TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 March 2011
I first acquired this book compliments of the US Army, while I was in Vietnam. Every 10 days or so, a large box of books would arrive for troops "in the field"; mainly the books were westerners, mysteries, pulp fictions, but bless whoever packed the box, because they always included a few worthwhile one, and one day, down at the bottom of the box, lay Ellison's classic book.
How far we have come now, since the times depicted; and yes, how far we still have to go. I've been re-reading the triumvirate of Black, or Afro-American writers if you will, best known for there searing accounts of the injustices that were still being perpetrated, as a legacy of America's "original sin," slavery, during the days of segregation, legal and de facto. There is Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, and I'd welcome reader comments if others should be included.
I normally mark the books I read, for memorable passages; concise and pithy formulations; or just beautiful prose. On this re-read, I noticed a mark I made 42 years ago, at the beginning of a paragraph. But there was no corresponding closure mark...until 16 pages later! It was the first time I had ever mark a passage that long - the entire first chapter. Re-reading it again I felt the same awful, horrible unease that I did the first time - that people nominally like me, white men, could do... no, far more than do, derive pleasure from the actions described towards black men and a white woman. It remains a brilliant depiction of the awful corrupting influence of power.
The next chapters are equally disconcerting. The unnamed narrator - invisible, you understand - goes off to a Black college (a thinly disguised Tuskegee Institute?) intent on "succeeding." He plays "the game" to his utmost ability, but "fate" has a different outcome in mind, as he is assigned as the driver to one of the rich, white, Northern trustees. The trustees periodically come South, in part, to feel good about their efforts in funding this educational institution for Blacks. The narrator inadvertently shows the trustee the `underbelly' of Black Southern life. The trustee is profoundly disturbed. Bledsoe, who is the ingratiating, hat-in-hand, President of the college tells the narrator that it was his duty to lie to the Whites, and tell them what they want to hear. The narrator is expelled from college, and is later betrayed by Bledsoe.
There is a prescient observation at the beginning of the chapters involving college life, and it concerns a bronze statue at the front, with a Founding Father figure apparently lifting a veil from the eyes of a slave: "...and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place." With the emphasis on football, and the coach's salary, so many years later, this observation may well be true of all colleges.
Like so many other Blacks before him, the narrator seeks solace in the North, fleeing to Harlem. He has a stint trying to work in a paint plant, but it is ultimately his visceral oration which occurred when he witnessed the eviction of an elderly Black couple that led him to "The Brotherhood," (a thinly disguised Communist Party?), and his new career as a community organizer (hum, speaking of invisible no longer).
Ellison presents a wide-range of insights into New York, society, and the human condition. One scene describes the simple, almost Proustian pleasures that can be derived from smelling and eating yams on the street. From that he renders now time-honored insights into the Party or as he calls it, the Brotherhood; the endless machinations of those who desire and exercise power on behalf of that wonderful abstraction: "the People." There are two separate sections that address that ancient `taboo', miscegenation; the mutual attractions and dynamics of a white woman - black man relationship way back when it was considered "radical." Ellison also manages to portray the "street-hustlers," in the personification of Reinhart, who is a numbers man, a pimp, and, of course, a preacher too. The climatic portion of the book dealt with the murder of Clifton, as topical as last week's trial in Oakland, whereby a white policeman guns down an unarmed Black man. There was so much anguish in that scene, since Clifton had once been one of the most influential Brotherhood workers on behalf of their youth movement, but had suddenly left, only to be found by the narrator, selling dolls that ridiculed his race.
Numerous quotes are worthwhile, and they may serve as antecedents for similar sentiments in other books, or, they may be derivatives also. Consider: "...as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors." Or, "Play the game, but don't believe in it..." Or, "I could glimpse the possibility of being more than a member of a race." Or, "After the Struggle: The Rainbow of America's Future." (amen). Or, "I'd been so fascinated by the motion that I'd forgotten to measure what it was bringing forth."
I'm evolving my "top ten American novel list," and have identified three others that will make the list for certain; this one will be the fourth, an essential read for anyone concerned with what Gunnar Myrdal once called "The American Dilemma." And shouldn't we all be concerned? A 6-star read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on July 14, 2010)