Relative Politics: The Literary Triumverate of Ralph Waldo Ellison, Ernest J. Gaines, and James Alan McPherson
"The first true phrase sings out in barnyard; the hunt in books for quail."
-- Michael S. Harper, "Goin to the Territory"
The Prologue of Ralph Ellison Invisible Man finds the protagonist offering testimony to his acquisition of inventive skill. "Though invisible," he states, "I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison, and Franklin." After surviving the novel's near-calamitous episodes, he reaches the conclusion that he is, in his estimation, a "thinker-tinker." Ellison's play on language illuminates the manner in which intellect and action are components of a project whose goal is reflection, recuperation, and self-invention. It also refers to the diadic nature of African American consciousness; the necessity to apply acts of symbolic reversal to conventional formulations of African American enactments of identity.1
But this begs the question why Ellison's hero chooses to associate himself with Ford, Edison, and Franklin. The choice could be interpreted as one of great temerity, but I submit that the decision is no accident of insolence, nor is it an arbitrary one. Ellison's conceptual strategy intends to valorize a particular social posture, one that he shares with the aforementioned American "tinkers." Each successfully harnesses power (mechanical or electrical) and puts it to work in the