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Because he knows that the white world will say that he raped her and will never accept that her death was an accident, he decapitates Mary so that he can get her body into the furnace and burn it. When he goes home to sleep, rest, and think about his actions, he begins to see his family from a new perspective. He realizes that they have left life defeat them and are blind to the role they play in the defeat. When he goes back to the Dalton home, the family's questions show that the whites are also blind. So he responds to their questions, giving them answers that will convince them Mary took the train to Detroit. Feeling in control of his life for the first time, he decides to challenge the Daltons, and thus white society, by writing a ransom note. This decision is significant in Wright's characterization of his hero, for Bigger at this point is not known to be implicated in Mary's death and could have escaped. But this is not the novel Wright chose to write. Bigger does not ask for money because he wants to get rich or to use it to get away; he does so to test his power.
Realizing that the Daltons are blind to his humanity, Bigger is able to use their weakness to manipulate their thoughts. His fear of whites, however, which was responsible for Mary's death, also accounts for the mistakes he makes that precipitates the discovery of Mary's bones and his identification as the killer. Because he is afraid to clean the furnace in the presence of the white reporters who lurk about the basement, he permits the ashes to back up and the house to get cool. Peggy, the housekeeper, then tells him to clean the furnace, and he has no choice but to obey the command given by a white woman. Not to do so would draw attention to the rebelliousness that he has masterfully managed to conceal. He is so afraid to remove the ashes in the presence of the white reporters that he performs the job quite badly, causing such a mess that smoke fills the basement. A reporter takes the shovel from Bigger. When the reporters find an earring in the ashes, they examine them more carefully and discover pieces of Mary's bones. Bigger jumps out a window and runs until he is captured.
Having spent his entire life up to this point hiding behind a wall of sullenness, Bigger is forced now to fight in an emotional arena. The questions that Max, the lawyer the Communist party appoints to defend him, asks Bigger about himself, coupled with the long ordeal of the trial, incite in him the need to reach out to make a connection between himself and another human being for the first time in his life. He had realized soon after Mary's death that the whites and the blacks around him are blind, but at first he is unable to acknowledge his own blindness. Thinking initially that the lawyer will understand him, Bigger attempts to explain to Max the meaning of his life and his revelation. Despite Max's eloquent speech, in which he asserts that Bigger's causing Mary's death was an act of creation, Max is unable to accept the reality of Bigger's life when Bigger says, "â€¦what I killed for, I am! It must've been pretty deep in me to make me Kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder." Like numerous critics of the novel, Max is unable to identify with Bigger's acceptance of violence. The sullen, fearful, and violent Bigger is transformed from innocence to experience, and from ignorance to knowledge. He comes to realize that blacks like himself must take control of their own lives, regardless of the price. Perhaps the most important passage in the novel is the one in which Bigger demonstrates his spiritual growth by explaining his connection to the rest of humanity.
"Mr. Max, I sort of saw myself after that night. And I sort of saw other people, tooâ€¦ Well, it's sort of funny, Mr. Max. I ain't trying to dodge what's coming to meâ€¦. I know I'm going to get it. I'm going to die. Well, that's all right now. But really I never wanted to hurt nobody. That's the truthâ€¦. I hurt folks 'cause I felt I had to; that's all. They were crowding me to close; they wouldn't give me no room. Lots of times I tried to forget 'em, but I couldn't. They wouldn't let meâ€¦. Mr. Max, I didn't mean to do what I did. I was trying to do something else. But it seems like I never could. I was always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it. So I fought 'em. I thought they was hard and I acted hardâ€¦. But I ain't hard, Mr. Max. I ain't hard even a little bitâ€¦. But I - I won't be crying none when they take me to that chair. But I'll b-b-be feeling inside of me like I was cryingâ€¦. I'll be feeling and thinking that they didn't see me and I didn't see them." (paperback ed., p. 388)
His spiritual growth complete, Bigger now sees that he has been as blind as the whites. He understands that despite the entrapments of racism, blacks and whites have a shared human consciousness, and it is the black individual's responsibility not to succumb to the psychological pitfalls of racial oppression. By focusing on Bigger's consciousness, Wright encourages the reader to empathize with his character, an empathy that challenges the denunciations of both blacks and whites.
