The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

In Need of Folk: The Alienated Protagonists of Ralph Ellison's Short Fiction

Mary Ellen Doyle, S.C.N.

In an interview, Ralph Ellison stated that a man must both find and create his identity, starting with those given elements he did not pick: "His problem is to recognize himself through recognizing where he comes from, recognizing his parents and his inherited values. . . . The way to create a false identity is to think that you can ignore what went before." 1 Though these words refer to Ellison's Invisible Man, they could easily be applied to most of the protagonists of his short stories. Excluding from consideration only a very few stories and the excerpts of the unpublished novels and Invisible Man, 2 one can generalize that the typical protagonist of an Ellison short story is a boy or a young man who is alienated in some degree from himself, his own race, and white-controlled society; he either does not really know or cannot accept who he is. Hope of reconciliation and self-identification exists, if at all, in his first establishing or restoring a sense of cohesion with his own race through some symbolic folk member or custom.

The boy protagonists reveal present confusion and the seeds of future alienation in a lack of adequate racial awareness and pride, in rejection of some Negro person or cultural practice, and in compulsion to follow the way of whites. Alienation has blossomed in the adults, but all except one achieves at least a partial reconciliation.

Ellison has a favorite boy figure, Riley, who, with his friend Buster confronts life in three stories. In all three Riley is somehow confused by the values and demands of whites and adult blacks and is powerless to decide his own values and direct his own free action. In "Mr. Toussan"3 he and Buster are situated between old white man Rogan, who refuses them the fruits of his cherry tree, and Riley's mother who commands them to please the whites by playing quietly out back. The boys can adjust without damaged egos because they have identified in vigorous and noisy drama with a "good clean mean" (102) black hero, Toussaint l'Ouverture, conqueror of Napoleon and his "peckerwood soldiers" (99). Neither boy is developed in this brief sketch, but Riley is more sensitive to the ambiguities of their situation and more dampened by their final need to submit than is Buster, who hopes for the practical victory of stealing the cherries.

"A Coupla Scalped Indians"4 is essentially an initiation-to-manhood story, but the recently circumcised Riley is also floundering among identities as respectable white Boy Scout, "real stud Indian" living in the woods (226) and emerging black man repeatedly called by the music of carnival horns, which seems to be joyously playing the dozens. His tension is heightened, then resolved, through a confrontation with Aunt Mackie, the local conjure woman, young of body and old of face, spell caster and church member, who functions symbolically as the total black folk woman, embracing all ages and cultures and values in the black community, rejected by it yet its respected and feared central figure.

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