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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
This historical sense. S. with her awkward nomination of Terence as cultural ancestor. Clearly. black artists have long recognized that any culture which exists as a self-communing entity must possess a mythology of some kind. Rather.The enduring strength and liveliness of Afro-American literature is due to nothing so much as the dynamic consciousness of a shared tradition. in certain respects. Yet the role of tradition in modern black literature has been difficult to perceive behind the masks of iconoclasm and apocalypse. to Ishmael Reed in his insistently parodic stance . And. of course. has been the most concerned with tradition. 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.have given us signals of their concern with tradition as a personal construct that facilitates the artistic act. one of the outstanding innovators of AfroAmerican literature. 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 . always insisted upon his allegiance to tradition in very Eliotean terms. of Afro-American literature. As T. has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. and within it the whole of the literature of his own country. of all its components. . it is noteworthy that the work usually considered to be the most revolutionary in achievement is that which. which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal.from Phillis Wheatley. or ethos. but with a feeling that the whole of literature . the very notion of "tradition" has been the invigorating element of the mythology. and of the timeless and of the temporal together. 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. 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. has. is what makes a writer traditional. the underlying ideological bond within the Afro-American literary cosmos has not been any political or "moral" idea. Although the past several decades have constituted a period of intensive experimentation in Afro-American writing. .2 Ralph Ellison. 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. The writers themselves .
Unfortunately. imaginatively reconstituted anew with and within the work of every strong black writer. unproblematic fund of tales. interpreters of black literature have been less attuned to the mythological aspect of tradition which. inveterate. Yet we have not probed much the black artist's intentional regulation of his multifarious influences. the chanted sermon. to assimilate and interpret. in origin. The presence of available Euro-American structures and of the blues.misconception of tradition as an entirely static force and. however. to exercise control over the rate and direction of his own adaptation. as poet. "Tradition" is. We have too often accepted the idea of tradition at face value. and tropes which folklorists and literary historians describe for us. by precept and by example. a time when younger black writers are intensely scrutinizing and affirming their relations to various literary forebears. 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. in fact. What we need. that if it is true that every artistic movement is.relation between Ellison and the cultural roots of his art. Little allowance has been made for what might be termed "creative evolution"4 in black literature: the capacity for the poet. a reaction against the ideas and techniques of preceding generations. Such an effort seems appropriate at the present. Others. We are perhaps now better equipped to understand the radical and decidedly AfroAmerican . the folktale.almost "nationalist" . those whose attention is directed toward pre-Black Arts Movement literature stress the conservatism and benignity of tradition. and to assess the achievement in relation to the whole of tradition.generally speaking. because they are much closer in spirit than is usually supposed. is not so much another compendium of formal and psychic "roots" as a radical re-evaluation of the notion of "tradition" itself.5 We must ask. and because their differences are thus all the more crucial to the future of Afro-American 335 . for its identification with the work of white Western writers. in fact.3 Ellison's work has declared. 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. And after every period of experimentation it is necessary to trace the various lines of development. Some critics . is the crucial precondition for the poets' art. taking it to be one or another version of the given. following the manifestos of contemporary writers. it is also true that every new movement is a rediscovery of what has been lost. a re-emphasis upon what has temporarily been forgotten or neglected. and many other vernacular forms in the works of writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Henry Dumas is generally well-documented. As histories of poetic declarations such approaches might be viable. tricks. in particular.
As already suggested.tend in their reflections to identify the novel with its surface anti-Communism or with its symbolism of blindness and selfhood. The System of Dante's Hell. But it also remystifies it by presupposing a fundamentally unselfconscious author through whom the voice of tradition speaks for itself. shares many essential characteristics with Invisible Man: the explicitly Dantesque descent to literal and psychological undergrounds. What I wish to suggest. Thus. Ellison's concern . and arise as a consequence of Ellison's radically ambivalent ("complex") relation to the traditions and sources which he utilizes. Like Ellison. The conservative approach demystifies the novel by attempting to explain it in terms of its tradition. 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.both Afro-American and Euro-American .as evinced by the hero's struggles in Invisible Man and by Ellison's own critical essays . but which he can neither definitively join nor leave behind. also remystifies it by endowing its creator with a remarkable freedom from the burden of received cultural ideas. and persistent value of Afro-American responses to life. Yet both possibilities of response are implicit within the novel itself. of course. The romantic approach.and in so doing provides a radical critique and revision of every convention he exploits.with the continuity and celebration of black culture is a crucial aspect of his work. 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). Other commentators . the study of their 336 . then. too.especially those with political axes to grind.literature. often by reducing the novel to a repetition of its prototypes and ignoring or overlooking its crucial divergences from them. the dream-ritual sequence from which the hero emerges tested and shaken but whole. has made the relation to black culture and tradition the focus of his efforts. His early novel. Yet the fundamental resemblance lies in the heroes' underlying journeys toward selfhood. The former approach might be called conservative or archeological and the latter political or romantic. Baraka. or those anxious to existentialize Invisible Man . the experimental prose. while demystifying the novel by treating its hero as a real sufferer not unlike you and me. are actually inscribed into it. Baraka writes of the individual's encounter with tradition . in the estimable position granted black folk culture in Invisible Man. 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. in dealing with Ellison and Baraka. durability. Herein lies the direct link between Ellison's and Baraka's art. Ellison's writings offer a unified cultural theory whose central emphasis is upon the beauty. Taken as a whole. This attitude is particularly apparent.