Max's characterization suggests that by the time of the publication of Native Son in 1940 the seeds of Wright's disillusionment with the Communist party had begun to sprout. The reader, like Bigger, initially expects that Max is capable of understanding his client. When he fails to do so, we gradually come to understand that his impressive speech was totally aimed at saving the image of the Communist party, which Bigger had implicated in Mary's alleged kidnapping. In American Hunger, Wright makes a comment about his Communist comrades that perfectly describes Max and his speech. When Wright's mother failed to grasp the symbolism of a "lurid May Day" cartoon in New Masses, Wright became sharply aware of the Communists' inability to reach the masses of black people. He thinks of the role he could play in rectifying this problem.
"Here, then, was something I could do, reveal say. The Communists, I felt, had oversimplified the experience of those whom they sought to lead. In their efforts to recruit masses, they missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of people in too abstract a mannerâ€¦. I would tell Communists how common people felt, and I would tell common people of the self-sacrifice of Communists who strove for unity among them." (paperback ed., pp. 65-66)
Wright soon realized that the Communists were not interested in how black people felt. He was disliked by the party because he could not be intimidated and was determined to live his life the way he thought it should be lived.
Three of the four essays in his final nonfiction work, White Man, Listen!, a collection of lectures given in Europe between 1950 and 1956, capsulizes what Wright had already said in Black Power (1954) and The Color Curtain (1956). The new essay in this collection, "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," written before his travels to Asia and Africa, is important reading for any student or teacher of African American literary history. Presenting a historical overview of African American literature from its beginning to the 1940s, he illustrates that literature is culture bound. He explains that writers such as Alexander Pushkin, a black Russian, and Alexander Dumas, a black Frenchman, did not write about race because they were integrated into the mainstreams of their cultures; they were at one with their cultures. Because she did not live a life characteristic of a slave, Phillis Wheatley did not focus essentially on aspects of race. Having received the kind of education given to white girls, she felt integrated into the culture around her. In the nineteenth century, when the harshness of slavery had begun to escalate, black writers such as George Moses Horton and James Whitfield wrote out of a sense of the psychological distance between them and the land in which they lived.
Tracing this tendency of blacks to depict themselves at odds with the environment in which they lived to writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Melvin B. Tolson, and Margaret Walker, he concludes that "expression springs out of environment, and events modify what is written by molding consciousness." Thus black literature will change, he adds, when the political and sociological conditions for the black change.
The dominant characteristic of Wright's works - his poetry, short stories, novels, travel books, sociopolitical treatises, and autobiographies - is the power that forbids neutrality on the part of any reader. His desire "to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human" demanded that he destroy the illusions and hypocrisy modern society has contrived to conceal its debilitating moral corruption. While still a young man in the 1930s, Wright realized that the most prominent example of modern society's degradation lay in racial oppression. The historical details he outlines in Twelve Million Black Voices (1941) and his characterization of Bigger Thomas symbolically present the idea he states straightforwardly in White Man, Listen! (1956) approximately seventeen years later: the concept that the history of black people in America is the history of America. Through his experiences in Europe, Asia, and Africa, he expanded his vision to include the interconnections between the low quality of life for people of color all over the world and the industrial, technological advancements of the Western Hemisphere.
Wright is the father of African American literature not only because his bold attack on racism gave the black writers who followed him the courage to express their visions truthfully, but also because to date no one writer has surpassed him in the diversity of creative accomplishments or in the ability to synthesize politics and art.
Ralph Ellison's Painful Invisibility
One of the "enduring functions of the American novel," Ralph Ellison wrote, "is that of defining the national type as it evolves in the turbulence of change, and of giving the American experience, as it unfolds in its diverse parts and regions, imaginative integration and moral continuity. Thus it is bound up with our problem of nationhood." In Invisible Man (1952), probably the most significant African American novel since World War II, Ellison gives his readers a terrifying and yet vibrant national metaphor: we are invisible.
In Ellison's created world, as in American society, the quick pace of change, the caprice, the arrogance alongside the innocence, the newness and the general instability of institutions, and, above all, the impulse to recoil from the awful demands of American democracy - all keep Americans from seeing each other or even themselves. As Ellison notes, the complexity and diversity of American life, along with the development of the novel as form, have brought forth novels such as Invisible Man: "Picaresque, many-leveledâ€¦ swarming with characters and with varied types and levels of experience." More than a "slice of life," Ellison's novel is an attempt at no less than a new definition of the national character, a modern national epic.
