Academic journal article American Studies

The Confederacy of Sages and the Agon of Black Power: Ellison's Hidden Heart

Academic journal article American Studies

The Confederacy of Sages and the Agon of Black Power: Ellison's Hidden Heart

Article excerpt

At a time when A&E Networks has replaced its Biography Channel with "FYI"-a "lifestyle channel" geared to "an upscale, younger audience that is active online" and eager for "personalized experience"-the progenitors of the new acronym pride themselves on not only a carefully branded indefiniteness that allows it to signify "For Your Inspiration, For Your Imagination, or For Your Innovation" but also the marketing power of debuting in an estimated seventy million homes. As we contemplate the centennial of Ralph Ellison's birth, it is quite likely that his literary career will reach contemporary and future audiences through visual media orchestrated as such rather than through the premillennial conventions of book-shaped literary biography. The now decade-old PBS American Masters documentary biography Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2005), the first and still the only substantive filmed treatment of Ellison's life and works, demonstrates the possibilities and the perils of this redoubtable reality.1

Although the PBS documentary does not adhere slavishly to the conventional three-act linear structure of popular television documentaries like those of A&E filmmaker Avon Kirkland's production, it does chart a narrative trajectory that launches its subject from a framing "set-up" with familiarizing dramatic conflicts onto an unraveling road of trials and triumphs that vex and beckon the title figure's questing soul, before veering finally toward resolution in a tertiary segment that orchestrates a plausible reconciliation of the psychological and sociological gauntlets dramatized along the way. Interspersed with expressionistic and surrealistic scenes adapted cinematically from Invisible Man and signature short fiction by Ellison, the film's poetic and performative threads complement and counterpoint an otherwise naturalistic "portrait of an artist" whose twinned forays through the worlds of art and public opinion the producers synchronize scenically precisely two-thirds through the storyline. There, some fifteen years after the triumphant 1952 appearance of the pioneering novelist's watershed book, at paired moments of wrenching personal crisis in late 1967, Ralph Ellison endures, first, a public confrontation on a largely white Iowa college campus with a young black motorcycle-riding militant in a black beret and black leather jacket, who publicly brands him "nothing but an Uncle Tom," a "sell-out," and a "disgrace to [his] race." The following month, in psychological lockstep, he confronts, in private, a catastrophic fire at his secluded summer home in Massachusetts-quite likely arson, the Ellisons always believed,2 though unmentioned as such in the film-wherein more than three hundred manuscript pages of his long-awaited second novel go up in smoke.

In the first dramatic crisis, edited evocatively to emphasize the pathos of the intraracial cross-generational confrontation, a key witness-then a young black student leader, now a graying federal judge-reports how, after forcefully defying the accuser (who abruptly departed), Ellison became "emotionally unglued," began to sob and, his head on the student's shoulder, protested over and over, "I'm not an Uncle Tom, I'm not an Uncle Tom," in a teary-eyed, cathartic release of emotion that presumably needs no broader narrative contextualization. No less filled with pathos, but with no participating witnesses this time to re-create the moment's emotional trauma, the succeeding crisis-by-fire nonetheless reverberates throughout the remainder of the film as a kind of hollow exculpation for the ultimate failure of Ellison's grand ambitions to write the unwritable Great American Novel. Buttressed by rounds of damning indictments from Amiri Baraka-Ellison's prime antagonist during the ideological trench warfare of the Black Arts Movement years-and in tandem with scholarly detractors who tally Ellison's ostensible sins of omission and commission, a seemingly authoritative chronicle of his solitary ambition, his vaunting and idiosyncratic hubris, his defensive withdrawal from intergenerational exchange, and his corollary but anticlimactic demise, etches itself onto the screen and into the archives. …

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