Ellison, Baraka, and the Faces of Tradition Author(s): Kimberly W. Benston Source: boundary 2, Vol. 6, No. 2, (Winter, 1978), pp.

333-354 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/302327 Accessed: 03/05/2008 12:50
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=duke. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We enable the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.


Ellison, Baraka,and the Faces of Tradition

Kimberly W. Benston
I could hear him: "Stephen's problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.... We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture." - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man1 Each morning . . . I stare out at the horizon until it gets up and comes to embrace me. I make believe it is my father. This is known as genealogy. - Amiri Baraka, "Hymn for Lanie Poo," Part 4 333

but with a feeling that the whole of literature . for it might justifiably be contended that nearly all the major changes in Afro-American literature have been initiated by those writers who were most deeply conscious of Afro-American and Euro-American traditions. Without the belief in a common cultural heritage black writers would struggle fitfully for meaning and their literary community would break up into isolated individuals with artistic methods resembling private codes rather than communally raised songs. one of the outstanding innovators of AfroAmerican literature. has. of Afro-American literature. has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This is not so surprising as it may seem to readers who have accustomed themselves to think of modern black art as a complete break-away from the creations of the past. black artists have long recognized that any culture which exists as a self-communing entity must possess a mythology of some kind. Although the past several decades have constituted a period of intensive experimentation in Afro-American writing. and of the timeless and of the temporal together. or ethos. . of all its components. of course.The enduring strength and liveliness of Afro-American literature is due to nothing so much as the dynamic consciousness of a shared tradition. always insisted upon his allegiance to tradition in very Eliotean terms. Eliot aptly wrote in a more general vein: The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones. Yet the role of tradition in modern black literature has been difficult to perceive behind the masks of iconoclasm and apocalypse. with her awkward nomination of Terence as cultural ancestor. The validity and function of his attitude would have been appreciated much earlier by younger Afro-American artists and critics had it not been for the prevalent 334 . . in certain respects.from Phillis Wheatley.have given us signals of their concern with tradition as a personal construct that facilitates the artistic act. and within it the whole of the literature of his own country. And. to Ishmael Reed in his insistently parodic stance . is what makes a writer traditional.2 Ralph Ellison. Clearly. S. the very notion of "tradition" has been the invigorating element of the mythology. it is noteworthy that the work usually considered to be the most revolutionary in achievement is that which. the underlying ideological bond within the Afro-American literary cosmos has not been any political or "moral" idea. As T. This historical sense. The writers themselves . Rather. has been the most concerned with tradition. which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal.

Little allowance has been made for what might be termed "creative evolution"4 in black literature: the capacity for the poet.generally speaking.5 We must ask. however. is the crucial precondition for the poets' art. a reaction against the ideas and techniques of preceding generations. inveterate. to assimilate and interpret. the folktale. tricks. following the manifestos of contemporary writers. We are perhaps now better equipped to understand the radical and decidedly AfroAmerican . in fact. those whose attention is directed toward pre-Black Arts Movement literature stress the conservatism and benignity of tradition. and many other vernacular forms in the works of writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Henry Dumas is generally well-documented. and to assess the achievement in relation to the whole of tradition. Yet we have not probed much the black artist's intentional regulation of his multifarious influences. because they are much closer in spirit than is usually supposed.misconception of tradition as an entirely static force and. in fact. a re-emphasis upon what has temporarily been forgotten or neglected. And after every period of experimentation it is necessary to trace the various lines of development.almost "nationalist" . Such an effort seems appropriate at the present. imaginatively reconstituted anew with and within the work of every strong black writer. and because their differences are thus all the more crucial to the future of Afro-American 335 . taking it to be one or another version of the given. in origin. Others. "Tradition" is. a time when younger black writers are intensely scrutinizing and affirming their relations to various literary forebears. is not so much another compendium of formal and psychic "roots" as a radical re-evaluation of the notion of "tradition" itself. and tropes which folklorists and literary historians describe for us. in particular. Unfortunately. the chanted sermon. interpreters of black literature have been less attuned to the mythological aspect of tradition which. by precept and by example. emphasize the novelty and revolt of modern black art. As investigations of poetic practice they offer nothing other than facile restatements of the poets' own mythological constructs. What we need. We have too often accepted the idea of tradition at face value. for its identification with the work of white Western writers. unproblematic fund of tales. it is also true that every new movement is a rediscovery of what has been lost. The presence of available Euro-American structures and of the blues. as poet.3 Ellison's work has declared.relation between Ellison and the cultural roots of his art. to exercise control over the rate and direction of his own adaptation. As histories of poetic declarations such approaches might be viable. what role does a Ralph Ellison's or an Amiri Baraka's image of tradition play in the creation of his art? I have chosen Ellison and Baraka as examples (and exemplars) for comparison because their works (both creative and critical) comprise the most pervasively influential critiques of black culture now current. Some critics . that if it is true that every artistic movement is.

