The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

He Speaks for Whom? Inscription and Reinscription of Women in Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters

Anne Folwell Stanford


1

What happens to "the second sex" in a novel as powerful as Ellison's Invisible Man where the trope of invisibility functions as a critique of racist American society. When the text itself perpetuates the invisibility it seeks to undo, it seems inevitable that it will invite response and revision. In Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters we can discern an argument, not with Ellison's manifest text of invisibility and "the blackness of blackness," but with the subtext of gender erasure.

African American feminist critics have, especially in the last fifteen or twenty years, articulated the problematic of double invisibility, the double jeopardy that results from being both black and female. They have sought to add gender to DuBois's well known analysis of the sense of "double-consciousness" with which many African Americans live (3). Bell Hooks claims that "no other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women" (7). It is not simply that race, gender and class compound oppression arithmetically, to cite Valerie Smith (who borrows from Barbara Smith), but that "issues of class and race after one's experience of gender, just as gender alters one's experience of class and race" ("Loopholes" 225). Much work in black feminist theory and criticism has taken as its subject the construction and/or erasure of African American women, and especially how the combined categories of race, class, and gender intensify and illuminate in important ways both reading and writing, believing "that the meaning of blackness in this country shapes profoundly the experience of gender, just as the conditions of womanhood affect ineluctably the experience of race" (Smith, "Black Feminist Theory" 47).

Many novels written by black women since the publication of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man have (among other things) filled in gaps or given voice to the silences that have kept black women invisible. Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters is one such novel. Published in 1980, twenty-eight years after Ellison's Invisible Man, after the turbulent sixties and some gains had been made by the Civil Rights Movement, The Salt Eaters moves beyond its own created world, engaging other texts like Invisible Man in a dialogic relationship, Henry Louis Gates explains the phenomenon thus:

Literary works are in dialogue not because of some mystical collective unconscious determined by the biology of race or gender, but because writers read other writers and ground their representations of experience in models of language provided largely by other writers to whom they feel akin. (7)

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