Accordingly, the vision in Ellison's Invisible Man, and indeed throughout his fiction, is ultimately affirmative. Virtually all of his fiction - ten stories before the novel, eleven after - features a black youngster stretching toward adulthood. We see in this work the evolution of a central theme: the more conscious one is of individual, cultural, and national history, the freer he or she becomes. As a young writer, Ellison quickly became dissatisfied with the typical naturalistic scenarios in which characters struggling to survive the merciless American environment are eventually overcome by impersonal forces. To Ellison, this documentary fiction was dull - and failed to capture the richness and variety of American life as he knew it. Influenced by a broad range of writers, including Dostoevsky, André Malraux, and Ernest Hemingway began to focus on the person who, by force of character and will, manages to endure.
Ellison's increasing maturity as a writer coincided with a gradual shift in his political perspective. During the late 1930s he was an enthusiastic supporter of many Communist party tenets, but by the mid-1940s he was publicly denouncing the party. He was first drawn to left-wing politics by his mother's involvement with the Socialist party in Oklahoma; by his own experience of poverty, segregation, and hard times; and by the impact of such events as the Scottsboro and Herndon cases and the civil war in Spain. André Malraux's political, critical, and fiction writings also affected Ellison profoundly and further stirred in him the prospect of participating in a concerted effort by revolutionary artists, intellectuals, and the people to redeem a world torn by war and depression.
From 1937 to 1944, Ellison wrote over twenty book reviews for such radical periodicals as New Challenge, Direction, and the Negro Quarterly; in 1940 the New Masses printed at least one piece by him every month. In the 1930s, Ellison joined the chorus of critics calling for realism as the literary mode appropriate for the radical writer. Mirroring the Communist party position of the day, Ellison's criticism often described black Americans as members of a state or nation (like a Russian soviet) within the United States. The literature of black Americans (the subject of about half of his reviews of the 1930s and 1940s) was, he believed, an emerging national literature that should serve to heighten the revolutionary consciousness of black people. The black writer should instill in his audience not merely "race consciousness" but awareness of class. Ideally, the revolutionary black writer should inspire black working people to unite with workers of other "nationalities" against the bourgeoisie, white and black.
While the Great Depression years brought tremendous difficulties, they were also, in Ellison's words, "great times for literature," times for "the conscious writer" to study his society's laws and to examine its' citizens' emotions "stripped naked." Furthermore, the writer could perceive the great American themes of tomorrow shining "beyond the present chaos." The black writer's particular duty was to overcome the handicap of living in racist, capitalist America and to teach his readers to do likewise. His greatest responsibility, said Ellison, echoing James Joyce's phrase, was "to create the consciousness of his oppressed nation."
Later, in "Flying Home" (1944), "King of the Bingo Game" (1944), and Invisible Man (1952), Ellison would present his own black protagonists threatened with liquidation in modern industrial society. His heroes' resiliency, memory, and luck, however, help them to "fuse" with "new elements" in their environment; they are reborn better able to deal with the churning world of airplanes and factories. In 1948, Ellison described the bemused protagonist of Invisible Man, which he was then writing, as "a character who possesses both the eloquence and the insight into the interconnections between his own personality and the world about him to make a judgment about our culture." Ellison's early desire for conscious heroes in American writing foreshadowed his eventual break with many of his literary and political friends, including Wright.
But in his literary essays of the early 1940s Ellison champions Wright as living testimony to the shining possibilities within the black communities. Against all odds, Wright had made himself into a highly conscious activist and writer. For Ellison, Wright's early novellas, published as Uncle Tom's Children (1938), constituted his best fiction; their power came not from overt Marxist or Kirkegaardian theorizing but from the folklore-rich language itself. And in the review "Recent Negro Fiction" (1941), Ellison held up Native Son as "the first philosophical novel by an American Negro. This work possesses an artistry, penetration of thought, and sheer emotional power that places it in the front rank of American fiction." Wright's autobiography, Black Boy (1945) prompted Ellison to compare it with works by Joyce and Dostoevsky, and with the blues.
