The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview
Wharton. See Ruland and Spiller for comprehensive selections of nationalist writings during the period, and Spencer for a good study of the nationalist campaign.
4.
See Brownson, "American" and "Specimens"; Edward Tyrell Channing; Emerson, "The American Scholar" and "The Poet"; Humphreys; Parsons; and Walsh.
5.
See Brownson, "Literature"; Mellen, Palfrey; Simms; Sparks; Tudor; and Wharton.
6.
Ellison, in his 1964 review of LeRoi Jones Blues People, first highlights the elements of burlesque or satire in the slaves' music and dance and criticizes the "social and cultural snobbery" of white Americans that led to their failing to notice these elements: "The effectiveness of Negro music and dance is first recorded in the journals and letters of travelers but it is important to remember that they saw and understood only that which they were prepared to accept. Thus a Negro dancing a courtly dance appeared comic from the outside simply because the dancer was a slave. But to the Negro dancing it . . . burlesque or satire might have been the point, which might have been difficult for a white observer to even imagine" ( Shadow255-56).

Ellison's statement of white travelers' blindness to the satiric element, however, is not correct and can be easily refuted by, among other things, Nicholas Cresswell's journal entry written sometime between 1774 and 1777: "In [the black slaves] songs they generally relate the usage they have received from their Masters or Mistresses in a very satirical stile [sic] and manner" (qtd. In Gates, Signifying66).

7.
African American scholars have found the strategy in most areas of African American cultures and literature and, echoing Ellison consciously or unconsciously called it "'differentiation' within repetition" ( Snead65), "productive misunderstanding" ( Ostendorf vii), or "repetition with a difference, a signifying black difference" ( Gates, "Criticism"3).
8.
See Brownson, "Literature"; Mellen; Palfrey; Simms; Sparks; Tudor; and Wharton.
9.
This is not to suggest that Ellison identifies the African American with the Native American in every respect. He differentiates them clearly in their destinies ( Going299), but identifies their symbolic roles in the white American imagination. His identification seems to have derived partly from the African American-Native American "confusion" in the African American community of Oklahoma City during his childhood ( Shadow158). See also Going132-33 and Shadow156-57 for Ellison's understanding of African American-Native American relationships.
10.
Eliot understands that the repository of culture is the dominant élite class of a society. Though he recognizes the role of the lower classes as producers of culture, Eliot minimizes their role as conscious consumers, preservers, and transmitters of culture. His élitist view of culture in a society can easily be expanded into a worldwide scene: While other societies may produce cultures, these can be transmitted as significant cultures to posterity only after being endorsed by the élitist European societies. See Soldo on Eliot's élitism and its American background.

WORKS CITED

Baker Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

_____. The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Benston Kimberly W. "Ellison, Baraka, and the Faces of Tradition." Boundary 2 6 ( 1978): 333-54.

_____. "Introduction: The Masks of Ralph Ellison." Benston, Speaking3-8.

_____. ed. Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison. Washington: Howard UP, 1987.

-189-

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