riots, Ellison was slow to react to the politics of the time. Moreover, “at the time of his death in 1994 at the age of 81, Ellison had become many things to many people: a tormented genius and a one-hit wonder.”
Ellison, to me, is everything; his one-hit wonder addressed the complexities of being black in a white world. This is complex when one reflects on matters of community and identity. And even if many might claim Ellison as a one-hit wonder — that is okay with me; Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, highlights the challenges many blacks face in white America:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.
Ellison is addressed this distorted perception — the failure to see the humanity and individuality of black people — has its roots in the historic veil of slavery and Jim Crowism that separates the black world from the white world. Du Bois made this veil famous in Souls of Black Folks:
The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals , and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.