That Ellison was finding his own direction in writing is clear from his fiction of the 1940s. And in critical essays of the 1960s he explains his early dissatisfaction with Native Son and Black Boy. Recognizing that Bigger Thomas in native Son represents black humanity smoldering under the ashes of despair and white oppression, Ellison nevertheless cannot accept Bigger as an adequate portrait of the African American. To him this character is little more than an ideological formulation, a sociological mortar shell fired at the guilty conscience of white America. Blacks themselves knew that life in the ghetto is not as dimensionless and dull as Wright paints it. Native Son is too deterministic and anchored in Marxist ideology.
"In Native Son Wright began with the ideological proposition that what whites think of the Negro's reality is more important than what Negroes themselves know it to be. Hence Bigger Thomas was presented as a near-subhuman indictment of white oppression. He was designed to shock whites out of their apathy and end the circumstances out of which Wright insisted Bigger emerged. Here environment is all - and interestingly enough, environment conceived solely in terms of the physical, the non-conscious. Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty! Kill my parents and throw me on the mercy of the court as an orphan! Wright could imagine Bigger, but Bigger could not possibly imagine Richard Wright. Wright saw to that." (Shadow and Act, p. 114)
In 1944, when Ellison's disagreement with radical American leftists was already strong, the war policies of the American Communist party impelled Ellison and many other blacks to leave the organized left entirely. When the party lent what Ellison called its "shamefaced support" to segregation in the armed forces, many blacks became bitterly disillusioned with the radicals' vaunted goodwill toward minorities.
In Invisible Man, the protagonist's decision to renounce his wholehearted support for the Brotherhood is based on his discovery that the radical group is cynically self-serving and, ultimately, racist. The Brotherhood sacrifices Harlem's interests for the sake of "international" goals and tries to mold the Invisible Man into their conception of the Good Negro: one passively willing to use his energy and his art (which is his oratory) exactly as the party commands. In the novel the Brotherhood stands, to a large extent, for the American Communist party. But Ellison also wanted the Brotherhood to be seen in a larger context: the party was not the only group of white American political activists to betray their black countrymen for narrow political ends.
With the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison moved suddenly into the front ranks of American writers. His novel evokes visions and tensions peculiar to American life as African Americans know it: Ellison's brown-skinned, nameless seeker suffers and scoots, forth and back, through a thicket of briars well known to American blacks. Yet Invisible Man is a modern masterpiece that, as Wright Morris has written, "belongs on the shelf with the classical efforts man has made to chart the river Lethe from its mouth to its sources." Richly expressing the meaning of life in Harlem (and the Southern background of that life), Ellison manages to describe what he says he finds in the work of the painter Romare Bearden: "The harmlessness of the human condition." Invisible Man is a deeply comic novel, with moments of terror and tragedy; it is a Bildungsroman in which a young man awakens to consciousness by piecing together fragments and symbols from history, myth, folklore, and literature, as well as his own painful experience.
Set in the approximate period 1930-1950, Invisible Man is the story of the development of an ambitious young black man from the provinces of the South, who goes to college and then to New York in search of advancement. This greenhorn at first wants no more than to walk in the footsteps of Booker T. Washington, whose words he quotes at his high school graduation and at a smoker for the town's leading white citizens. At the smoker he is given a new briefcase and a scholarship - emblems of his expected ascent up the social hierarchy. But first he is required to fight blindfolded in a battle royal with other black youths. Significantly, he and the rest are turned blindly against one another for the amusement of their black controllers.
This battle royal scene shows the protagonist to be not just blind but invisible. Obviously, the white town bosses see him not as an individual of promise but as a buffoonish entertainer, a worthless butt of their practical jokes, or, at best, a good colored boy who seems to know his place. In this sense the ritual purports to initiate him as their agent on guard for the status quo wherein he and his people will remain powerless. The youngster's invisibility also consists of his trust in the myth of advancement, American style. This confidence that he will rise to success (reminiscent of Horatio Alger and Booker T. Washington) renders him willing and eager to suppress his own will and words - his own identity - to be whatever they say he must be to get ahead.
That night he dreams that his grandfather tells him to open the briefcase, which contains a document reading: "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." But the youngster remains naÃ¯ve. He goes off to college but is expelled when he makes the fatal mistake of taking a visiting white trustee to a section of the local black community (and, metaphorically, to a level of black reality) never included in the college-town tour. Bledsoe, the college president, sends the hero packing to New York, first giving him a set of private letters of introduction that, he finally discovers, also courteously request that he be kept running - and jobless.