so have their cultural theories been focused upon several common issues. Just as their novels are organized by strikingly similar patterns. the confrontation with tradition has been a dual encounter. provides the basic text for our analysis of Baraka's music aesthetic.) From their attitudes toward the blues several other key problems of mutual interest arise: the continuing impact of slavery on contemporary black life. he seeks to demonstrate that black music "is essentially the expression of an attitude. the relation between the individual and culture and. or a collection of attitudes. More crucially. II Baraka's writings on black music are well-represented by two volumes. and the weight of the stepculture produced the American Negro. is a theoretical/historical treatise dealing with black music from its African origins to the "new wave" jazz discussed extensively in Black Music. by extension. Blues People (1963) and Black Music (1967). although he often examines these at great length. I 337 . For both authors. Thus a meaningful history of black music would be a description of a historically valid black "attitude" (ethos): The African cultures. the relation between the artist and his affective precursors. most relevant to the present essay. (If they share this concern with a number of other black writers and theorists it is fair to say that their own theories. are the most influential among other commentators. 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. or individual method. Foremost among these is their attention to black music. the list of important influences includes a plethora of Euro-American as well as Afro-American authorities and."6 The musician's notes are merely "musical" insofar as they are susceptible to technical a n a Iy s i s. for both.innovativeness must begin in the study of their attitudes toward the literary and cultural past. about the world". and particularly the blues. these notes emanate from a "body of sociocultural philosophy" and convey a precise emotional response to life. the better known of the two. Rather. Black Music is a sheaf of essays and liner notes about avant-garde jazz of the 1960's. Blues People. the retention of some parts of these cultures in America. as the core of the Afro-American cultural matrix. formal innovation. A new race. because of its unifying historical interpretation and self-conscious theorizing. symbols. while dramatically opposed to one another. and didactic thrusts. Baraka's music criticism is not primarily concerned with "music appreciation" or questions of style. the idea of history as a philosophical and mythological construct. it is "only secondarily an attitude about the way music is made. The earlier work. and.
. commitment to a generally sweet "artifact-like" beauty. or "scream". Blues People sets forth Baraka's vision of the cultural conflict which produced the Afro-American musical dynamic. ." The archetypical root form is the blues. the call-and-response pattern. brassy. At every stage of his investigation. Clearly. Thus blues music is "roots" not only in a musical but. holler. in an emotional sense: Blues as an autonomous music had been in a sense 338 . schools. to define black music in terms of an African ethos subsumed in an American form. for these latter elements are merely the artifacts produced by the African sensibility. Specifically. 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 esteems in black music the qualities indicative of Africanesque emotiveness: the shout. "intellectual. but also by noting how these interests conflicted (Miles Davis) or blended (Duke Ellington) in the work of a given black musician. improvisation. and improvisational qualities. atonality. The survival of the African process in Afro-American music is. dissonant accents. crystallizes at very special moments in forms that may be called "roots. and creators of that music. etc. fixed arrangements the musician could simply learn by note. Baraka proposes that the African essence. perfected. Against these he sets the opposed values of "white" music that often found their way into jazz: softness or "legitimacy" of tone. in fact. The bluesman is. Baraka describes black music's evolution as a dialectical journey energized by the competing forces of Western and African aesthetics. and nonfunctional artifact. communal modes. Briefly stated. while present in each phase of black music's development. represents to me this whole process in microcosm." reflective tone). communal. the very model of the "freedman" (or nonassimilationist) Afro-American. ever-becoming activity fundamental to African culture and the formalistic impulse of Western art.7 The important subject matter of Blues People is not the blues per se but the opposition between the changing. for Baraka. while the Western ethos values the finished. of greater concern to Baraka than the styles. roughness. the African aesthetic (as depicted by Baraka) emphasizes emotive. Baraka illustrates the difference between these styles. even more significantly. Blues People's "history" of black music is an attempt to praise the African in Afro-American music at the expense of the American.want to use music as my persistent reference just because the development and transmutation of African music to American Negro music. not only by contrasting contemporary white and black practitioners of the same jazz instrument (for instance. dramatic sound versus Bix Beiderbecke's learned. the first native American musical expression. Louis Armstrong's strident.
