Trumpets, Horns, and Typewriters: A Call and Response between Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass

By Messmer, David | African American Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Trumpets, Horns, and Typewriters: A Call and Response between Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass


Messmer, David, African American Review


Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, ... the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disguising the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison and destroy.--Ralph Ellison, "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity" (1953)

In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live.

--Ralph Ellison, "Living with Music" (1955)

When the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man enters the office that the Brotherhood has provided him, one of the first events to occur is that Brother Tarp hangs a picture of Frederick Douglass on the wall. Though the narrator immediately recognizes Douglass's image, when Tarp asks what he knows about Douglass, the narrator replies, "Not much. My grandfather used to tell me about him though" (378). Ironically, despite all of his education and familiarity with other prominent African American authors, Ellison's narrator is only aware of Douglass through oral and visual histories passed down through his grandfather. That even Frederick Douglass, the "great prophet of literacy," continues to inhabit political space (the picture is hanging in the office of the highly political Brotherhood) through forms that do not require the use of the written word, helps to illustrate that the "nonliterate" forms of black culture remain vital components of not only African American culture, but also of African American resistance (Griffiths 618).

Of course, Invisible Man's author clearly does not share this ignorance of Douglass's written texts. In fact, while the explicit mention of Douglass is decidedly brief, some of the rhetorical devices and narrative structures of Invisible Man act as extended moments of the literary "Signifyin(g)" that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has described as being one of the defining aspects of African American literature. In particular, the ways in which Ellison incorporates jazz and the blues into the framing of his text signifies upon Douglass's use of slave songs in his various narratives. This reveals Ellison's own awareness of the inherent difficulties of achieving expression through the written word at a time when "[c]opyright still provided a living for a few, but authorship itself remained only partly black-owned" (Griffiths 338). Furthermore, by utilizing many of the same devices that Douglass employs in his description of the slave songs, Ellison is able to invoke and build upon Douglass's musical subversion of the written word through an act of literary signifying between writers that is, ironically, grounded in the undoing of the written word within both texts.

Through this undoing, Ellison is able to mediate his use of a literary style that otherwise seems in keeping with his own stated privileging of aesthetics over politics. Indebted to the rhetorical strategies of Kenneth Burke, whose pragmatism sought points of cultural unification rather than overt political conflict, Ellison turned to literary modernism as an aesthetic model for Invisible Man because he believed that modernism could produce a more "artistic" model of black writing. In doing so, he distanced himself from his African American literary contemporaries precisely because, in Ellison's estimation, quality writing was still the domain of whiteness and it was his assault on this domain--through his own attempts to produce an "artistically" sound work of fiction--that represented one of the central elements of protest in his work. However, Ellison's turn to African American music, as well as his signifying on Douglass, maintained a connection to the African American literary tradition that critics and even Ellison himself have sometimes overlooked. …

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