Eventually he does find work in New York, first in a paint factory, where he is discharged after being seriously hurt in an explosion - one that ultimately jars him into a new self-awareness and courage. He gives a moving speech at the eviction of an elderly Harlem couple and is hired by a predominantly white radical political organization called the Brotherhood. The group seems to confirm his childhood wish by telling him he will be made the "new Booker T. Washington . . . even greater than he." But the Brotherhood also sets him running. Despite his success in Harlem, the downtown "brothers" withdraw support for his program.
Why do they sell the hero out? First of all, because he has proven so successful with his uses of such vernacular forms as marching bands and stump speeches that the "scientific" Brotherhood fears that he, and the black community at large, have become dangerously independent in their power. The second, even more cynical, motive here involves Invisible Man's having performed his mission of stirring up Harlem; now, withdrawn from the community, he can perform the Brotherhood's other task of discouraging his followers so that they turn against not only him but also each other. He and the other Harlem leaders are set up to reenact the action of the blindfolded fighters of the novel's first chapter: to self-destruct while the white bosses, this time wearing the colors of the radical Left, protect their power from a safe distance.
A race riot erupts, and, still carrying his briefcase, which now contains, besides his diploma, several other mementos of his adventures, he falls down a manhole into an abandoned, bricked-up cellar. There he closely examines the papers in his briefcase and realizes how fully he has been betrayed by those who had professed to help him. And yet he discovers, too, that not only "could you travel upward toward success but you could travel downwards as well." He will remain down there, bathed in stolen light from the power company and in blues-idiom music; he will compose his memoirs in his hole at the edge of Harlem, in hibernation. "Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action." If others cannot or will not see him, he at least will see himself. His narrative, full of irony, insight, and fury, shows that he has attained self-awareness - even a certain wisdom - and that he has been able to act, to write this stunning book.
The shape and style of Invisible Man bespeak its determination to step toward the universal through "the narrow door of the particular." The novel resounds with black folklore, in which, says Ellison,
"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." (Going to the Territory, p. 283)
Blues, spirituals, sermons, tales, boasts, and other black American folk forms influence the characters, plot, and figurative language in this teeming novel. The striving young man is drawn toward the freedom of consciousness and conscience by the magic horns and voices of the folk. Nonetheless, he himself is never so much a blues hero or Br'er Rabbit as he is like Br'er Bear, outmaneuvered until the end by Br'ers Fox and Dog - in his case Bledsoe; Brockway, the factory supervisor; and One-Eyed Jack, who recruits him for the Brotherhood. Like the befuddled butt of many a folktale, this young man seems determined to be somebody's greenhorn, somebody's fool.
The novel is built not only upon the foundation of black lore but also of black literature. It is a benchmark black novel that seems aware of the entire tradition of African American letters. In it one overhears the black and white tricksters (slaves and slaveholders) of slave narrative locked in combat. One senses again the slaves' desperate yearning for education, mobility, and individual and communal freedom. There are particularly strong echoes of works by Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright, all of whom wrote prose portraits of tragicomic characters, "articulate heroes" in search of broader freedom.
But the power of Invisible Man is more than that of a repository of black influences. As if in defiance of the single-minded critic, Ellison adapted symbolism and rhetorical strategy from any and every source he felt would enrich the texture and meaning of his work: Sophocles, Homer, Dostoevsky, Malraux, Joyce, and Freud all figure in Invisible Man. Some allusions and symbol clusters fade out like wistful jazz riffs; others recur and provide the novel with structure. But no single critical "method" can explain this capacious novel, which owes as much to the symbolist tradition of Melville and Hawthorne as it does to the vernacular tradition of Mark Twain and Hemingway. This is not a "realistic" novel or an understated "hard-boiled" novel, or a symbolist romance (it is not, in any case, to be only so categorized); instead, it is an epic novel of many voices, an experimental narrative constructed upon the author's mastery of American language; as he describes it,
"a rich Babel ... a language full of imagery and gesture and rhetorical canniness. .. an alive language swirling with over three hundred years of American living, a mixture of the folk, the biblical, the scientific, and the political. Slangy in one instance, academic in another, loaded poetically with imagery at one moment, mathematically bare of imagery in the next." (Shadow and Act, pp. 103-104)
The Invisible Man embodies this confluence of traditions. He is a modern Odysseus, a latter-day Candide, a "black boy" comparable to Wright, a black and obscure Jude, a Yankee yokel, a minstrel endman. Of the several secondary characters who also embody a rich mixture of allusions, two stand out: Trueblood and Rinehart. Both are significant influences on the protagonist's growing awareness.
