Okie Rebels With A Cause, Part Six
“So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget.”—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Another great state moralist who impacted the world is Oklahoma City native Ralph Ellison, whose novel Invisible Man was published in 1952. The novel received instant national and international acclaim. The novel’s brilliance and sophisticated narration is often compared and ranked against authors Franz Kafka and James Joyce.
The novel's status as a world classic is assured because, among other things, it brilliantly exposed this country’s institutionalized racism during the hysterical McCarthy years of the 1950s. It also helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It stands as a great, artistic achievement in the aesthetic tradition of the western novel.
Ellison’s novel will live on forever in our state’s and world’s historical legacy. It will only grow in stature. Ellison’s early years in Oklahoma City will be a subject matter for historians in centuries to come.
Invisible Man was Ellison’s first significant work. It tells the story of an unnamed African American narrator who tries to find his identity in a racist culture that refuses to really see him as a human.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator says, "You wonder if you aren't simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re part of all the sounds and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful."
(The quotes from Invisible Man in this blog come from a 1995 Vintage Books, New York, edition of the initial text.)
After his haunting prologue, the narrator describes his participation in a Battle Royal when he had just graduated from high school. The Battle Royal is part of an annual "smoker" or party held by a town’s white male power structure. The booze flows, and there is a stripper. The Battle Royal, however, is the main event. African American teenagers are brought into the room, blindfolded, and forced to fight each until only one remains standing. The white men in the room toss the teenagers back into the ring if they try to leave. Drunk and out of control, the men shout out racial epithets as they demean the teenagers physically.
It is a horrifying scene, surreal and symbolic on one level, yet always literally real and grimly naturalistic in its specific details. It is an exhausting chapter to read. It raises serious questions about our existence. Why are people so cruel? What is behind the racism and hate of these men? Why is there so much hatred in the world? The questions are provoked by Ellison’s artistic brilliance, and the Battle Royal chapter is published in virtually every twentieth-century American anthology of literature.
"The room spun around me, a swirl of lights, smoke, sweating bodies surrounded by tense white faces. I bled from both nose and mouth, the blood spattering my chest."
The narrator earns a college scholarship, goes to a southern African American college (Ellison attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington), and then eventually ends up in New York where he is pulled apart by different aspects of the growing movement for equality for African Americans. After working at a series of jobs, the narrator gets involved briefly with a Brotherhood, which symbolizes the Communist Party at the time, and then with other activists, Throughout his life, he searches not for a "black" or "white" identity but for an individual identity, which the culture denies him again and again. The novel makes a lasting, powerful statement about individual human dignity and respect. These issues of “not seeing,” of coming to terms with America’s racist past and present, remain with us, and so the novel reverberates still.
After the novel was published, some critics contended Ellison’s novel was perhaps not loud or direct enough in terms of the day-to-day efforts to pass new laws guaranteeing equality for African Americans. (The white power structure here, of course, simply ignored it.) The years, however, have validated Ellison, who died in 1994. Invisible Man might not have been an “action” guide for a particular moment for a particular movement within the quest for equality, but it is an enormous, philosophical novel that shows how institutionalized racism destroys lives, and its impact passes from one generation to the next. The novel's brilliance and moral legacy cannot be overstated.
Ellison grew up in Oklahoma City and attended Douglas High School, which is named after the former slave and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas. I visited the inner-city school a couple of years ago, and its dilapidated physical condition could not stop the energy and intellectual curiosity of his great teachers and students, but it tried and tried. (Douglas will soon have a new school because of the local MAPS project.)
His father, who was a small businessman selling ice and coal, died when Ellison was only three. His mother worked as a janitor, nurse, and housecleaner to make ends meet and she raised a son with lofty ambitions and a moral center that would help change the world. Ellison’s first interest, however, was in jazz music, not writing, and his novel is filled with language that has been compared to musical improvisation.
Like the great moralists Woody Guthrie, and Will Rogers, Ellison had to make his way outside of Oklahoma. What was here for someone of his intelligence during the time period in which he lived? Ellison was born just seven years after Oklahoma became a state. Yet it is interesting to consider how his unique Oklahoma experience shaped Ellison’s moral views of the world. His mother struggled so her son could succeed; it is a classic American story. Historians need to look here, not New York, for the reasons for Ellison’s genius.
That is happening now. Here is an excerpt from a forward to a recent biography of Ralph Ellison by Bob Burke and Denyvetta Davis:
"Intellectually, Ellison developed his ideas about the fluidity and complexity of American culture and personality from the range of his experience in Oklahoma. He more than held his own among American writers and thinkers by virtue of the ‘mammy-made’ pragmatism engendered by virtue of his faithfulness to what he called his ‘cold Oklahoma Negro eye.’ In the last few years of his life, he wrote long reminiscences in the form of letters to old friends from Oklahoma, and, when asked to account for the strain of optimism and patriotism in his reading of America, he cited early experiences in Oklahoma as sources of that ‘sanity-saving comedy’ and tragicomic sensibility he saw as the birthmark of American possibility." (The forward was written by John F. Callahan.).
Oklahoma City’s African American community has embraced Ellison's legacy. There is the Ralph Ellison Library in the city, and it recently celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of Invisible Man. The city’s African American community has a rich history of fighting for social equality here.
But Oklahoma’s right-wing power structure, of course, has done little to recognize Ellison’s genius or embrace his moral message. Like it has done with Guthrie, Rogers, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of the Wrath, the right-wing distorts Ellison’s legacy. It does so by (1) ignoring Ellison’s great literary achievement then and now and (2) by continuing to sanction institutionalized racism in the state.
Edward L. Gaylord, the now-deceased publisher of the state’s largest newspaper The Daily Oklahoman, was always considered a racist by his critics. Former editors have told stories about the newspaper’s racist reporting that has continued to the present day. A 1999 series of articles in the Columbia Journalism Review about the newspaper revealed complaints about Gaylord’s racist newspaper policies.
Here is a quote from one of the articles: "Former staffers say it wasn't long ago that the complexion of the front page, not just the newsroom, was influenced by race. ‘When I was on the city desk in the late seventies,’ says former city editor Splaingard, ‘the rule was you didn't run pictures of blacks on the front page.’ And while everyone says the ‘rule’ is long dead, it's not always easy to tell."
The newspaper’s current editorial writers and new publisher, Christy Gaylord Everest, are more concerned today with making sure rich oil executives at Oklahoma City's Kerr McGee get richer than with correcting the type of social injustice Ellison fought against his entire life. It is difficult to determine what impact this obvious institutionalized racism has had on the state’s psyche.
In addition, it took until the 1990s before Oklahoma could even begin to come to terms with the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 because it was intentionally excluded from history textbooks. (This reawakening is an ongoing project.) Some experts estimate that close to 300 African Americans were killed by "truckloads of whites" and more than 1,400 homes and businesses were destroyed in the area known as black Wall Street in Tulsa after false rumors, published in a local newspaper, circulated that a local African American man had sexually assaulted a white woman.
This historical cover-up and what one might call the "softening" of horrific racial injustice is the legacy of Oklahoma’s right-wing, immoral propaganda machine that still thrives today.
At the end of Invisible Man, the narrator feels somewhat beaten down by events out of his control. Yet he tells us, "I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no. I denounced because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I’m a desperate man—but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much as through love as through hate."
So, ultimately, Ellison teaches us about the ability to love even in the face of great pain, such as racial injustice in the form of violent brutality and utter degradation. Like Steinbeck’s Okie Tom Joad, Ellison’s narrator leaves the novel pages enlightened and prepared to say something for the disenfranchised and the ordinary people of the world. His personal struggle is our struggle as a nation, as a world, as we promote human dignity and love in the face of obvious injustice.
Ellison’s narrator echoes the Oklahoma moral mythology that created a world moral view before and after World War II. This mythology brought about the New Deal and eventually the Civil Rights Movement. Oklahomans Ellison, Guthrie, and Rogers impacted the world, not just the country. For example, Europe, wrestling with its own demons in the mid-twentieth century, could once look to our country for the moral foundation created by these three great Oklahomans and the classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, which depicted heroic Okies fighting against right-wing injustice.
When one stops to consider, it is simply amazing that so many people from our relatively small state (and there are more) had such a major influence in constructing the most significant worldwide moral legacy of the twentieth-century. It is a legacy that lives on today and will live on forever in the annals of world history. Ellison makes me proud to be from Oklahoma, not the Kerr McGee Corporation, not The Daily Oklahoman, not The Tulsa World, not some morally-challenged politician like former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, not some country musician sellout like Toby Keith.
The next time someone from another state makes lighthearted fun of Oklahoma do not laugh it off so easily. Look them right in the eye and tell them about Ellison, Guthrie, Rogers, and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Tell them they still live in a democracy, and they are still free because the Oklahoma moral message and mythology that once swept the nation and world is still intact, if only precariously.