Ralph Ellison's Favorite Protest Novel
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:
INTERVIEWERWere you affected by the social realism of the period?ELLISONI 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.INTERVIEWERThen you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.ELLISONNow, 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.INTERVIEWERBut isn't it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?ELLISONAll 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.
INTERVIEWERBut 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?ELLISONIf 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.
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.
The Summer After MalcolmHe 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.The summer after Malcolm, I lost myself in a jet stream of madwords, acts, goading bits of love memory. Like that. It was a coldbitch. I mean the pain. Dig, all summer long, I could see Malcolm'sface drifting with the sound of Harlem children. Old men playedcheckers on the blocks running between Seventh and Eighth. Andyes, there was the sweating night. The wine smells andhallways were screaming women. Angry the way the breeze cameoff from the river. Angered to, by the rustle of soft murmuringsilhouettes in the dark park. Child of demon lover, I grappled withancestral ghosts. It was Smokey Robinson's summer, the hip falsetto,the long lean lover.Missed you baby. Missed her small and awkwardness, the brownwalk, soft spots in the dark of her. Night turns on its edges. Dig, itwas a still clinging that robed sleep those summer nights.Remember baby. Under the beat, music spiraling over us, underthe 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. AfterMalcolm, the seasons turned stale. There was a dullness in the air forawhile. And you had gone, and there was a lingering beauty in thepain. Now there are scraps of you here and there in the backwashof my mind. And check this: lurking between odd pages in a bookof blues, your handwriting in red ink...