Such individuality often degenerated into the facile "style" of the artisan. the blues have really been the expression of the individual. even as "roots.." is thus a mixed blessing to Baraka. blues singers created from "natural inclination" rather than from formal training. on the other hand. while its slickness. As with their African ancestors. it developed an area of private expression nonexistent in African culture. But their songs dealt with personal exploits. and blues a kind of ethno-historic rite as basic as blood. Not only were the functions of several instruments revolutionized. 66) The blues. Whereas the arguments of African songs concerned the gods. 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." . the blues themselves reflect the more complicated experience of the Negro. One might say that the frank sexuality and harshness of classic blues were its ties to the blues as roots. Yet Baraka designates it as "roots" because it also initiated a true advance. indeed. This. travel. (BP.. 147-48) If the "secret" ritual impulse of the blues finds its source in African spirit. and "universal" themes constituted the classic or commonly acceptable element of this music. nature.. It was as if these materials were secret and obscure.inviolable. but the nature of the musical group was also reformed considerably to conform to the collective thrust of the new music. Baraka argues. is precisely what took place in the "classic blues. Although the basic pattern of call-and-response is a communal form. The second great moment Baraka sees in black music is bebop. it is the ritual link between the African and Afro-American sensibilities in black music. and other private experiences. and this 339 . and it is a development that could only be found in an American black man's music. By returning to the rhythmic orientation of earliest Afro-American (and. sex. with its accompanying tendency toward professionalism and formalism. bebop introduced a whole new lexicon to black music comparable only to the original blues improvising. general qualities of earthly life and religious expectations. not the community's. Bebop set out to redefine the "basic blues impulse" in black music. and by making unprecedented harmonic variations available to the improvising musician. . of African) music. entertainment-consciousness." which became popular at a time when the Negro began to feel he might become a member of the dominant society. [It] is a manifestation of the whole Western concept of man's life. . the blues spoke of love and love-loss. On one hand. (BP.
while directly associated with the Negro's life. then kill it. Coleman. as the musician negates the fixed idea in favor of present expression. natural emotiveness central to the African aesthetic." Finally. this school holds the blues to be a distinctly American art form developed from a welter of complex and often contradictory experiences which. is roots for Baraka because it began the Afro-American's march away from America toward a purer African "soul. adoption and use of alien forms are no longer acceptable actions . for here the improvising individual and the improvising group create sounds interdependently.in pieces such as Coltrane's renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. Baraka's desire (subliminally expressed throughout Blues People) to obliterate the American element of blues roots."White is then not 'right. form of roots. Again."9 Baraka's conception of Afro-American music. Rollins. In contrast to his rigorous discrimination between African and American elements in the blues and in black music as a whole. Taylor. twisted." has received vociferous criticism from a group of thinkers who regard the blues in quite another fashion.was again more a matter of cultural than of specifically musical statement. felt that the contemporary "new wave" jazz of Coltrane. 201). have reference to a "universal" meaning. to re-Africanize black musical expression. improvisational. then. or because the new musicians' aching lyricism recalled the old blues cry.' as the old blues had it. Moreover. 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. writing in the early and mid-1960's. seems to him fulfilled by the new jazz. and yet more valuable. Full of the screaming. Baraka. and finally destroyed. these forms are employed only to be dissected. since the culture of white precludes the possession of the Negro 'soul'" (BP. this is not merely because this music. The avant-garde jazz (like the new musicians themselves) is perhaps the most communal of all black musics. especially of the blues "root. 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. but a liability. and others represented a third.8 Bebop. 219). Among the most articulate proponents of this view has been Ralph Ellison. 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. this music harks back to the Negro roots of blues and field hollers. Ellison has argued eloquently for an understanding of the music which accounts for the "variety" and "mystery" as well as the obvious 340 . developed even greater harmonic and rhythmic methods. taking up where the boppers left off. but took issue with certain conventional sentiments of these roots .
