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Week 7

Ralph Ellison Invisible Man (1952)

 Please read:

Werner Sollors. "African Americans since 1900." Ed. Christopher Bigsby. The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 153-173.

Ralph Ellison. "Richard Wright's Blues." (1943) Shadow and Act. Vintage, 1972.  77-94.

My online lecture notes on Invisible Man.

Points for discussion:
  • "Like the blues lyric, the novel is a first-person reflective lament-turned-celebration through the creative force of the speaker.  Ellison generates an individual voice and style thoroughly rooted in the African American vernacular tradition, offering communal concerns through the voice of an individual member of the community." (Steven C. Tracy) What does the blues and jazz tradition represent? What and how does it contribute to the significance of this novel?

  • "Invisible Man elaborates a kind of blues modernism in several episodes." (Paul Allen Anderson).  Following on from the previous question, think about the ways in which Ellison structures the Invisible (and unnameable) Man's story into episodes.  In what ways might this organisational structure contribute to the elaboration of "blues modernism"?

  • "Miming classical western motifs and narrative structures, the potentials of symbolism, and the potential of American humor to provoke laughter, Ellison had succeeded in convincing readers that black Americans were thoroughly integrated in the fabric of American civilization." (Jerry W. Ward Jr.) Do you agree with this statement? give reasons for your answer.

  • "Ellison's use of competing discourses allows him to ponder the extent to which black community has access to language, whilst also enabling him to critique those 'voices' whose ideology he aims to subvert." (Cathia Jenainati) Identify the different discourses in play in this novel.

  • How might this anecdote illuminate the central trope of Invisible Man   

To declare that race is a trope, however, is not to deny its palpable force in the life of every African American who tries to function every day in a still very racist America.  In the face of Anthony Appiah’s and my own critique of what we might think of as “black essentialism,” Houston Baker demands that we remember what we might characterize as the “taxi fallacy.”
Houston, Anthony and I emerge from the splendid isolation of the Schomburg Library and stand together on the corner of 135thSt. and Malcolm X Boulevard attempting to hail a taxi to return to the Yale Club. With the taxis shooting by us as if we did not exist, Anthony and I cry out in perplexity, “But sir, it’s only a trope!” (Henry Louis Gates)

Suggestions for Further Reading: click on link