It is Trueblood, the sharecropper, whom the hero encounters when giving Mr. Norton, the white trustee, a tour of the college environs. "Half-consciously" the student drives over a hill into a section of the black community built during slavery and, at Norton's "excited command," stops in front of Trueblood's shack. Trueblood had, in earlier days, been invited to entertain white guests of the school, but no more: he has brought disgrace to the black community by impregnating his own daughter. "You have looked upon chaos and are not destroyed!" says Norton. "No suh! I feels all right," says Trueblood. Not just willingly but "with a kind of satisfaction and no trace of hesitation or shame," Trueblood recites the exuberant tale of his forbidden act; it is a private performance for the student and Norton, whose face, at story's end, "had drained of color." Shaking, the white man gives the farmer a hundred-dollar banknote: "Please take this and buy the children some toys for me," the northern philantropist says.
Rinehart enters the narrative late in the novel. To escape two followers of Ras, a black nationalist whose organization rivals the Brotherhood, the Invisible Man puts on glasses with lenses so dark that they appear black; he is immediately mistaken for Rinehart. "But . . . where's your new hat I bought you?" a young woman asks. To complete his disguise he buys the widest white hat in stock at a local store and is mistaken for Rinehart all evening: Bliss Rinehart, gambler and pimp; Rine the lover and cool "daddy-o"; Rine the briber and "confidencing sonofabitch"; Rine the numbers runner; Reverend B. P. Rinehart, "Spiritual Technologist . . . No Problem Too Hard For God." The Invisible Man is stunned by Rinehart: "Could he himself be both rind and deer? What is real anyway? . . . The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home."
Trueblood and Rinehart make their homes in quite different worlds. Trueblood has remained in the South, in a log-cabin homestead dusty with slave history. By contrast, while Rinehart may once have preached in Virginia, he has become a master manipulator of a chaos that is distinctively northern in scope. Indeed, what these black men have most in common is that both have stood before teeming chaos and have survived. Rinehart has embraced chaos. Trueblood has faced his crime of incest - the sin associated with confusion, degeneracy, and death, from Sophocles's Oedipus Rex to Freud's Totem and Taboo.
Both characters bring to mind the African American musical form, the blues. Trueblood has done wrong (but he didn't mean to) and is bashed in the head by his wife, who leaves him for a time and spreads the tale of his wrongdoing until even the preacher calls him "the most wicked man" he has ever seen. Yet Trueblood tells his story until it achieves a certain cadence, and it ends with song.
"Finally, one night, way early in the mornin', I looks up and sees the stars and I starts singin'. I don't mean to, I didn't think 'bout it, just start singin'. I don't know what it was, some kinds church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin' the blues. I sings me some blues that might ain't never been sang before, and while I'm singin' them blues I makes up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself and ain't nothin' I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen. I made up my mind that I was goin' back home." (p. 66)
Trueblood is what Albert Murray has called a "blues hero": a resilient improviser who confronts the low-down dirtiness of life, the "changes" and the "breaks," and who manages with style and grace to keep on.
Rinehart is no blues man in this broadly heroic sense. "Rinehart, Rinehart," thinks the Invisible Man, "what kind of man is Rinehart?" His name is a name from a blues song often sung by Ellison's old friend from Oklahoma, blues singer Jimmy Rushing: "Rinehart, Rinehart, / You're a most indifferent guy." But instead of evoking terror or pity, instead of putting confusion into perspective, as does Trueblood, Rinehart personifies confusion. He is the no-good "sweet-back," the evil mistreater that the blues bemoan. Trueblood sings the blues as a cathartic statement to assuage a tragic predicament, but Rinehart dispenses the blues to others: he distributes travail and thrives of it.