"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. Along with fellow Tuskegeean Albert Murray. one infers.even. near-comic lyricism. 381] )collection of individual actions and reactions as inclusive as the tragicomic blues itself. And the essence of Ellison's attack on Baraka emanates precisely from this conflict between ideologies.of enslaved and politically weak men successfully imposing their values upon a powerful society through song and dance. not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic. In the review of Blues People and in the seminal essay. and unpredictable ("What if history was a gambler?" [IM.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. far from being an extension of African culture completely opposed to the enveloping white society. If for Baraka history is a dialectical process resulting in an increasingly refined black ethos. Ellison presents this view in direct opposition to Baraka's: Jones attempts to impose an ideology upon this cultural complexity." Ellison defines the blues as both tragic and comic. not of the re-emerging African. and to transcend it. he has asserted that the blues. or mythologies of history: "Jones's theory flounders before that complex of human 341 .10 Ellison's bluesman is thus the archetype. They encompass the extremes of human experience and perception. a "harmonizer" of cultural chaos ."12 he also clearly appeals to our sense of a timeless or "universal" response to "the human condition. for Ellison it is a multi-directional. and as an embodiment of atemporal and cross-cultural expression. and this might be useful if he knew enough of the related subjects to make it interesting. In his review of Blues People." 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).features of the Afro-American experience.rather than a purely "expressive" ex-slave whose style confronts that of the Western oppressor. constitutes the very spirit of the American "mainstream. "Richard Wright's Blues. but of the ever-various and decidedly mainstream "OmniAmerican" (to borrow Murray's phrase). But his version of blues lacks a sense of the excitement and surprise of men living in the world . to finger its jagged grain. self-contradictory." His bluesman is a "harmonizer of chaos" .
Indeed.. Ellison seems to be seriously misreading his antagonist. .the very element which. and for a second I heard the shattering stroke of my heart. he implies."1 8 As with all art forms." These arguments over the nature of history are readily converted into a dispute over the nature of the blues tradition itself. His method is that of inclusion: "Classic blues were both entertainment and a form of folklore. I looked at the coffin and the marchers. are the real "blues people.which surrounded them.motives which makes human history. but a function of aesthetic choice. Baraka uses slavery as his metaphor for the whole of the African experience in America. 391-92) Ellison would claim that such scarred yet enduring guides whose singing is emulated by black and white alike. Ellison's particular quarrel is with Baraka's discussion of classic blues. 7 Even white brothers and sisters were joining in.16 Ellison's slave figures are fighters and teachers who survived oppression "through song and dance. he eschews Baraka's Manichean division of the form into good ("blues" as African "blood rite") and bad ("classic" as Western formalism). 60). as we have seen. 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. In contrast to the cringing slave characters of Baraka's plays. yet his claim is for the symbolic freedom of self-expression from which actual transcendence often springs. Again. Thus Ellison goes on to accuse Baraka of ignoring the ritual aspect of the blues .. the 342 . upon the cultural referents .that is. It was a worn. ."1 3 Perhaps the most crucial component of Afro-American "history" for both authors is slavery." 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. Baraka isolates as the spiritual link between African art and the blues "root. and yet realizing that I was listening to something within myself.14 Like the residue of Euro-American influence in black music. remnants of the slave experience must be purged for a pure black selfhood to re-establish itself." Here. the meaning of the classic blues depended on the contexts and functions . 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. such determination is not a matter of ideological presuppositions or the development of some historically determined consciousness. (IM. old. 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. listening to them. And. . Ellison argues..
when transformed by each author within the crucible of his craft. however. offer no scapegoat but the self"). as their variant mythologies of the blues tradition make clear. consciousness must so arrange its burden of desires and influences as to make the individual a responsible. hitherto unsought mode.20 In this manner. moreover. that both writers place great emphasis upon the self's role in the creation of Afro-American music and literature. . thereby making the latter a part of his "useable past. Both the Euro-American and Afro-American literary traditions. It is noteworthy. and illustrate his claim that one can. one Euro-American . yet distinct. artistic acts. effectively remystifies for himself the folk tradition which Wright had attempted to demystify.' "21 Certainly. entity within culture ("the blues . result in stunning." one that supersedes the standards of his predecessors: 343 . 111 The prevalent theme of Baraka's aesthetic treatises is the need for Afro-American writers to develop new. and stunningly different. black writing has labored slavishly under the "evil sun" ("Hymn for Lanie Poo") of white values." Baraka expresses with almost selfmocking intensity his desire to shape a new "kind of instrument.22 These views. "post-Western" forms of expression." for example." 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. "choose one's 'ancestors. In "The World and the Jug. According to Ellison. as an artist. actually repudiated by that novel. According to Baraka. The result has not been a useful tradition but "the myth of a Negro literature. Baraka maintains. he assimilates Wright into his vision of a viable Afro-American tradition and. In "Richard Wright's Blues. "Technology and Ethos. Ellison and Baraka have decided not to choose one another.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.into Ellison's concept of tradition. Ellison has deliberately misread Baraka in order to write his own myth of the blues tradition. if anything." Ellison similarly overreads the blues into Hemingway's fiction. This strategy of "misprision"1 9 is one by which Ellison confronts tradition generally. 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.one Afro-American." These sly "miscalculations" merge two essentially non-blues writers . must be supplanted by some third."23 In his noted essay. . While black music has long established autonomous canons and techniques.