shares many essential characteristics with Invisible Man: the explicitly Dantesque descent to literal and psychological undergrounds. Baraka writes of the individual's encounter with tradition . The former approach might be called conservative or archeological and the latter political or romantic. or those anxious to existentialize Invisible Man . is that Ellison is both the most traditional of Afro-American writers (insofar as he demands our constant attention to the details and wisdom of black culture) and the most revisionary critic of tradition (in that he constantly focuses our attention on the ambiguities inherent in any embrace of the past). and arise as a consequence of Ellison's radically ambivalent ("complex") relation to the traditions and sources which he utilizes. The System of Dante's Hell. are actually inscribed into it. too. Yet both possibilities of response are implicit within the novel itself.with the continuity and celebration of black culture is a crucial aspect of his work.especially those with political axes to grind. often by reducing the novel to a repetition of its prototypes and ignoring or overlooking its crucial divergences from them. His early novel. also remystifies it by endowing its creator with a remarkable freedom from the burden of received cultural ideas. But it also remystifies it by presupposing a fundamentally unselfconscious author through whom the voice of tradition speaks for itself. quests which turn out to be as much the prodigal's return to racial origins as the picaresque adventurer's advance upon new frontiers of identity. Yet the fundamental resemblance lies in the heroes' underlying journeys toward selfhood.as evinced by the hero's struggles in Invisible Man and by Ellison's own critical essays . of course. in the estimable position granted black folk culture in Invisible Man. then. has made the relation to black culture and tradition the focus of his efforts. What I wish to suggest.and in so doing provides a radical critique and revision of every convention he exploits. Herein lies the direct link between Ellison's and Baraka's art. while demystifying the novel by treating its hero as a real sufferer not unlike you and me. the dream-ritual sequence from which the hero emerges tested and shaken but whole. the experimental prose. durability.literature. This attitude is particularly apparent. As already suggested. but which he can neither definitively join nor leave behind.tend in their reflections to identify the novel with its surface anti-Communism or with its symbolism of blindness and selfhood. and persistent value of Afro-American responses to life. the study of their 336 . Baraka. Other commentators . in dealing with Ellison and Baraka. Like Ellison. Taken as a whole. Those critics who have been aware of Ellison's folkloristic roots seek to resolve the "complexities" (Ellison's word) of Invisible Man in terms of these sources. Thus.both Afro-American and Euro-American . The romantic approach. Ellison's concern . Ellison's writings offer a unified cultural theory whose central emphasis is upon the beauty. The conservative approach demystifies the novel by attempting to explain it in terms of its tradition.

it is "only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made. about the world". I 337 . the idea of history as a philosophical and mythological construct. the confrontation with tradition has been a dual encounter. Black Music is a sheaf of essays and liner notes about avant-garde jazz of the 1960's. these notes emanate from a "body of sociocultural philosophy" and convey a precise emotional response to life. Thus a meaningful history of black music would be a description of a historically valid black "attitude" (ethos): The African cultures. and particularly the blues. while dramatically opposed to one another. as the core of the Afro-American cultural matrix. he seeks to demonstrate that black music "is essentially the expression of an attitude. symbols. formal innovation. the list of important influences includes a plethora of Euro-American as well as Afro-American authorities and. and didactic thrusts. A new race. The treatment of these various sources within a theory of black music is one of the most fascinating and highly charged aspects of their literary achievements. Foremost among these is their attention to black music. Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1967). The earlier work. is a theoretical/historical treatise dealing with black music from its African origins to the "new wave" jazz discussed extensively in Black Music. Just as their novels are organized by strikingly similar patterns. provides the basic text for our analysis of Baraka's music aesthetic. Rather."6 The musician's notes are merely "musical" insofar as they are susceptible to technical a n a Iy s i s. Baraka's music criticism is not primarily concerned with "music appreciation" or questions of style. for both. the relation between the artist and his affective precursors. and the weight of the stepculture produced the American Negro. or a collection of attitudes. the retention of some parts of these cultures in America. are the most influential among other commentators. More crucially.innovativeness must begin in the study of their attitudes toward the literary and cultural past. by extension. II Baraka's writings on black music are well-represented by two volumes.) From their attitudes toward the blues several other key problems of mutual interest arise: the continuing impact of slavery on contemporary black life. (If they share this concern with a number of other black writers and theorists it is fair to say that their own theories. because of its unifying historical interpretation and self-conscious theorizing. so have their cultural theories been focused upon several common issues. Blues People. or individual method. the relation between the individual and culture and. although he often examines these at great length. and. the better known of the two. most relevant to the present essay. For both authors.

communal modes. for Baraka. Against these he sets the opposed values of "white" music that often found their way into jazz: softness or "legitimacy" of tone. schools. etc.want to use music as my persistent reference just because the development and transmutation of African music to American Negro music. Blues People sets forth Baraka's vision of the cultural conflict which produced the Afro-American musical dynamic. for these latter elements are merely the artifacts produced by the African sensibility. ever-becoming activity fundamental to African culture and the formalistic impulse of Western art." reflective tone). At every stage of his investigation. The survival of the African process in Afro-American music is. and improvisational qualities. "intellectual. crystallizes at very special moments in forms that may be called "roots. improvisation.7 The important subject matter of Blues People is not the blues per se but the opposition between the changing. commitment to a generally sweet "artifact-like" beauty. but also by noting how these interests conflicted (Miles Davis) or blended (Duke Ellington) in the work of a given black musician. of greater concern to Baraka than the styles. represents to me this whole process in microcosm. dissonant accents. Briefly stated. Specifically. Louis Armstrong's strident. Baraka describes black music's evolution as a dialectical journey energized by the competing forces of Western and African aesthetics. perfected. holler. Clearly. in fact. atonality. to define black music in terms of an African ethos subsumed in an American form. in an emotional sense: Blues as an autonomous music had been in a sense 338 . brassy. communal. Blues People's "history" of black music is an attempt to praise the African in Afro-American music at the expense of the American. or "scream". Baraka esteems in black music the qualities indicative of Africanesque emotiveness: the shout. . the very model of the "freedman" (or nonassimilationist) Afro-American. and nonfunctional artifact. fixed arrangements the musician could simply learn by note. the call-and-response pattern. . Baraka illustrates the difference between these styles. while present in each phase of black music's development." The archetypical root form is the blues. even more significantly. dramatic sound versus Bix Beiderbecke's learned. Thus blues music is "roots" not only in a musical but. the African aesthetic (as depicted by Baraka) emphasizes emotive. and creators of that music. Baraka takes great pains to show that the blues was an extension of African music's basic elements: the shout and its three-line structure. Baraka proposes that the African essence. the first native American musical expression. roughness. while the Western ethos values the finished. The bluesman is. not only by contrasting contemporary white and black practitioners of the same jazz instrument (for instance.

