The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Ralph Ellison and the Afro-American Folk and Cultural Tradition

George E. Kent

Ralph Ellison stressed connections between Afro-American folk and cultural tradition and Amirican culture, since "The heel bone is, after all, connected, through its various linkages, to the head bone," and not to be ignored is" the intricate network of connections which binds Negroes to the larger society." 1 Mindful of this pronouncement I shall sketch in some of Ellison's ideas concerning the value of the folk tradition, explore representative techniques in Invisible Man, and offer suggested comments concerning the value and limitations of his method.

Pressed toward a bag of pure Blackness, Ellison was capable of minimizing folk tradition's value for the self-conscious writer, as he does in "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," an essay in response to Stanley Edgar Hyman's attempt to create achetypes of Blackness. 2 In "Change the Joke," he contended that the Black writer was "heir to the human experience which is literature," an inheritance which might be more important to him than his own living folk tradition. As for himself, Black folklore became important through literary discovery. Seeing the uses to which folklore is put in the works of James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, Ellison saw the folk tradition, the spirituals, blues, jazz and folk-tales as a stable factor in "the discontinuous, swiftly changing, and diverse American culture" 3 It expresses qualities needful in a world which exemplifies to a considerable degree a blues- like absurdity. It offers much to the writer, who can "translate its meaning into wider, more precise vocabularies." 4

Actually, Ellison usually gave greater emphasis to folk traditions, and some allowance should be made for the fact that the primary goal of "Change the Joke" is to correct Stanley Edgar Hyman's concept of Black folklore. Since 1940, Ellison had been stressing its ultimate importance. In "Stormy Weather," a review of Langston Hughes The Big Sea, which was critical of Hughes on other grounds, Ellison commended turn for developing the national folk sources of his art. 5 Ellison essay "Recent Negro Fiction" praised Hughes and Wright: Hughes for taking note of folklore and seeing the connection between his efforts and symbols and images of Negro forms; Wright, for attention to the Southern Negro folk. 6 In 1944, Ellison short story, "Flying Home," made elaborate use of the Black folklore motif of the Black character who comes to grief in heaven for flying too imaginatively with his angel's wings. The main character, a Black aviator, finds peace only when he comes to term with the survival values of folk tradition. 7

In 1945, Ellison essay entitled "Richard Wright's Blues,"8 revealed a profound understanding of the blues as a folk cultural form and the value of its forms of response to existence for the self-conscious writer. He also analyzed the oppressive weight of American culture upon the folk, argued their complexity, and made a widely publicized definition of the blues:

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