I’m not exactly sure when I read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It might have been in college as part of a black literature course or after college as “required reading” for any young black person with any level of race consciousness. But I have certainly come to know Ellison more through reading about him, particularly Arnold Rampersad’s biography, Ralph Ellison, and most recently Adam Bradley’s Ralph Ellison in Progress: From Invisible Man to Three Days Before the Shooting.
Which is why actually reading Three Days Before the Shooting was such an enormous pleasure. At one thousand pages, it reflected the torturous — and remarkable — process that Ellison went through to write his long-awaited second novel, following the huge success of Invisible Man. It was captivating writing, far exceeding Juneteenth, published in a feeble attempt to corral huge amounts of material (what would eventually amount to 27 boxes in the Library of Congress) into the strictures of a novel.
Aside from chronicling the painstaking process Ellison put himself through when he wrote, one thing that has really stayed with me is Rampersad and Bradley recalling the pain Ellison suffered at the scathing criticism of young black college students questioning his bona fides. This was a time when many young blacks were turning away from the moderation of Martin Luther King Jr. to the more fiery resistance of Malcolm X. Anybody who sounded even remotely moderate was severely criticized.
In 1965 Ellison refused to join other writers and artists in boycotting the White House Arts Festival to protest the Vietnam war, sealing his fate with radicals. Bradley, in fact, cites Rampersad’s mention of an incident in 1967 when Ellison was badly shaken after being called an Uncle Tom apparently because his essays were was not considered sufficiently radical for the times. Bradley notes that one critic Larry Neal, editor of Black Fire, later reconsidered his criticism of Ellison, “calling for a more nuanced understanding of Ellison’s writing and beliefs.”
Reading about the 1967 incident triggered a memory of being in college in the 1970s, attending a presentation by a black author who’d written a controversial book on race and sex and being part of the group that took the author apart. I don’t remember the specifics of our grievance but I’m sure that it was on the order of the drubbing Ellison apparently suffered.
In his work and his life, Ellison was without question a “race man,” proud to be black and showing a heightened appreciation for the rhythms, cadences, context and subtexts of black culture. Both Invisible Man and Three Days Before the Shooting offer fully realized characters, men who struggled with the limitations of racism and the demands of individual and collective identity, men whose overpowering personalities stand out, likely mirroring Ellison’s own struggles as an individual and a black man in America.
Looking back on my own involvement in criticizing a black writer of considerably less stature than Ellison, I’m at least thankful that it wasn’t Ellison. That sin I did not commit. Readers ought to be engaged enough in issues of the day to criticize authors but they should do so with more careful reading than I fear I did in college. Reading about Ellison’s growth as a writer and as a person, and remembering the incident from my youth, I am struck by how much readers grow and mature right along with writers, which is why readers so often go back to earlier works they’ve read. Now that I’ve grown up, in all fairness, maybe I should go back and reread the author I helped to skewer when I was young.