Ralph Ellison: Wounded Healer in a Broken Nation

When Ralph Ellison died this spring, he was primarily remembered and honored as the African-American writer who in 1952 had gifted the nation and the world with that magnificent novel, Invisible Man, a work widely and justly acclaimed as one of the extraordinary literary achievements of our time. But Ellison was much more than a great novelist, and perhaps it was only in the course of his gentle, graceful departure at the age of 80 that we could fully begin to realize that we had lost one of our nation’s wisest and more compassionate griots.*

This deeply learned native of Oklahoma was indeed a faithful keeper of our tangled stories, one who understood the healing possibilities that are released among us when the people of this fiercely complicated nation honestly acknowledge both the terror and the beauty we have created in our strange pilgrimage together—and apart.

In a sense, Invisible Man was a demonstration of the way in which an artist of disciplined, audacious imagination and unswervingly humane vision could address our common life. Firmly, confidently grasping (and being grasped by) the vivid particularities of one essential American community—the children of Africa—Ellison wove their/our laughter, tragedy, irony, eloquence, music, and sprawling absurdities into a powerful and unforgettable story, one that opened revelatory windows into all our personal and collective human lives, suggesting pathways toward our necessary healing, especially in America.

For the novelist was aware that there was a calling in his life that took him beneath even the most subterranean levels of his art. Appropriately enough, it was while he was addressing a group of students and faculty on a college campus that Ellison—the college dropout—offered the simple and profound statement of his vocation. It was in 1979 at a "Ralph Ellison festival" at Brown University, while we all waited for the Second Coming of his great novel, that he announced his deeper task: "I realize how fortunate I am to have held on to literature as a medium for transcending the divisions of our society."

What often struck me about Ellison and his work was how tenaciously he did hold on to this healing vocation, how high were his hopes for its transformative possibilities and how unromantic and ironic was his sense of the difficult task he faced as a wounded healer in a broken nation.

Though he usually would not use the term outside of his novel, it was still possible (especially for a seeker like me) to sense something akin to a religious insight and vision in his belief that the work of the artist was "to create within us moments of high consciousness...moments wherein we grasp, in the instant, a knowledge of how transcendent and how abysmal and yet affirmative it can be to be human beings."

I confess that I did not see nor consider such things on the occasion in the early 1970s when I met Ralph and Fanny Ellison for the first and only time. What I remember was their bright and airy apartment above the Hudson River maintaining their contact with the expanding edges of Harlem. Reflecting recently on Ellison, I recall from that visit a spirit at once warm and reserved about this gracious man who kept both his cigar and his beloved trumpet close at hand. Then, too, something about the free but measured complexity of his speech reminded me of the varieties of African-American music that were so intricately woven into his masterpiece.

I REMEMBERED the meeting on Riverside Drive again when I came across a statement that Ellison had made some years ago while honoring Richard Wright, his friend, mentor, and occasional adversary. Speaking as a griot Ellison said, "History has no vacuum. There are transformations, there are lesions, there are metamorphoses, and there are mysteries that cloak the clashing of individual wills and private interests."

It seems to me that the great accomplishment of this man was grounded in his capacity to see, feel, and express so many of the transformations, lesions, metamorphoses, and mysteries that have marked the experience of our extraordinary nation—and we extraordinary black co-creators of this nation. More than once he called attention to "the unexpectedness of the American experience," and this winter, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he quietly remarked to a group of friends, "It behooves us to keep a close eye on this process of Americanness."

That was what he was doing for most of his lifetime—keeping his eye on the very complex process, the humanizing prize. That is why I trusted him—even from a distance—as teacher and griot.

When we Americans are ready to create and listen to a more authentic history of our country than is usually available to us, when we are ready to keep a close and honest eye on "the process of Americanness," this often fractured hope for a more perfect union, then we will gather around Invisible Man, "Eyes on the Prize," Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ron Takaki’s A Different Mirror, John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom (product of another Oklahoma gentleman and artist). We will absorb so many works of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Walt Whitman, June Jordan, Robert Hayden, and we will sing and dance and shout to the music of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Doctor Loco, and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Then we will be able to hear our teacher, Ellison, speaking to us, urging us to see ourselves more clearly, to see ourselves with both laughter and tears, as the mysterious, wounded, unexpected Americans we all are. And we will allow him to chide us, as we allowed Malcolm to chide us, and say to us, "It is as though we dread to acknowledge the complex, pluralistic nature of our society, and as a result we find ourselves stumbling upon our true national identity under circumstances in which we least expect to do so. This is because some of our brightest achievements have been as lights hidden under a basket of myths."

Yes, that is why I trust him as teacher and healer. I know he saw and treasured the light under our personal and collective baskets, and, like Fannie Lou Hamer, he wanted to let it shine.

Now I want to see what was shining in the manuscript of the novel he was finally completing at the end of his life. But I know that he would encourage me, all of us, to watch out most carefully not for what he has left behind, but for what we must still create on up ahead in our own developing vision of this process of Americanness, this endangered new creation, of magnificently human and insistently visible women and men.

And I suspect that when he sensed our many doubts and fears he would urge us to sing our way into the music and spirit of Dianne Reeves’ powerful affirmation: "I am an endangered species, but I sing no victim’s song."

VINCENT HARDING, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology and the author, most recently, of Hope and History (Orbis, 1990).

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