As Lawrence Jackson details in his discerning, thorough and much needed biography, "Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius" (which concludes, as the subtitle suggests, with the author's acceptance of the 1953 National Book Award for "Invisible Man"), history and temperament rendered Ellison an unlikely champion of his own beliefs. He grew up in Oklahoma, where segregation had existed for only a few decades (and slavery never) and where Ellison witnessed acts of resistance: political, communal and personal.
Later experiences widened and deepened his sense of racism as a collective malaise, one that causes people to mistake and misuse one another. Just as "Moby-Dick" emerged in part from Herman Melville's collision with the world of literature he explored as avidly as he did the seas, so Ellison's "Invisible Man" emerged as his passion for music, folklore and early American fiction collided with the Modernist authors he discovered in his 20s (his novel bears epigraphs by Melville and T.S. Eliot). In "Invisible Man," Ellison depicted "race" with a complexity and versatility far beyond previous (and many succeeding) novels on the subject, making it a more powerful and demanding experience than almost any other in American literature.
But "Invisible Man" remains our literature's invisible classic, awarded honor without profit, cited but unread (or read inadequately). In high school and college, Ellison is infrequently assigned; as an African American novelist, Toni Morrison clearly outpolls him. When I worked in a bookstore, I routinely asked graduate students bearing reading lists what they were studying; even African American studies majors seldom mentioned (or read) Ellison. Author and novel have gained recent defenders, but many Ellison champions tend to be either political conservatives who sentimentalize the novel's message into a we-are-all-brothers coziness or black males who wield Ellison as a weapon against other black writers (especially Morrison)--or both.
Rereading it today, one can only wonder at this novel's being pilloried. How could a book that states, "Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?--diversity is the word" be accused of conservatism? Where is the Uncle Tom-ism in a novel that renders the permutations of prejudice so authentically that it still bears the power to shock, insult and alienate readers of all kinds, that it indicts its readers in a way no "oppressed" writing ever could?
"Invisible Man's" famous last line, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" has been cited as a statement of racial unity--but its Poe-like eeriness shouldn't be unheard (even though the narrator implicitly rejects such a comparison: "I am an invisible man," the novel begins. "No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe.... "). Nor should the sentence that precedes the novel's final words: "And it is this which frightens me." Could it be that Invisible's testimony is so true a reflection of how we continue to live in "[this] simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate" that our own responses to it frequently replicate Ellison's illumination of our society's desperate dependency on the decision not to see?
Fifty years on, "Invisible Man's" readers remain so used to that blindness that we continually self-aggrandize it into new functions. (In this light, Morrison's insistence on her fiction not being compared to the older, whiter, male literary canon becomes less liberating and more troubling.) It is just one irony of Ellison's life and work that critics who deplored him often became part of a movement called "identity politics," placing premium importance on "visibility."
And yet whether we recognize him or not, Ellison's fictional conscience hovers just beyond our sight, his awakening still too demanding a revelation for many readers. A great work of art can expose its audience to aspects of its existence beyond the reach of politicians, therapists and activists. Many of us remain prisoners of agendas and histories we find difficult to understand or surmount. But Ellison demonstrates how such obstacles can be confronted through the integrity of fiction. If he cannot exist in his own world, Invisible migrates from the middle passage of oppression to the emancipation of our collective imagination; his story challenges the stories we live by and share. The narrator's non-emergence at the end is often puzzled over, but it is clear that in keeping his hero underground, Ellison is throwing a dare at us. Invisible cannot appear, after all, because he is only a creation: It is we--Ellison-Invisible's readers--who can learn to witness each other.
When I walk around Harlem now (where I no longer live), I can still be startled by a sigh from a smoking manhole or attracted to an electrical hum pulsing from a back alley filled with barred basement entrances, Invisible's liberating cell still haunting me. I guess this is the highest compliment I could pay Ellison: I want to believe the unprecdented consciousness he wrested into American literature from his own life and wounds truly lives, so I can search for him and find him and discover if he and I could see one another