Trueblood's classical ancestors include Oedipus the King, but Rinehart's forebears are shape-changing tricksters. His middle name, Ellison has written, is Proteus. Yet both characters capture the note and trick of African American life, and both function in quite specific ways. Trueblood's tale is a lesson and a graphic warning, from which the Invisible Man learns that "there's always an element of crime in freedom." Trueblood's breaking of the incest taboo (even if, as he insists, he was asleep while doing so) suggests that the Invisible Man can also break the law and so extend the definition of what it means to be black and what it means to be human. Rinehart's lesson is that the world is much more ambiguous - and, again, full of possibility - than any narrow-minded, strict, schematic thinkers like those in the Brotherhood can know. "Underground" in Harlem there are operators undreamed of by One-Eyed Jack and his "brothers." Some, like the unscrupulous Rinehart, prosper in the dark maze. Others, like the "hip" young man the narrator sees in the subway station, have also been ignored by the Brotherhood.
"Men out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten. . . . But who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something precious? . . . What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?" (p. 441)
Rinehart the trickster is a figure of escape and of possibility whose presence suggests that beneath the surface of the American commonplace there burns a bright and raging world.
Invisible Man is a complex and richly comic novel in which the hero discovers a great deal about American history and culture. In the end he sees that he has been a fool, that, like Trueblood and Rinehart, he must confront chaos with strength and resiliency - and mother wit - or it will engulf him. When he plunges underground, he vows to stop running the course that Bledsoe and others had set for him and can say with Trueblood: "I ain't nobody but myself . . . I made up my mind that I was goin' back home."
James Baldwin's Symphony of Despair
"Mr. Ellison," Baldwin wrote in 1955, in Notes of a Native Son, "is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life." (p.8). In capturing the poetic and dramatic power of the black church in prose, however, Baldwin surpasses Ellison. Born on August 2, 1924, during the early days of the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz age, James Baldwin, unlike Wright and Ellison, was a poor Northern boy from the cultural capital of black America. A manchild in the Promised Land, he grew up in the bosom of Harlem and the church. He spent his formative years in the Pentecostal church under the stern eye of his stepfather, David, "a dour clergyman who indicted the entire white world for oppressing the black." Driven by the fury of David Baldwin's Old Testament example, young James steeped himself in the lore pf the black evangelical church and was called to preach at fourteen. Although he was a successful child preacher, neither his stepfather nor the church was his first love. In fact, he grew to hate the tyranny of both, leaving the church at seventeen and his stepfather's house the following year. In 1948 he fled from the tyranny of American racism and Puritanism to Paris.
The only real communication Baldwin recalls, in Notes of a Native Son, having with his stepfather is when he told his that he preferred the pen over the pulpit. "For me," Baldwin says, "writing was an act of love. It was an attempt - not to get the world's attention - it was an attempt to be loved. It seemed a way to save myself and to save my family. It came out of despair. And it seemed the only way to another world." He had been at it since he was ten, writing songs and plays in elementary school, publishing his first story in a church newspaper when he was twelve, and serving as editor of both his junior and senior high school magazines. It was during this period that he was influenced by Countee Cullen, a major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, who at Frederick Douglass Junior High School taught him French and was adviser to the literary club in which Baldwin was a prominent member. Earlier, when he was around nine or ten, "a young midwestern substitute" drama teacher gave him books and took him to see his first play, thereby introducing him to a world beyond Harlem and his stepfather's religiosity. Flattered by his teachers and both admired and bullied by his classmates, he began commuting to the library three or four times a week, reading everything he could and translating his feelings of hatred, fear, and loneliness into plays, poetry, and short stories. The first book he read, according to his mother, was Uncle Tom's Cabin. He was about eight and "just read it over and over again." Later in his school, he discovered Richard Wright and made him his idol and literary father: "In Uncle Tom's Children, in Native Son, and above all, in Black Boy, I found expressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life and the lives of those around me," Baldwin confessed after Wright's death. "His work was an immense liberation and revelation for me. He became my ally and my witness, and alas! my father."
Like his literary father, Baldwin is certainly no black revolutionary or romantic celebrator of African American culture. But whereas Wright coldly and categorically rejected the black American's African past and urban present as unnecessary cultural baggage for modern man, Baldwin agonizes over his dual heritage as an African American. In "Autobiographical Notes," he says:
"I know . . . that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past and I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use - I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine - I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme - otherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world."
These mixed emotions about himself and others, about men and events, are the result of seeing himself through the eyes of a world that sees him as the barbarous antithesis of civilized man. In "Stranger in the Village" Baldwin describes in theological terms the special attitude - Du Bois called it double-consciousness and Herskovits called it socialized ambivalence - he brings to the cathedral of Chartres:
"I was terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face the cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth."