Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles


So Black and Blue, Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism
Kenneth W. Warren
Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2003
142 pages, ISBN 0-226-87380-3

Jacques Coulardeau
Université Paris Dauphine


This book was published on the occasion of the fiftieth-odd anniversary of the publication of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Some preliminary remarks first. The book has no bibliography, which is frustrating; it almost only takes into account Invisible and Ralph Ellison’s essays; it is practically silent on Juneteenth; and it is not a critical approach of Invisible Man but rather an assessment of Ralph Ellison’s importance in the field of the definition of black culture in the USA. This being said we can delve into more detail.

The introduction exposes the main dilemma of the black community. It starts with David Harvey’s assertion that "political and social identities forged under an oppressive industrial order of a certain sort operating in a certain place" cannot "survive the collapse or radical transformation of that order" [8]. Hence, the identity of the black slaves cannot survive the collapse and radical transformation of slavery and segregation. Ellison takes a stand that goes against that position. He is a transracialist, which means he thinks it creates a wider identification with humanity, and rejects or marginalizes narrower racial solidarities. And yet, by bringing black culture into the picture, he shows that Blacks have built for themselves an identity that is perennial and, what’s more, that enriches American culture as a whole because, being part of it, black culture is indispensible to define and understand American culture—he even sees the novel as a tool to shape the black race. The author states here he was both wrong—because "the problem of race […] is at bottom a problem of politics and economics" [21]—and right, because "the insitution of the American novel was so deeply implicated in redefining race in America away from the realm of political parties and movements and into the intimacies of personal life that Ellison’s reflections on his craft could not help but cast light on the construction and reconstruction of the problem of the color line" [21]. We could regret the absence of the word "deconstruction" between "construction" and "reconstruction." This is a contradiction or a limitation in the book that we will find again. Yet, this reflection leads Warren to conclude on the cost of change with Ellison’s answer to the question:

It is our fate as human beings to give up some good things for other good things, to throw off certain bad circumstances only to create others. Thus there is a value for the writer in trying to give as thorough a report of social reality as possible. Only by doing so may we grasp and convey the cost of change. [23]

This should emphasize the universality of Ellison’s work, but Warren does not see it. This brings a question to mind: what are the engine and fuel that bring about change? And here no answer will ever be provided. In fact this question could widen the issue and definitely better catch Ellison’s work. But Warren does not deal with the question.

In his first chapter, Warren deals with the "cultural turn in black politics." This question is essential to understand the debate or debates that are going on today in the black community. Warren, along with Ellison, points out that three categories of people have tried to impose a very negative vision of Blacks as early as right after the failure of the Reconstruction. "Liberal philanthropists, black college presidents and left-wing radicals" [25] in various periods hold one point in common: the Blacks were the victims of horrendous conditions under slavery and after the failed Reconstruction. They only emphasize these extreme conditions of exploitation and domination. This gives a totally sombre vision of the Blacks that moves various people with various intentions into helping those poor Blacks, compensating for the evil conditions of the past and making up for what has been lost or not developed—a completely negative vision indeed. Ellison’s answer to these attitudes, to this vision, is that under slavery the Blacks created a great culture, both inherited from their African past and constructed from their present as slaves, in order to protect themselves against total annihilation, that is to say psychological destruction. To maintain some sanity in such conditions, they had to find a shield and that shield was culture, starting with music and then moving towards literature. Warren traces this argument back to WEB Dubois but stresses that Ellison spoke on the subject in the 1950s and 1960s and that his various articles forced the three categories of people quoted before to change their tone and start speaking of the black slaves in a more positive way. Ellison uses a particularly strong argument in that line:

In Negro culture there is much of value for America as a whole. What is needed are negroes to take it and create of it ‘the uncreated consciousness of their race.’ In doing so they will do far more; they will help create a more human American. [32]

But this chapter evades an essential question. It does not look in detail into the mass and cross-racial struggles that brought about the end of slavery, the Reconstruction and the defeat of that Reconstruction. Then segregation remains a general word. The culture thus produced is not qualified as it could have been: both a reflection of the situation of the Blacks and a universal human aspiration for a better world. The previous argument becomes an argument for progressive Whites, so that they could defend a politics that would aim at helping the Blacks. The use of this argument will not negate the pity or condescendence some Whites may feel for the Blacks. It will give them an interest in supporting the Blacks: get good music and get good literature, and eventually a better conscience. The book does not expand on an important point made by Ellison: "Philanthropy on the psychological level is often guilt-motivated" [39]. To get rid of that guilt, you have to bring it into the open. This means to fight a campaign for reparations and particularly for the bringing out of some atrocities that are very well hidden like the "Greenwood Holocaust," the absolute destruction by the Whites of Tulsa, of the Greenwood black community that was a perfect example of economic, social and cultural success. This would show how a black community can create a thriving economic and social zone, when they are deeply inspired by their culture and identity, and let free to do so.

This chapter also misses another point, but it will be a lot clearer in further chapters: the problem discussed here is not typical of the Blacks in the USA. It is true of all exploited communities, for example the working class in the USA or European countries. We find this question in Pauwels and Bergier’s book, The Dawn of Magic, "Pressés, ce n’est pas sur le passé que nous pleurons, c’est sur le présent, et d’impatience" [p. 36 in the Folio French edition].

The second chapter starts with Invisible Man’s episode of Clifton’s funeral, which becomes a mass expression of grief, dissatisfaction, resentment and identity. Warren brings up the important idea that such a mass movement is not homogeneous as far as motivation is concerned. Many motivations are brought together and bring the people together, be it only in modern times through radio and television, or even the press. You can be there in spirit as much as in body or person. "Being together regardless of one’s politics and one’s location was what the experience was all about" [54]. The parallel with Farrakhan’s and the Nation of Islam’s Million Man March shows how such events close the concept of race rather than open it. What’s more, in such an approach, the concerned race sees itself as surviving, hence as menaced, I would even say perishable. This is an essential difference with a nation that is seen as eternal, though some may die, whose eternity is symbolized by the grave of the Unknown Soldier in our countries. This leads to a rather pessimistic conclusion that "for the black people merely being a family was a radical act" [with no definition of the family and a quick mention that families were absolutely forbidden and banned among slaves; hence, this concept of a family represents in such a history and culture an import from white culture], and furthermore that "merely being black, male, alive, and not behind bars was presumed to be an act of resistance" due to the "genocidal and carceral war" waged against the black community. This chapter is thus very clear about the severe long-term psychological consequences of slavery on the black community, but, once again, does not offer any opening. The Blacks being black cannot melt in the crowd, but we have in most countries exactly the same problem with the lowest class[-es] or community[-ies] of people. This is nothing new and the only way to move in that line is a mass movement, provided it is unified with respect to some objective; otherwise, and Warren does not speak of this subsequent element, some political organization will be able to lead a minority to violence, which happens in Invisible Man in Harlem. Instead of using the Million Man March as an example he should have used the March organized by Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington DC, which was not sexually defined and was not even racially defined. He should have opened the question to the transracial position advocated by Ellison, to bring together all those who have some interest in the end of an evil, and not only one group of people. That was contained in Invisible Man.

The third chapter dealing with southern strategies is even more limited. To identify the culture of the Blacks with the culture of the South, even in the days of slavery, goes against something that Warren has already said: black culture then was a way for the slaves to retain their sanity. In other words to mix black culture and southern culture is to mix water and fire. That does not work. Then, to compare with the present situation in northern urban areas characterized as areas of anarchy and chaos, of total individualism and absolute loss of identity, i.e. racial identity, leads to the conclusion that we have to go back to what used to be. We find Pauwels here again. But Warren uses this comparison essentially to show that culture is autonomous or semi-autonomous from politics. But he does not even fulfill this idea when he says that "The Negro remained ‘southern’ because both the Negro and the South signaled humanity’s capacity through culture to resist the soulless advance of late-twentieth century technology" [67]. This is in complete contradiction with what was said before on black culture as a tool to resist oppression in the South, in the plantations. There cannot be any identification of black culture with southern culture. At the most, black culture can be seen as part of southern culture. If we identify black culture with southern culture, if we identify Negro culture with southern culture, we shift the Blacks from black culture per se to a culture that was essentially created and carried by the Whites as slave-owners, KKK activists and segregationists. We cannot be satisfied by the idea that the South was "made by the slaves" [68]. They had little say in the way that South was made. Then the debate is reduced to "the culture-as-resistance versus culture-as-damage debate" [71]. Culture is a tool for resistance and it can be so because it envisions not a past but a future that is better, otherwise it may lead to a most submissive attitude. Culture can never be identified to damage because culture is a creation, not something imposed onto anyone. And that is exactly what Ellison says:

Human life possesses an innate dignity and mankind an innate sense of nobility ; […] all men possess the tendency to dream and the compulsion to make their dreams reality ; […] the need to be ever dissatisfied and the urge ever to seek satisfaction is implicit in the human organism. [70]

Culture has to be defined as the dream of a man, a group, a community, humanity even, but a dream that encompasses the heritage and memory of the past even if it has to look at the future, aim at the future. Here we can meet with WEB Dubois who called for "a progressive cultural renaissance" [77]. But never is this renaissance identified as having to come from the people at large, because their motivations are multifarious, as we have seen, or because the culture Warren speaks of is only that of artists and artists are only understood as being a small group of people, an elite in a way. So, in front of the dissolution of the community and the culture of the Blacks in northern urban areas, the conclusion Warren reaches is amazing:

The people at the bottom of the social order are—through no fault of their own—just niggahs and will do whatever it is they do unless we—using almost any means necessary—decide to stop them.[82]

This is the concluding remark of the chapter. This is particularly surprising because Invisible Man or even Juneteenth had never seemed to advocate forcing people to be good and behave, and we very well know that such a method is doomed to fail; the Blacks in America have a long experience of such a method imposed onto them and of how they have resisted it. Ellison would have defended creating a situation in which all people can find a motivation to move forward. We are far from such a position in the concluding remark of that chapter.

The fourth chapter is probably the most interesting by its topic: sociology. Ellison played an important role in reorienting sociologists from blind superficial descriptive accounts to deeper and more comprehensive accounts of the soul of black people. Ellison was very critical of the Chicago school of sociologists and Warren shows how his criticism was effective and moved sociologists from cold data to a more semantic approach of real people. But Ellison and Warren remain absolutely penned up in the concept of race, of a closed community defined only from the racial criterion. This is poor sociology for sociologists, but it is poor criticism for our authors. Any sociologist knows criteria have to be crossed to produce interesting results. In our case it would be interesting to cross race, sex (or even gender), professional occupation, education level, etc. Warren, though, quotes a few anecdotic instances given by Ralph Ellison and showing that the way people see themselves and their community depends a lot on their personal experience. That is the nascent element leading to the fundamental criticism that has to be levelled at sociologists: a black married docker may have little to do with a black unmarried and unemployed mother, but all dockers may have a lot in common and all unmarried and unemployed mothers may have a lot in common. Teen pregnancies are not the privilege of black girls and such pregnant teenagers—even if the family pressures are going to be very important and different according to the race and other criteria—may have a lot in common. So what Warren described as anarchy before is in fact the multiplication of criteria defining the social, economic, cultural and personal positions of Blacks in their community and in American society. This diversity is already advocated by Ellison in Invisible Man: "Our fate is to become one and yet many" [93] and "Diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states" [94]; or even better, quoting black men in a tenement during the depression, arguing about the best sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera, "Strip us fellows down and give us some costumes and we make about the finest damn bunch of Egyptians you ever seen" [96]. We have to come to the conclusion here that culture has to be multifarious inside and outside the community, that culture has to represent a dream about the future and that this dream is the only way to bring together people who will be more and more different with passing years. We have to conclude that what was called anarchy before is nothing but, using Ellison’s word, "democratic" [96] diversity. Culture is the first tool to deal with it, but how can we bring together multifarious cultural forms? This is not typical of only the black community in the USA. It is true of all the countries in the world that are confronted to the fast change brought by technical and scientific progress. In our world of universal globalized virtual communication, black is definitely no longer the only, not even the essential criterion we have to use to define the black community. Ellison felt it before it happened. Warren does not seem to see it.

That’s why the conclusion is a let down. It finally says a few words on Juneteenth. I will not consider what he says as crucial in Juneteenth. I will wonder why Warren never spoke of the last scene of Invisible Man. The invisible man, escaping the riot in Harlem, jumps into a coal cellar that is as dark and black as can be imagined. He is going to transform this cellar into his eggshell. He will instal hundreds of light bulbs and he will sit, alone, in the middle of the glaring light. This metaphor is essential. A black man in a black cellar cannot be seen if there is not some white light to shine on him. Black and white can only exist together, one lending to the other what the other does not have and vice versa. But the black man, or it could be a white man who would not be visible either in a black cellar, will not be seen, no matter how much white or black light is added to the cellar, if other people are not present and looking. No matter how much white light you pour in your blackness, you will still be invisible. And here the end of Juneteenth is even better since a white racist senator is shot by some activist because of his racist bigotry and the white senator is revealed to be black and to have been a black teenage preacher in his youth.

No matter how much whiteness you pour into yourself, your blackness will come back because it cannot be evaded. In both cases there is a symbolization of the impossibility to cut off the two races, the necessity to build together, and the unescapable heritage from both races to both races. Warren’s book misses many arguments and gets kind of lost in detailed discussions of opposite intellectuals in the fields of history and sociology, mainly. Eventually, Warren seems to have lost Ralph Ellison along the way.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.