the blues themselves reflect the more complicated experience of the Negro. sex. Although the basic pattern of call-and-response is a communal form. general qualities of earthly life and religious expectations. On one hand. Bebop set out to redefine the "basic blues impulse" in black music. the blues have really been the expression of the individual. bebop introduced a whole new lexicon to black music comparable only to the original blues improvising. One might say that the frank sexuality and harshness of classic blues were its ties to the blues as roots. This. indeed. But their songs dealt with personal exploits. it developed an area of private expression nonexistent in African culture. with its accompanying tendency toward professionalism and formalism. (BP. the blues spoke of love and love-loss. Baraka delivers his explanation of this discrepancy with trenchant clarity: this intensely personal nature of blues-singing is also the result of what can be called the Negro's "American experience.. is precisely what took place in the "classic blues. nature. even as "roots.. blues singers created from "natural inclination" rather than from formal training. . entertainment-consciousness." . of African) music. and blues a kind of ethno-historic rite as basic as blood. and this 339 . 66) The blues. Such individuality often degenerated into the facile "style" of the artisan. . while its slickness.inviolable. and "universal" themes constituted the classic or commonly acceptable element of this music. and other private experiences. The second great moment Baraka sees in black music is bebop. Yet Baraka designates it as "roots" because it also initiated a true advance. 147-48) If the "secret" ritual impulse of the blues finds its source in African spirit. and by making unprecedented harmonic variations available to the improvising musician. but the nature of the musical group was also reformed considerably to conform to the collective thrust of the new music." is thus a mixed blessing to Baraka. not the community's. [It] is a manifestation of the whole Western concept of man's life. travel.. It was as if these materials were secret and obscure. As with their African ancestors. Baraka argues." which became popular at a time when the Negro began to feel he might become a member of the dominant society. it is the ritual link between the African and Afro-American sensibilities in black music. Whereas the arguments of African songs concerned the gods. and it is a development that could only be found in an American black man's music. on the other hand. (BP. By returning to the rhythmic orientation of earliest Afro-American (and. Not only were the functions of several instruments revolutionized.

Full of the screaming. improvisational. Moreover. 219). form of roots. twisted. this is not merely because this music. have reference to a "universal" meaning. then. Rollins. developed even greater harmonic and rhythmic methods. 201). natural emotiveness central to the African aesthetic." Finally. then kill it. and others represented a third. but a liability.' as the old blues had it. this music harks back to the Negro roots of blues and field hollers. Taylor. adoption and use of alien forms are no longer acceptable actions .in pieces such as Coltrane's renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. The black musician's new embrace of alienation involved a significantly split reaction to earlier Negro roots: it inculcated a sense that "roots" both existed and were valuable. seems to him fulfilled by the new jazz. Coleman. The boppers "sought to erect a meta-culture as isolated as their grandparents' but issuing from the evolved sensibility of a modern urban black American who had by now achieved a fluency with the socio-cultural symbols of Western thinking" (BP. or because the new musicians' aching lyricism recalled the old blues cry.8 Bebop. taking up where the boppers left off. is roots for Baraka because it began the Afro-American's march away from America toward a purer African "soul. writing in the early and mid-1960's. these forms are employed only to be dissected. since the culture of white precludes the possession of the Negro 'soul'" (BP. for here the improvising individual and the improvising group create sounds interdependently. but at the same time it leaps back beyond American origins to the pure tribal ur-root of the African collective: "New Black Music is this: Find the self. Again. and finally destroyed."White is then not 'right. Baraka." has received vociferous criticism from a group of thinkers who regard the blues in quite another fashion. but took issue with certain conventional sentiments of these roots . while directly associated with the Negro's life. to re-Africanize black musical expression. especially of the blues "root. felt that the contemporary "new wave" jazz of Coltrane.was again more a matter of cultural than of specifically musical statement. as the musician negates the fixed idea in favor of present expression. and yet more valuable. In contrast to his rigorous discrimination between African and American elements in the blues and in black music as a whole. Baraka's desire (subliminally expressed throughout Blues People) to obliterate the American element of blues roots."9 Baraka's conception of Afro-American music. The avant-garde jazz (like the new musicians themselves) is perhaps the most communal of all black musics. Ellison has argued eloquently for an understanding of the music which accounts for the "variety" and "mystery" as well as the obvious 340 . this school holds the blues to be a distinctly American art form developed from a welter of complex and often contradictory experiences which. Among the most articulate proponents of this view has been Ralph Ellison.

" His bluesman is a "harmonizer of chaos" . In his review of Blues People. and as an embodiment of atemporal and cross-cultural expression.rather than a purely "expressive" ex-slave whose style confronts that of the Western oppressor." Ellison defines the blues as both tragic and comic. not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic. Along with fellow Tuskegeean Albert Murray. not of the re-emerging African. for Ellison it is a multi-directional. he has asserted that the blues. "Richard Wright's Blues. They encompass the extremes of human experience and perception."12 he also clearly appeals to our sense of a timeless or "universal" response to "the human condition. a "harmonizer" of cultural chaos . to finger its jagged grain. and to transcend it. but of the ever-various and decidedly mainstream "OmniAmerican" (to borrow Murray's phrase). self-contradictory. one infers. and unpredictable ("What if history was a gambler?" [IM. and this might be useful if he knew enough of the related subjects to make it interesting.features of the Afro-American experience. In the review of Blues People and in the seminal essay. "harmonizing" disparate conditions by giving expression to the manifold of human emotion: The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness.1 1 While Ellison notes that the ability to combine the tragic and comic modes in poetic form reflects "a profound sense of life shared by many American Negroes. constitutes the very spirit of the American "mainstream.even.of enslaved and politically weak men successfully imposing their values upon a powerful society through song and dance. If for Baraka history is a dialectical process resulting in an increasingly refined black ethos. far from being an extension of African culture completely opposed to the enveloping white society. or mythologies of history: "Jones's theory flounders before that complex of human 341 . Ellison presents this view in direct opposition to Baraka's: Jones attempts to impose an ideology upon this cultural complexity." Ellison would have us see the blues in a double light: as the quintessential idiom of the black folk tradition (albeit one which ultimately flows into American society at large). 381] )collection of individual actions and reactions as inclusive as the tragicomic blues itself.10 Ellison's bluesman is thus the archetype. near-comic lyricism. But his version of blues lacks a sense of the excitement and surprise of men living in the world . And the essence of Ellison's attack on Baraka emanates precisely from this conflict between ideologies.

Again. 60). And. old. remnants of the slave experience must be purged for a pure black selfhood to re-establish itself.the very element which. such determination is not a matter of ideological presuppositions or the development of some historically determined consciousness.. . he eschews Baraka's Manichean division of the form into good ("blues" as African "blood rite") and bad ("classic" as Western formalism). In contrast to the cringing slave characters of Baraka's plays."1 8 As with all art forms.. Thus Ellison goes on to accuse Baraka of ignoring the ritual aspect of the blues ." These arguments over the nature of history are readily converted into a dispute over the nature of the blues tradition itself. the meaning of the classic blues depended on the contexts and functions . 391-92) Ellison would claim that such scarred yet enduring guides whose singing is emulated by black and white alike. yet his claim is for the symbolic freedom of self-expression from which actual transcendence often springs. Ellison takes sharp exception to this view of slavery and especially to Baraka's statement in Blues People that "a slave cannot be a man" (BP. upon the cultural referents ." One such exemplar in Invisible Man is the old man who starts a spiritual at Tod Clifton's funeral: I looked into the face of the old man who had aroused the song and felt a twinge of envy. . Ellison's particular quarrel is with Baraka's discussion of classic blues. His method is that of inclusion: "Classic blues were both entertainment and a form of folklore. Baraka sees slavery and humanity as absolutely incompatible because "there is no dream of Man that haunts him such as Freedom!"1 5 Ellison would agree with Baraka's premise. 7 Even white brothers and sisters were joining in. and for a second I heard the shattering stroke of my heart." Here. Indeed.that is. the 342 . It was a worn. Baraka isolates as the spiritual link between African art and the blues "root. Ellison argues. Ellison seems to be seriously misreading his antagonist. . I looked at the coffin and the marchers.. and yet realizing that I was listening to something within myself.16 Ellison's slave figures are fighters and teachers who survived oppression "through song and dance.motives which makes human history. listening to them. are the real "blues people. as we have seen. but a function of aesthetic choice."1 3 Perhaps the most crucial component of Afro-American "history" for both authors is slavery. he implies. yellow face and his eyes were closed and I could see a knife welt around his upturned neck as his throat threw out the song.which surrounded them. (IM.14 Like the residue of Euro-American influence in black music. Baraka uses slavery as his metaphor for the whole of the African experience in America.

This strategy of "misprision"1 9 is one by which Ellison confronts tradition generally. thereby making the latter a part of his "useable past. In "Richard Wright's Blues. While black music has long established autonomous canons and techniques. consciousness must so arrange its burden of desires and influences as to make the individual a responsible. effectively remystifies for himself the folk tradition which Wright had attempted to demystify. he assimilates Wright into his vision of a viable Afro-American tradition and.22 These views." one that supersedes the standards of his predecessors: 343 .' "21 Certainly.into Ellison's concept of tradition. moreover. entity within culture ("the blues . yet distinct. hitherto unsought mode. Ellison and Baraka have decided not to choose one another. Baraka maintains. It is noteworthy." These sly "miscalculations" merge two essentially non-blues writers . 111 The prevalent theme of Baraka's aesthetic treatises is the need for Afro-American writers to develop new. "post-Western" forms of expression. must be supplanted by some third. . Both the Euro-American and Afro-American literary traditions.20 In this manner. "choose one's 'ancestors. According to Ellison. that both writers place great emphasis upon the self's role in the creation of Afro-American music and literature. The result has not been a useful tradition but "the myth of a Negro literature. and illustrate his claim that one can. In "The World and the Jug. when transformed by each author within the crucible of his craft. black writing has labored slavishly under the "evil sun" ("Hymn for Lanie Poo") of white values. artistic acts. as their variant mythologies of the blues tradition make clear. According to Baraka. however. as an artist." Baraka expresses with almost selfmocking intensity his desire to shape a new "kind of instrument. if anything. "Technology and Ethos. result in stunning."23 In his noted essay. one Euro-American . and stunningly different.review seems marred in several places by his insistence that Baraka mistakes the blues as "political protest" when "they are [in fact] an art form. he claims for Wright's Black Boy a "ritual" and "blues" thrust which is. actually repudiated by that novel." Ellison similarly overreads the blues into Hemingway's fiction. the individual must obliterate the shackles of personality (whether created by unwarranted desires or by unwanted influences) and proceed to make his voice and the community's one." How can we explain such assertions by so perceptive a critic as Ellison when clearly the genius of Blues People resides in its analysis of an art form's evolution as a confrontation of the artist with tradition? Obviously. Ellison has deliberately misread Baraka in order to write his own myth of the blues tradition." for example.one Afro-American. offer no scapegoat but the self"). .

A typewriter? .is the relation of Baraka's poetic voice to the competing forces of Western and Afro-American cultures. like every great revolutionary poet. The heroes of such dramas as Dutchman. like his self-limited and self-liberating heroes (for example.why shd it only make use of the tips of the fingers. Crow Jane. by saying what he is not. then I would have a kind of instrument into which I could step & sit or sprawl or hang & use not only my fingers to make words express feelings but elbows. the latter is evinced in the epigraph to Baraka's Crow Jane verses: Crow Jane. You realize. The former authority is represented by Yeats. has realized that he can only begin to say what he is. . The lack of psychological subtlety and general "crudity" of form evident in certain of Baraka's poems and plays (especially in the poetry of Black Magic and in the agit-prop drama) reflect his most enraged repudiation of inherited conventions. Yet in most of his writings. by twisting it into unprecedented postures.which exists as subtext to the surface development of Crow Jane's character . if extravagantly complex. If I invented a word placing machine.24 In its search for an "expression-scriber" as fresh and radical as the content of Baraka's revolutionary vision. and A Black Mass encounter within the plays and within themselves the very forms of consciousness they despise. grunts. Their primary subject matter . Baraka. feet. you got to lay down and die. the ideological rejection of traditional systems is held in dramatic tension with the poet's exorcistic struggle with those systems. And. he can create anew only with some recourse to the dead grammar of previous and pernicious generations. The Slave. which remain among Baraka's finest." if you will. Clay of Dutchman or Walker of The Slave). taps. But by shocking that grammar sufficiently. . don't hold your head so high." much of Baraka's best poetry incorporates the words of an alien or older idiom in order to transcend them. . he can make it generate new and living forms. head. or wishes to become.Mississippi Joe Williams In Mississippi (Big Joe) Williams' blues poem. baby. in composing what the old man of The Slave calls a "meta-language. and particularly in the early and late works. paradoxically. Thus. The most revealing poems in this regard are the five "Crow Jane" pieces of The Dead Lecturer. an "expression-scriber. and all the sounds I wanted. creations. Baraka's art has always been concerned with the anxiety of Western influence. It is only with the typewriter that. behind. "Pallet on the 344 . specifically the Yeats of the "Crazy Jane" poems. he can inscribe into his art the blueprint for a new instrument. . screams. .

soul. a dark process. in Baraka's second poem." Crazy Jane. The opening verse. artifact: The wealth is translated. Baraka borrows Yeats's language and intonation but. Crow Jane . while reducing that career's accomplishment to the status of a lifeless.Floor" (from which Baraka is quoting). and scatological imagery in an attempt to forge an uncompromising resolution of opposites. mutability. Crow Jane appears simultaneously as a cleverly veiled personification of Southern racism's Jim Crow and as the typical faithless woman of the blues lament whose cruelty and uppityness drive her man away ("I'm going pretty woman." she alone is "without love" and. may get lonesome here/ I got nobody.' And life rots them. as we have seen Ellison do to Baraka. but in his lyrics she becomes a type of Western civilization. like Yeats's Old Tom. placed against/ strong man's lips. Warmth. sexual." Baraka then explicitly identifies Jane with Yeats by associating her creations with the Byzantium poems' golden artifices. process . Baraka also allegorizes Crow Jane. love.those forces with which Yeats's genius grappled and which later. "Crow Jane's Manner. . in The System of Dante's Hell. elevated beyond personality to a principle of being. Indeed. like thought. 345 . Jane. Williams' figure merely casts an ominous Afro-American shadow over an essentially mock-Yeatsean landscape. presses the common claims of body. he invokes her career as a precedent for reshaping tradition." is cast in the haunting idiom of "Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman" as Jane is introduced in all of her Yeatsean grotesquerie: "Cold/ stuff. not Williams'. until the Crow Jane series is understood as a totality. Baraka's poems thus sequentially explore the character of Western literature before specifically including non-Western elements in a final assessment of poetic influence. 'Your people without love. and life itself are incompatible with that world. Moreover. modelled in every significant detail on Yeats's. tho it provide a landscape with golden domes.are depicted as putrefying agents in Yeats's stilled world. of useless thighs" ("For Crow Jane") . you don't relieve my cares").like Crazy Jane an "Old Lady . Yeats's Crazy Jane poems exploited violent. corrected. if glittering. he deliberately and creatively misreads Yeats's theme. of what Yeats elsewhere called "all those antinomies/ Of day and night. "For Crow Jane. and heart ("love") as she celebrates natural processes.represents all of Yeats's "people". Flux. invigorated young LeRoi Jones's spiritual transformation . .

a grave of her own. "we own/ the night. accepting ghostly isolation as the price for rapture. Meaning light" . not to the intense experience of night.love's skein upon the ground. propose The specific quality of Baraka's revision of Yeats is clearly seen in two particular paraphrases of the Crazy Jane poems that occur in "The Dead Lady Canonized. "The Dead Lady Canonized. Yeats's poem developed from his quasi-mystical notion of "the black mass of Eden"." The poem begins. I." In a rather sharp swerve (or clinamen." Yet Baraka's clinamen does not rest here. Crow Jane's "thread" unwinds.a direct reference to the lines intoned by Yeats's Jane in "Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman": For love is but a skein unwound Between the dark and dawn. Erect . recasting these lines from "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" But Love has pitched his mansion in The place of excrement. . and cold sterility.. infertile Jane and to propose his own image of the (black-owned) night: may . kind father. Damballah. the night's image. Dead lady/ of thinking. but to the "meaning" of dawn. Baraka now claims the power of revolutionary vision for himself. is identified with disease. Western culture's) legacy is pictured as a heap of artifacts. . Appropriately." Dead nouns.she is described as the "Dead virgin/ of the mind's echo. and his Jane rejects her idea of Blakean utopia for the double-edged reward of sexuality."25 Baraka here rejects the West as "death/ly white" and asserts of the true black magicians. Crow Jane's haggard infertility is identified with the worst aspects of Western rationalism as set forth in Blues People. "A thread/ of meaning. in the final poem. My body in the tomb Shall leap into the light lost In my mother's womb. For nothing can be sole or whole That has not been rent Baraka seeks to kill forever his loveless. to borrow again Harold Bloom's terminology) from Yeats's true sensibility. As in the poem that concludes his essay. or rather to the emptiness of "light" which. in Baraka's poems. ." Crow Jane's (again. . 346 . futility. ironically performing a black mass around Yeats's figure. those sterile products of the Western imagination delineated in Blues People: "A trail/ of objects... . . "State/Meant.

Yeats's lines." Yet (like both Willie Best and Walker Vessels)." so his later disavowal and abuse of Western influences lend his recent art the appearance of indeed representing a "post-Western form. discover. as the grey movement/ of clouds. Baraka violently inverts this purpose." is an explicit link to this aspect of the Willie Best figure). Baraka-the-author and Baraka-the-persona merge and pronounce Crow Jane's death sentence in unison." 347 . Baraka. Baraka does not simply transform. more radically. Just as Baraka's notion of the "myth of a Negro literature" is itself a myth that enables him to feel free from a predetermined literary "legacy. black lip hung/ in dawn's gray wind. "sole" (or soul) and "whole" (or hole). He enters the scene in "Crow Jane's Manner": "Me. . the last. His struggling voice within these poems is a prisoner of a foreign language." Yet this is not all. relate. of course." And in "Crow Jane in High Society" he attacks himself as Crow Jane's poetic lackey: "And I tell/ her symbols. Baraka tells Crow Jane. but it may also mean understand or. with King Lear's fool.26 thereby investing them with authority and power. inverts its imagery and themes. Baraka divests Crazy Jane of her sublime madness." Like Walker Vessels. bomb. but a grim end to the "dark process" of her tradition's continuity.27 "Tell" means. with their equivocations. forming an African/Afro-American frame to the examination of Western tradition. He performs for her like a Willie Best." Ultimately. This complete rejection of Crow Jane joins the end of the series with its opening epigram. the Yeatsean landscape. like Williams. leaving only the literal excrementitious mansion of her dead and deadening "images. yet he may say. indeed. . and molds it into a new structure by wedding furious critique to conventional Afro-American expressions and the language of Pan-African mythologies. or rather. "I can tell what I can tell." to close the womb . he is a renegade entertainer ("black lip hung . illuminated ancestral womb. a crucial player in this new black mass. the "grey" hero of The Slave. The "grave" (Yeats's "tomb") of Baraka's Jane is not a door leading toward a pure." The sequence as a whole is entirely characteristic of Baraka's most revolutionary works: it appropriates a classic Euro-American form. For. . And. "I'm going . . Baraka's persona is here venerating Yeats's symbols.sew up her bleeding hole. conjuring the African gods in an effort to repair what is "rent.the creative fount . you don't relieve my cares. He is. . weld body and soul in a vision of antinomian frenzy producing ecstatic wholeness. as author of the Crow Jane poems. in fact.of his Western protagonist. the shucking and jiving hero of Baraka's eight-part masterpiece "A Poem for Willie Best. is dis-covering his image of Western culture.

or better.28 Ellison's eclecticism.29 The complexity of Ellison's aesthetic is evident in many aspects of Invisible Man. At the same time. grits. The result is a critique of tradition as strenuous as Baraka's. A similar problematizing of folk motifs is evident when the narrator. while surely contrary to Baraka's nationalist aesthetic. and by way of using literature as a means of clarifying the peculiar and particular experience out of which I came. original. by way of finding how I could use that very powerful literary tradition by way of making literature my own. the Brotherhood leader is "Jack the bear" as prefigured in the hero's meeting with the rabbit Wheatstraw. Bledsoe. he has espoused an aesthetic of inclusion whereby influences are "chosen" freely from all available traditions: I felt that I would have to make some sort of closer identification with the tradition of American literature. and lifelike. Ellison shows us black and white characters enacting the same archetypical roles. If this movement has appeared at times confusing and self-contradictory. he faces the same problem of creatively and coherently renovating his models. and Brockway are cast as guileful trickster figures of contrasting moral value. a rabbit (his "movements" are "those of a lively small animal" [IM. because of Ellison's simultaneous embrace and revision of borrowed material. it has developed dialectically toward a purer reflection of his essential vision. Ralph Ellison has also sought to forge a unique cultural instrument. is oriented toward a similar elevation of the black self in relation to a given image of culture. And it is precisely the indeterminacy in relation to their prototypes that sets Ellison's patterns and characters apart from those prototypes and makes them unconventional. is repelled by the "special" of pork chops. Yet the insidious Brother Jack is also a trickster. As with the blues. engages our ceaseless capacities for mystification and demystification of his intentions. if only by way of finding out why I was not there . Using a wealth of folkloristic material. but one which. Though Ellison absorbs influences more openly than Baraka. 250] ) who ensnares the bearish narrator. it is due less to the revolution's or Baraka's own uncertainty than to the demands thrust upon him by the past.His career has thus progressed in the manner of his image of black music's evolution: challenging unwanted influences with "root" African and Afro-American expressions. Peter Wheatstraw. For example. one consonant with his conception of Afro-American identity. 157-58). having entered a drugstore restaurant. and hot biscuits which a white man then orders (IM. Ellison seems to be 348 . Toward this end.

employs the worst aspect of minstrel tradition. this "something" cannot be uncritically imposed on life but must be shaped into currently meaningful form. Homer A. in recognizing his necessary distinction from society. As a suffering figure cast in the mold of classic tragedy. Having fomented chaos in his home. Trueblood becomes a wounded outcast caught in the tragic web of absurd circumstance ("I had to move without movin' " [IM. I looks up and sees the stars and I starts singin'. He refuses to allow the image to control his identity. To the tragic protagonist's ability to suffer and question his fate. 58] ). until I thinks my brain go'n bust. He becomes. I sings me some blues that night ain't never been sang before. as in the blues . Of all the paradigmatic artists in Invisible Man.himself a complex amalgam of European (blind Homer) and Afro-American roots .manipulates the details and techniques of black sermon and classical mythmaking traditions to create a deleterious historical allegory (that of the legendary Founder's struggle up from slavery).asserting that the meaning of inherited patterns is not given but determined by function and context. simultaneously reshapes tradition and reconnects his personal voice with the community's: Finally. the tragicomic bluesman who. I don't mean to. 'bout how I'm guilty and how I ain't guilty" (IM. Jim Trueblood best exemplifies the individual's acceptance and creative transformation of tradition. I guess. one night. Yet soon. and this . 381). (IM. Barbee . the Sambo image. only to transcend its stereotypical implications. some kinda church song. ordering the warring details of his past by accepting their ambiguities and his own isolated identity. with his invisible puppeteer's thread. happen.is the individual's responsibility. way early in the mornin'. in other words. on the other hand. I made up my mind that I was goin' back home and face Kate. I don't know what it was. Tod Clifton. All I know is I ends up singin' the blues. instead.again. yeah. he creates form where chaos had reigned. Trueblood faces the paradox of inevitable sin: "I thinks and thinks. and face Matty Lou too. just start singin'. 63) Trueblood's narrative effectively combines the Afro-American 349 . however. I didn't think 'bout it. If the purveyors of folk culture are the "bearers of something precious" (IM. 63). Ellison structures into his narrative several exemplars of false and proper uses of tradition. he controls the Sambo doll. Trueblood adds the comic lyricism that mitigates and structures experience. and while I'm singin' them blues I makes up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself and ain't nothin' I can do but let whatever is gonna happen.

by the sheer diversity and internal tension of the roles it invokes. from Louis Armstrong's lament in the "Prologue" to the "Epilogue's" final line. the hero burns the contents of his briefcase . Trueblood. The blues tradition (which. as Gene Bluestein notes. Wheatstraw. And if."30 In addition. Ellison is careful to point out the functionality of the hero's fire . Bledsoe. It also serves as an inescapable touchstone of judgment on that quest.among them his diploma. is that it provides us with tested and pliable patterns that best facilitate formation of our unique features. some defining pattern. the figure of Rinehart. It would be a mistake. near the novel's end. 380). Clifton's doll. If the gifts of the past are of ambiguous value. in effect. as Ellison would say. Yet when. it is only because they manifest the curious splendor of human complexity. however. Mary Rambo. whose fluid purity of possibility is equivalent to faceless chaos. "undercuts the conventional image of the Negro folk character whose major reference for most readers is the kindly Uncle Remus. After all. Trueblood's shattering tale of incest. forges anew the "possibilities" of selfhood. to the ultimate necessity of self-definition. The past is not destroyed but rather transmuted into a form useful in the present. must be imposed upon one's experience. uses the trappings of venerated custom to transcend the bonds they would impose on life." to organize his past as prerequisite 350 . and the paper on which Jack had written his new name .it must light his way through the underground passageway.idioms of blues-singing and tale-telling with the universal themes of incest and tragic suffering. Ellison's hero goes underground to write his "memoirs. The hero learns that he must become a kind of Trueblood who. His bumbling journey from darkness to light and back again is. The value of the past. for Ellison. to take this scene as a final dismissal of acquired symbols and modes. and Brockway). is evoked throughout the novel) serves as a foil to the quasi-picaresque chronicle of the hero's quest. Barbee. "I ain't nobody but myself. after sifting through the contradictory details of the past (as embodied by such models as his grandfather. as Trueblood claimed.he renounces any specific claims of the past. which arouses Norton's horror and the hero's shame. Yet even these traditions are. Through this exorcistic act he accepts the blues' lesson that there is "no scapegoat but the self. then." that "I" gives birth to itself by choosing its fathers: "I yam what I am!" (IM. For. Trueblood. 231). IV Like Trueblood singing the blues alone." for this rejection of prefabricated models calls attention. "distorted in the interest of a design" (IM. a tour through the collective history of his race during which he meets and chooses from among his ancestors. has already made the hero realize that some form. the incest tale's standard function of establishing taboo is undermined by Trueblood's blues-inspired acceptance of his absurd predicament.

125]). "I'm tired of losing. 59). For Ellison. Willie Best. with Rinehart. And. is a formal response to experience and tradition. once more. between the discontinuity of social tradition and that sense of the past which clings to the mind. "I may shape the mask but it doesn't shape me. speaks for all of Baraka's people when he shirks his "renegade disguise" and declares. 373]). 385-86). . It may be stifling sham (Bledsoe. "masking is a play upon possibility" that gives man an "ironic awareness of the joke that always lies between appearance and reality. so must the inherited mask of servility be lifted to reveal the true black self. he also learns that Trueblood is heroically shrewd "behind his eyes" (IM. The narrator calls the image on Mary's bank "self-mocking."32 The narrator of Invisible Man is constantly made the butt of this joke. explicitly employs the same device. Here. Just as the Afro-American's past must be stripped away to recall seminal African strength. The mask worn by Baraka's characters is a legacy of slavery. a debasing subterfuge heretofore necessary for survival. for Ellison. He encounters the ambiguously "veiled" statue of the Founder (a former slave) and both good and bad masked tricksters (Wheatstraw and Jack. again. to rephrase Mary's attitude toward Harlem. like the blues. Wheatstraw). we find revealing difference within a common symbol for identity."31 A major motif throughout Invisible Man and the critical works is the metaphor of masking implicit in this appeal. was completely detached from the black. Yet Ellison's hero suffers precisely because he does not perceive the bridge erected by the mask between the violence of social history and the beauty of his people's continual transcendence within that history. a liberating self-creation (Trueblood. Even the Willie Bestean minstrel mask takes on conflicting values when placed on Mary Rambo's antique coin-bank or Clifton's doll (whose "dance . Jack) or. from Willie Best ("a renegade behind the mask") to those heroes of the drama who struggle with split loyalties. is a striking parallel to Baraka's work which. embodying a bit of both good and bad)./ 'I got ta cut 'cha' " ("A Poem for Willie Best. Ellison has exhorted all of us to join his hero and "make up our faces and our minds. like his prototype. Melville's Confidence Man. . The mask. Ellison suggests that the Sambo image is more valuable controlled than rejected." Part 7). He might say.for reassimilation with society as a presumably named and visible entity. While he discovers that Bledsoe is villainously deceptive behind his mask ("his face twitched and cracked like the surface of dark water" [IM. He is creating the features of his face and the many styles he employs to do so reflect not only creativity in the presence of chaos but an appreciation for the variety of alternatives supplied by a variety of traditions." 351 . who resembles Clifton's Sambo doll with its two grinning faces and doubled fists (IM. respectively. mask-like face" [IM." and Baraka would agree.

"Jones" . "Ellison's Zoot Suit. I borrow this term from Howard Felperin's forthcoming study of literary tradition in Elizabethan tragedy. All references to Invisible Man (henceforth designated IM) are from this paperback edition. rpt." Ellison. 1932). embraces his European appellation (Ralph Waldo Ellison) as a valuable reflection of the multi-cultural heritage available to him. as critics and creators of tradition. Baraka believes only the namer controls the history and identity of the named." Their art teaches us that this past is not a static. p. n. Despite Ellison and Baraka's differences. Signet.).. have sought strategies for saving and improving the best aspects of the black self. Both writers. on the other hand. Acceptance of one's given. 20.33 Ellison and Baraka have fashioned two distinct images of the Afro-American "familial past. Essays 1917-1932 2 3 4 A seminal effort in this regard is Larry Neal's essay. 307. How tomorrow's poets will reconstruct that self. Shakespearean Representation: Imitation and Innovation in Elizabethan Tragedy. New York: New American Library. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." in Selected (London: Faber. 352 .. No." Black World. They must become our masks and our shields and the containers of all those values and traditions which we learn and/or imagine as being the meaning of our familial past. p.d."Negro") is symbolic resignation to the oppressor as both literal and dozens-playing "signifier." Following his mentor Malcolm X. Baraka. "slave" name (whether individual . depends on their own critiques of their predecessors' visions. Invisible Man (1952. ideal form but a protean idea freshly rethought and revalued by the black artist's individual consciousness. and how they will name it. rich identity in the very complexities of his given yet chosen name: We must learn to wear our names within all the noise and confusion of the environment in which we find ourselves. who believes the slave past and its attendant masks must be abandoned for new forms. 14. symbolically enacted his vision by supplanting "Everett LeRoi Jones" with "Imamu Amiri Baraka.This leads us to perhaps the most revealing parallel between these two tradition-conscious writers: their very Afro-American concern with names. 31-50. there is an essential correspondence between their efforts.2 (December 1970)..or generic . He finds a strong. Yale University NOTES 1 Ralph Ellison.

The Massachusetts Review. 15 16 17 353 . 1969). The old man's knife wound explicitly connects him to the blues tradition of fellow slave-figure Jim Trueblood." p.. It may be relevant. are from Blues People (New York: Morrow. 2 (April 1974). stick around.2 (Spring 1973). No." Twentieth Century Literature. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Black Music. This and other quotations in this paragraphare from Black Music (New York: Morrow. inchoate in Blues People. Page references to Blues People (abbreviated BP) will be given in parentheses. 176." Studies in the Literary Imagination. pp. 1964). becomes increasingly evident in Baraka's drama from Dutchman and The Slave to Great Goodness of Life. 14. to note that Ellison cites just this blues formula as a gloss to Invisible Man in "The Art of Fiction: An Interview. 13-14. For greater exposition of these concepts see "The Pre-Revolutionary Writings of Imamu Amiri Baraka. and all other quotations in the following discussion of Baraka's theory.5 A notable exception is Charles T. Can you give us an example of the use of folklore in your own novel? Ellison. Neil Schmitz's "Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmaei Reed. you're right. Chapter 3. See especially Court Royal of Great Goodness of Life and the whole black community during the Middle Passage section of Slave Ship. which examines Toomer's figurative and idealized conceptions of race and geography as the enabling forces of his art. p. 20. 1976). stay back. 1967). 78. as a prelude to discussion of Ellison's objections to Baraka's blues theory. 256. "Blues People.. p. 2 (1974)." Black Magic (New York: Bobbs-Merrill. 7. p. 256. "Jean Toomer and the South: Region and Race as Elements Within a Literary Imagination. and finally becomes the guiding thesis of his latest major play. Trueblood's tale is discussed below. 126-40. 173: Interviewers. My emphasis. Vintage. and my Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (New Haven: Yale University Press. No. 1963)." in Shadow and Act. there are certain themes. there is the old saying amongst Negroes: If you're black. 90. p. Well. is also a step in this direction. "Blues People.." in Shadow and Act (New York: Random House. 23-39. Fischer. From "Precise Techniques. p. This idea. "Blues People. if you're white. symbols and images which are based on folk material." by William C. 259-305." p. "Richard Wright's Blues. For example. In my book this sort of thing was merged with the meanings which blackness and light have long had in Western mythology." in Shadow and Act. 253. No. unless otherwise noted. Slave Ship. Davis' essay. if you're brown.

2 (Spring 1974). Contemporary Literature. Moore. Compare in the two essays. Walker quotes from Yeats's "News for the Delphic Oracle. p. See The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press. in light of Baraka's treatment of Yeats in the "Crazy Jane" poems." p. But almost none of them are mine. 256. 148.." illustrating his later claim that "I learned so many words for what I wanted to say. 167." in The Voice of the Folk (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press." in Shadow and Act. "Hidden Name and Complex Fate. Raise Race Rays Raze (New York: Random House. Home. It is interesting. Ellison admits as much in the later essay "The World and the Jug. 1966)." "On Initiation Rites and Power: Ralph Ellison Speaks at West Point." ed. 252." In Part 7 of "A Poem for Willie Best. for example. pp." Willie is described as having "Black skin/ and hanging lip." in Shadow and Act. Near the beginning of The Slave." Shadow and Act." "The Blues as a Literary Theme.130." p. pp. No. 1972). Bloom asserts. 55 and 53. that Ellison cites Yeats's theory of the mask in this essay with great enthusiasm. p. 15. 140." p. 107-43. 156. "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke. p.. pp. My emphasis. 1973). is the necessary starting point of the post-Renaissance writer's creativity.18 19 "Blues People. Ellison's analyses of Black Bov's "cultural barrenness of black life" passage. 94. "The World and the Jug. p." p. 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 354 . "Hidden Name and Complex Fate. "Richard Wright's Blues. 105-115. Felperin observes the same quality in such Shakespearean characters as Hamlet and Falstaff and notes further that this space between character and traditional model makes Shakespeare's world in general seem "real. 1972). Harold Bloom employs this term as a label for the poet's misinterpretation of a prior poet which. "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature. Robert H. 156..' " in Home (New York: Morrow.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful