Academic journal article African American Review

Knucklebones and Knocking-Bones: The Accidental Trickster in Ellison's Invisible Man

Academic journal article African American Review

Knucklebones and Knocking-Bones: The Accidental Trickster in Ellison's Invisible Man

Article excerpt

In "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," published in Partisan Review in 1958, Ralph Ellison discusses with his friend Stanley Edgar Hyman the relationship between African American literature and African American folklore. In particular, Ellison finds Hyman's conception of the trickster simplistic and even misguided. Tricksters, Ellison argues, are not unique to African American folklore; indeed, "from a proper distance all archetypes would appear to be tricksters and confidence men" (102), whether they emerge in Ellison's own Invisible Man or Homer's The Odyssey. Ellison is not denying the influence of "Negro American folklore" in his work, but he is questioning the reductive binary on which Hyman relies, a binary that designates certain archetypes as "Negro" (or African) and other archetypes as "American" (or European). As a writer who claimed both "Negro" and "American" literary ancestry, Ellison resists such easy categorization. More troubling to him, however, is Hyman's contention that the " 'darky' entertainer" or African American minstrel is descended from the folkloric trickster figure. To be sure, it is overly easy to make such an argument, to see the" 'darky' "entertainer as "a skilled man of intelligence ... parodying a subhuman grotesque" (112). But such a theory of appropriation and subversion is, in Ellison's words, all too "kind." Minstrelsy, he argues, is an act of "self-humiliation" and "symbolic self-maiming," reducing the blackface entertainer into a "'sacrificial' figure" rather than elevating him to the status of taunting trickster (112).

In distinguishing the minstrel from the trickster, Ellison highlights the fraudulence of popular theatrical representations of blackness. He writes,

   The role with which they [darky entertainers] are identified is
   not, despite its "blackness," Negro American (indeed, Negroes
   are repelled by it); it does not find its popularity among
   Negroes but among whites; and although it resembles the role of
   the clown familiar to Negro variety-house audiences, it derives
   not from the Negro but from the AngloSaxon branch of American
   folklore. In other words, this "'darky' entertainer"
   is white. (101)

With their pseudo-Negro dialect, faces smeared with burnt cork, and outlandish costumes, black minstrels are reduced to "a negative sign," a vessel of all things "grotesque and unacceptable" (103). Indeed, Ellison goes so far as to call minstrelsy a "ritual of exorcism" (103), allowing the white audience to enjoy "blackness" in a safe, comedic context. By calling the darky entertainer "white," Ellison argues that minstrelsy originates not in Africa (as Hyman believes) but right here at home. Indeed, even if the darky entertainer is descended from the folkloric trickster, he has so adjusted to "the contours of 'white' symbolic needs" that no amount of burnt cork or greasepaint can mask his true racial (and racist) origins.

Although Ellison ends his essay on a more gracious note, thanking Hyman for the "service" he performs in elucidating the African American folk tradition, he maintains that Hyman "distort[s] [literature's] content to fit his theory" of folk tradition and archetypes. As evidence, Ellison cites and then rejects Hyman's overzealous (mis)readings of Invisible Man, a section of the essay that would make any literary critic--including this one--flinch. Yet Ellison's admonition is a valid one. None of the characters in Invisible Man are meant to be perfect archetypes; indeed, Ellison's modernist convictions would have precluded such completeness or flatness of character. And while Ellison concedes that Rhinehart "would seem a perfect example of Hyman's trickster figure," he adamantly denies that the Invisible Man fits such an archetype: "He certainly is not a smart man playing dumb. For the novel his memoir is one long, loud rant, howl and laugh. Confession, not concealment, is his mode" (111).

If the Invisible Man is not a trickster, then what is he? …

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