Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett

By Lesley Larkin | Go to book overview

THREE
Close Reading “You”

Ralph Ellison

THE FIVE HUNDRED PAGES THAT INTERVENE BETWEEN THE prologue and epilogue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) are explicitly concerned with the self-definition of a speaking (and writing) “I,” a visible and legible self who brings himself into being by narrating his story. However, this extended project of self-assertion is framed by explicit address to a second person; that is, the novel begins and ends by addressing its reader. The narrator’s famous final lines proceed in the second person, and his final word is “you”: “Who knows,” the Invisible Man asks, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581).

Like the controversial elements of Hurston’s oeuvre discussed in the previous chapter, the ultimate passages of Invisible Man, and this last line in particular, have performed more than their share of mischief in six decades of Ellison criticism. Until recently, most professional readers (and doubtless many students) have agreed with Ellison’s earliest, “new liberal” critics that the novel asserts a universal humanist vision that, grounded on transracial and individual identifications (between the “I” and the “you”), exceeds the novel’s particular critique of racial exclusion.1 This common interpretation holds that Ellison asserts an individual selfhood that transcends racial particularity and eschews collective political action. As Barbara Foley writes, “A nonblack (especially a white) reader, uncertain about the degree of his or her identification with the novel’s protagonist but certain about dangers posed by Communists and Communism, can … request entry into the text’s charmed circle of initiates and reply affirmatively to the narrator’s closing invitation” (346).2

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Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Blacks in the Diaspora ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction - Scenes of Reading, Scenes of Racialization- Modern and Contemporary Black Literature 3
  • One - Unbinding the Double Audience 33
  • Two - Speakerly Reading 65
  • Three - Close Reading "You" 93
  • Four - Erasing Precious 125
  • Five - Reading and Being Read 165
  • Epilogue - Toward a Theory and Pedagogy of Responsible Reading 191
  • Notes 215
  • Bibliography 245
  • Index 261
  • Blacks in the Diaspora 279
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