Ralph Ellison's Favorite Protest Novel

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This interview with Ralph Ellison in The Paris Review was so good it hurt. I actually had to put it down. This section right here should enjoy some prominent real estate on this blog:



INTERVIEWER 

Were you affected by the social realism of the period? 

ELLISON 

I was seeking to learn and social realism was a highly regarded theory, though I didn't think too much of the so-called proletarian fiction even when I was most impressed by Marxism. I was intrigued by Malraux, who at that time was being claimed by the Communists. I noticed, however, that whenever the heroes of Man's Fate regarded their condition during moments of heightened self-consciousness, their thinking was something other than Marxist. Actually they were more profoundly intellectual than their real-life counterparts. Of course, Malraux was more of a humanist than most of the Marxist writers of that period--and also much more of an artist. He was the artist-revolutionary rather than a politician when he wrote Man's Fate, and the book lives not because of a political position embraced at the time but because of its larger concern with the tragic struggle of humanity. Most of the social realists of the period were concerned less with tragedy than with injustice. I wasn't, and am not, primarily concerned with injustice, but with art. 

INTERVIEWER 

Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest. 

ELLISON 

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man's Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial--all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works. 

INTERVIEWER 

But isn't it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority? 

ELLISON 

All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel--and isn't that what we're all clamoring for these days?--is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance. 



INTERVIEWER 

But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the "universal" you speak of? 

ELLISON 

If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he's lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance--but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write--that's what the antiprotest critics believe--but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn't want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn't want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure. 

Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience's presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro's humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity, but I don't think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us, the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. 

There is so much gold in here and a lot it explains my own thinking and why I reject certain aspects of the "conversation on race"--particularly the portion that says "Hey black guy who likes to write, your job is help me with my racism." Writing as diversity training is another species of subservience. 

What Ellison is talking about here is a kind of cultural nationalism, though he would never put it that way and I understand why. But a lot of his thinking has overlap with the less dogmatic sectors of the Black Arts Movement. When Larry Neal writes something like this:

Poppa Stoppa Speaks From His Grave

Remember me baby in my best light,
lovely hip style and all;
all laid out in my green velour
stashing on corners
in my boxcar coat--
so sure of myself, too cool for words
and running down a beautiful game.

It would be super righteous
if you would think of me that way sometimes;
and since it can't be that way,
just the thought of you digging me that way
would be hip and lovely even from here.

Yeah, you got a sweet body, baby,
but out this way, I won't be needing it;
but remember and think of me
that way sometimes.

But don't make it no big thing though;
don't jump jive and blow your real romance.
but in a word, while you high-steppin and finger-popping
tell your lovin man that I was a bad
motherfucker till the Butcher cut me down.

Or this:

   
The Summer After Malcolm

The summer after Malcolm, I lost myself in a jet stream of mad
words, acts, goading bits of love memory. Like that. It was a cold
bitch. I mean the pain. Dig, all summer long, I could see Malcolm's
face drifting with the sound of Harlem children. Old men played
checkers on the blocks running between Seventh and Eighth. And
yes, there was the sweating night. The wine smells and
hallways were screaming women. Angry the way the breeze came
off from the river. Angered to, by the rustle of soft murmuring
silhouettes in the dark park. Child of demon lover, I grappled with
ancestral ghosts. It was Smokey Robinson's summer, the hip falsetto,
the long lean lover.

Missed you baby. Missed her small and awkwardness, the brown
walk, soft spots in the dark of her. Night turns on its edges. Dig, it
was a still clinging that robed sleep those summer nights.

Remember baby. Under the beat, music spiraling over us, under 
the beat, and O how we clung and took that lovely, lovely, very mellow,
special super ride?

But that summer after Malcolm marks my phase in time. After 
Malcolm, the seasons turned stale. There was a dullness in the air for
awhile. And you had gone, and there was a lingering beauty in the
pain. Now there are scraps of you here and there in the backwash
of my mind. And check this: lurking between odd pages in a book
of blues, your handwriting in red ink...
He is not protesting in the sense of "Free South Africa." But by speaking in his native language, to his native people, he is actually performing the highest act of protest--asserting his humanity, and sketching out all of its  complexities and complications. In that way, he carves out the imaginative space--the recognition of shared humanity--that leads someone to protest South Africa in the first place, even if that isn't the intent.

Ellison is talking about root-work. He is not concerned with debating his humanity with white people. He won't consent to it. He wants to live somewhere far beyond those questions, somewhere where his humanity is taken for granted. I think all artists ultimately want the same.

I've thought about this a lot in terms of gender while watching French films. They seem past some many silly issues we have about sex and the body. The very notion that male frontal nudity is somehow a conversation, or a point to be debated, is degrading and infantilizing. Make good art. C'est tout motherfucker.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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