The literary work of Ralph Ellison is among the most studied and the most controversial. In the context of African-American writers Ellison is both revered and despised for the manner in which he wrote (or failed to write) concerning the question of race. His essay "The World and the Jug" written in 1963 explores the important topic of race and the functions of literature. The purpose of this discussion is to explain how Ellison relates to my concepts of the Civil Rights and the Black Arts Movements.
"The World and the Jug"
Ellison's "The World and the Jug" is basically a response to criticisms written by Irving Howe about Ellison's perceived failure to write protest fiction. This criticism is one that Ellison received throughout his lifetime. The criticism was mainly present because of the way that other writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin wrote about race in their literary works. In one of his essays Howell asks, "How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried? The 'sociology' of his existence formed a constant pressure on his literary work and not merely in the way this might be true for any writer, but with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove."
However, In "The World and the Jug" Ellison cleary explains that Black people in general and Black writers in particular are not a monolithic group. Ellison challenges the idea of what a Black writer should be and the subject matter that he should explore. Ellison's reply to Howe is in line in many ways with my concepts of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. As it relates to the civil rights movement, Ellison's ability to write and publish The Invisible Man at the time that he did is evidence of the remarkable things that Black artists were able to achieve in the midst of segregation and a great deal of racism. In addition Ellison's attitude about race and race relations was in some ways consistent with what the civil rights movement was trying to achieve -- to ensure that Black people would be treated in the same way that White people were treated. Through "The World and the Jug" and in the Invisible Man Ellison expresses the desire to be a good writer. It seems that Ellison was more concerned with living the values of equality espoused by the civil rights movement they protesting in ways that other writers protested at the time. In his own way Ellison was making tangible the efforts that the civil rights movement desired to achieve. This is not to say that the protest fiction that other writers roduced during this time was not needed-it most definitely was -- this is to say that Ellison's efforts were just as needed and powerful in its own way. Howell and other seemed to want to place Black writers in a box an act as if they could only write in one way. Ellison, however, dismissed these beliefs as asinine. In The World and the Jug" Ellison attempts to get Howell to understand that all Black people don;"t have the same experiences or the same desires. Even if they all did have the same desires, they don't necessarily express those desires in the same way.
This fact was illustrated when a young James Baldwin wrote "Everybody's Protest Novel" as a response and critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the essay Baldwin writes a scathing commentary on the way in which the novel depicts slavery. He believed that the novel was one dimensional and that Stowe could not possibly know the feeling and emotional state of slaves because she was a White woman. He also questioned why Stowe did not describe slavery as an evil institution.
If one compares the response of Ellison to Howell with the response of James Baldwin had to Stowe's novel, there is a clear distinction in how the two writers felt about the Black struggle. On the one hand Ellison explained in his essay that Black life in America was not "an abstract embodiment of living hell." Baldwin on the other hand, writes of the aspects of Black life that were hell in many cases throughout all of his works. In some ways it is difficult to compare the two writers mostly because of the amount of work Baldwin produced during his lifetime when compared with the amount of work that Ellison produced. That is we can see some of the though process of Baldwin throughout his lifetime through his literary offerings. However we do not have the benefit of this with Ellison. That being said "The world in the jug" seems to assert that the function of literature is to allow the writer to express what he is feeling regardless of race. More specifically literature can serve the purpose of being an equalizer. Again in many ways Ellison's beliefs about the function of literature are very much in line with my concept of the civil rights movement. Whereas some people marched and "protested" in the streets, Ellison used his ability to write to demonstrate
This distinction between people is present in every race and Black people are no exception. In this way Ralph Elisons response to Howell is extremely consistent with my conception of the Civil Rights movement.
As it pertains to the Black Arts Movement (BAM) ion some ways Ellison's work was quite different from the artists who came out of BAM. For the most part BAM writers, who were mostly poets, wrote in ways that were more direct and honest when compare to the way Ellison wrote. In addition my concept of the Black Arts Movement is that it was a movement propelled by the need for iconoclastic art. That is the writers of BAM and the other artist that participated in the movement were seeking to destroy traditionally held beliefs concerning Black people and Black history. BAM writers wrote with a sense of urgency and they wanted desperately for the Black community to come together in unity and forge for themselves a new reality that would help to propel the race to something greater. In fact Neal explains
"The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. This movement is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American's desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics (Neal)."
In many ways Ralph Ellison's approach in "The World in the Jug" is both consistent and inconsistent with the Black Arts Movement. His work is consistent with the Black Arts movement in that the movement rejects the idea of protest literature because the movement viewed this type of literature as appealing to the White aesthetic or White modes of thought. In addition Neal's essay revealed that protest literature was nothing more than a form of begging. This was the case because protest literature, according to Neal, was designed to appeal to White Morality. This was viewed as a waste of time because this energy could be spent speaking to the Black community. In addition the movement insisted on the development of a Black aesthetic. Neal explains,
"Unless the Black artist establishes a "Black aesthetic" he will have no future at all. To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to live. The Black artist must create new forms and new values, sing new songs (or purify old ones); and along with other Black authorities, he must create a new history, new symbols, myths, and legends (and purify old ones by fire). And the Black artist, in creating his own aesthetic, must be accountable for it only to the Black people. Further, he must hasten his own dissolution as an individual (in the Western sense) -- painful though the process may be, having been breast-fed the poison of "individual experience (Neal)."
So then Ellison's approach of not writing protest literature is consistent with the Black Arts movement. However it is also true that Ellison was not necessarily speaking directly to Black people either. Although Ellison seemed to be proud of his heritage, he seemed not to take the same type of stance about his Blackness as the writers of the Black Arts Movement tended to take. That is, the Black Arts Movement was a movement of race consciousness. Ellison did not seem to…