Sunday, 2 March 2014

Ralph Ellison: "Who knows but that I speak for you?"

Ralph Ellison was born on 1st March, 1914. He was the author of Invisible Man, widely regarded as one of the great American novels of the twentieth century.

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)
"Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) brought to the African-American novelistic tradition an increasingly Kafka-like absurdity, mixing naturalism, expressionism and surrealism to tell the story of a black man whose colour has rendered him invisible as a moral agent. A novel of existential namelessness, it recognized the universality of its central image: "Who knows but that I speak for you?" Malcolm Bradbury, From Puritanism to Postmodernism

From the Prologue to Invisible Man:

"I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother's as she stood before a group of slave owners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:
"Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the 'Blackness of Blackness.'"
And a congregation of voices answered: "That blackness is most black, brother, most black . . ."
"In the beginning . . ."
"At the very start," they cried.
" . . . there was blackness . . ."
"Preach it . . ."
" . . . and the sun . . ."
"The sun, Lord . . . "
" . . . was bloody red . . ."
"Red . . ."
"Now black is . . ." the preacher shouted.
"Bloody . . ."
"I said black is . . ."
"Preach it, brother . . ."
" . . . an black ain't . . ."
"Red, Lord, red. He said it's red!"
"Amen, brother . . ."
"Black will get you . . ."
"Yes, it will . . ."
" . . .an' black won't . . ."
"Naw, it won't!"
"It do . . ."
"It do, Lord . . ."
" . . . an' it don't."
"Halleluiah . . ."
"It'll put you, glory, glory, Oh my Lord, in the whale's belly."
"Preach it, dear brother . . ."
" . . . an' make you tempt . . ."
"Good God a-mighty!"
Old Aunt Nelly!"
"Black will make you . . ."
"Black . . ."
" . . . or black will un-make you."
"Ain't it the truth, Lord?"
And at that point a voice of trombone timbre screamed at me, "Get out of here, you fool! Is you ready to commit treason?"
And I tore myself away, hearing the old singer of spirituals moaning, "Go curse your God, boy, and die."
I stopped and questioned her, asked her what was wrong.
"I dearly loved my master, son," she said.
"You should have hated him," I said.
"He gave me several sons," she said, "and because I loved my sons I learned to love their father, though I hated him too."
"I too have become acquainted with ambivalence," I said. "That's why I'm here."
"What's that?"
"Nothing. A word that doesn't explain it. Why do you moan?"
"I moan this way 'cause he's dead," she said.
"Then tell me, who is that laughing upstairs?"
"Them's my sons. They're glad."
"Yes, I can understand that too," I said.
"I laughs too, but I moans too. He promised to set us free but he never could bring himself to do it. Still I loved him . . ."
"Loved him? You mean . . .?"
"Oh yes, but I loved something else even more."
"What more?"
"Freedom."
"Freedom" I said, "Maybe freedom lies in hating."
"Naw, son, it's in loving. I loved him and give him the poison and he withered away like a frost-bit apple. Them boys woulda tore him to pieces with they homemade knives."
"A mistake was made somewhere," I said, "I'm confused." And I wished to say other things, but the laughter upstairs became too loud and moan-like for me, and I tried to break out of it, but I couldn't. Just as I was leaving, I felt an urgent desire to ask her what freedom was and went back.
She sat with her head in her hands, moaning softly; her leather-brown face was filled with sadness. "Old woman, what is this freedom you love so well?" I asked around a corner of my mind.
She looked surprised, then thoughtful, then baffled. "I done forgot, son. It's all mixed up. First I think it's one things, then I think it's another. It gets my head to spinning. I guess now it ain't nothing but knowing how to say what I got up in my head. But it's a hard job, son. Too much is done happen to me in too short a time. Hit's like I have a fever. Ever' time I starts to walk, my head gets to swirling and I falls down. Or if it ain't that, it's the boys; they gets to laughing and wants to kill up the white folks. They's bitter, that's what they is."
"But what about freedom?"
"Leave me 'lone, boy; my head aches."
I left her, feeling dizzy myself. I didn't get far. Suddenly, one of the sons, a big fellow six feet tall, appeared out of nowhere and struck me with his fist.
"What's the matter, man?" I cried.
"You made Ma cry."
"But how?" I asked, dodging a blow.
"Askin' her them questions, that's how. Git outta here and stay, and next time you got questions like that, ask yourself!"
He held me in a grip like cold stone, his fingers fastening upon my windpipe until I thought I would suffocate before he finally allowed me to go.
I stumbled about dazed, the music beating hysterically in my ears. It was dark. My head cleared and I wandered down a dark, narrow passage, thinking I heard his footsteps hurrying behind me. I was sore, and into my being had come a profound craving for tranquillity, for peace and quiet, a state I felt I could never achieve. For one thing, the trumpet was blaring and the rhythm was too hectic. A tomtom beating like heart-thuds began drowning out the trumpet, filling my ears. I longed for water and I heard it rushing through the cold mains my fingers touched as I felt my way, but I couldn't stop to search because of the footsteps behind me.
"Hey, Ras," I called. "Is it you, Destroyer? Rinehart?"
No answer, only the rhythmic footsteps behind me. Once I tried crossing the road, but a speeding machine struck me, scraping the skin from my leg as it roared past.
Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,
What did I do
To be so black
And blue?"




 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is published by Penguin Classics.

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