Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Barack Obama and Ralph Ellison

From Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia today:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one.
In other words, e pluribus unum.

It's an interesting time to be teaching Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), the story of an African-American man who tries to do the right thing, at college and in the shadowy Brotherhood. Ellison's narrator is a brilliant, compelling speaker who hires out his eloquence to an organization and pays heavily for finally speaking his own thoughts. At the end of his journey, he offers a powerful affirmation of the unity and multiplicity of American identity:
America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. . . . Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description.
An American culture that allows for difference — "one, and yet many" — is Ellison's alternative to the homogeneity of the melting pot, emblematized in the novel's magical "Optic White" paint, which absorbs darker liquids and renders them invisible. One, yet many; many, yet one: that's the possibility of a more perfect and more complex union.

comments: 2

Anonymous said...

This is one of my all time favorite books because it shows Ellison's intense thought, his amazing wit and sense of humor, and how well read he was. He incorporates Milton, the Bible, Greek myth, Dante, music, and some Brer Rabbit, and much more.

But my reading of it is quite at odds with most others. Ellison is brilliant, but his character, Invisible Man is vastly ignorant.

You are not alone when you say that this is "the story of an African-American man who tries to do the right thing," but it seems impossible for me to accept this reading no matter how many times I read it!

I see Ellison's brilliance in his ability to play with the reader's ignorance, proving how easily duped and how bitter we are. Invisible Man is not the story of a person doing right, but a person causing chaos. Ellison has taken Milton's shining Lucifer, "the Great White Satan," and twisted it.

Ellison's brilliance shines in that he takes advantage of our inability to see, and our gullible nature, our willingness to believe Invisible Man's viewpoint. This book is even more fun when we see it in a new light, when we are well read, and don't believe everything this "invisible" man tells us. We need to be more critical and less trusting of the narrator to fully love Ellison's perfect work.

Michael Leddy said...

"But my reading of it is quite at odds with most others. Ellison is brilliant, but his character, Invisible Man is vastly ignorant."

I don't think that's an unusual take on the novel at all. The narrator is often in the dark, figuratively and literally, as when he's blindfolded or blinded by spotlights.

He's trying to do the right thing, I would say, with very limited understanding. He's trying to find his way by working within dubious institutions in which he places his faith. He's the great naïf. Or as Peter Wheatstraw says to him, "'You kinda young, daddy-o.'"