specifically the Yeats of the "Crazy Jane" poems. Baraka's art has always been concerned with the anxiety of Western influence. creations. the latter is evinced in the epigraph to Baraka's Crow Jane verses: Crow Jane. Crow Jane." if you will. But by shocking that grammar sufficiently. Their primary subject matter . Clay of Dutchman or Walker of The Slave). head.why shd it only make use of the tips of the fingers. And. The former authority is represented by Yeats. in composing what the old man of The Slave calls a "meta-language.Mississippi Joe Williams In Mississippi (Big Joe) Williams' blues poem. The heroes of such dramas as Dutchman. and all the sounds I wanted." much of Baraka's best poetry incorporates the words of an alien or older idiom in order to transcend them. by twisting it into unprecedented postures. he can make it generate new and living forms. by saying what he is not. grunts. .A typewriter? . "Pallet on the 344 . 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. behind. like every great revolutionary poet. The Slave. You realize. 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. taps. Yet in most of his writings. paradoxically. don't hold your head so high.which exists as subtext to the surface development of Crow Jane's character . you got to lay down and die. he can create anew only with some recourse to the dead grammar of previous and pernicious generations. the ideological rejection of traditional systems is held in dramatic tension with the poet's exorcistic struggle with those systems.is the relation of Baraka's poetic voice to the competing forces of Western and Afro-American cultures.24 In its search for an "expression-scriber" as fresh and radical as the content of Baraka's revolutionary vision. an "expression-scriber. and A Black Mass encounter within the plays and within themselves the very forms of consciousness they despise. . . if extravagantly complex. screams. Thus. . It is only with the typewriter that. baby. which remain among Baraka's finest. Baraka. or wishes to become. like his self-limited and self-liberating heroes (for example. he can inscribe into his art the blueprint for a new instrument. and particularly in the early and late works. If I invented a word placing machine. . feet. has realized that he can only begin to say what he is. The most revealing poems in this regard are the five "Crow Jane" pieces of The Dead Lecturer.
Baraka's poems thus sequentially explore the character of Western literature before specifically including non-Western elements in a final assessment of poetic influence." Baraka then explicitly identifies Jane with Yeats by associating her creations with the Byzantium poems' golden artifices.represents all of Yeats's "people". Baraka borrows Yeats's language and intonation but. elevated beyond personality to a principle of being. mutability. Baraka also allegorizes Crow Jane. 'Your people without love." she alone is "without love" and. 345 . 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. soul. may get lonesome here/ I got nobody. in The System of Dante's Hell. as we have seen Ellison do to Baraka. and scatological imagery in an attempt to forge an uncompromising resolution of opposites. and life itself are incompatible with that world. of what Yeats elsewhere called "all those antinomies/ Of day and night. Yeats's Crazy Jane poems exploited violent.those forces with which Yeats's genius grappled and which later. he deliberately and creatively misreads Yeats's theme.are depicted as putrefying agents in Yeats's stilled world. in Baraka's second poem. a dark process. process . Indeed. Williams' figure merely casts an ominous Afro-American shadow over an essentially mock-Yeatsean landscape. presses the common claims of body. Jane. invigorated young LeRoi Jones's spiritual transformation . until the Crow Jane series is understood as a totality. modelled in every significant detail on Yeats's. . tho it provide a landscape with golden domes. "Crow Jane's Manner. placed against/ strong man's lips.like Crazy Jane an "Old Lady . and heart ("love") as she celebrates natural processes. if glittering. 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. Warmth." Crazy Jane.' And life rots them. The opening verse. Crow Jane . while reducing that career's accomplishment to the status of a lifeless. "For Crow Jane. like thought. of useless thighs" ("For Crow Jane") . artifact: The wealth is translated. like Yeats's Old Tom.Floor" (from which Baraka is quoting). . sexual. not Williams'. you don't relieve my cares"). love. corrected. Moreover. Flux. but in his lyrics she becomes a type of Western civilization.
. For nothing can be sole or whole That has not been rent Baraka seeks to kill forever his loveless. . futility. Crow Jane's haggard infertility is identified with the worst aspects of Western rationalism as set forth in Blues People. and his Jane rejects her idea of Blakean utopia for the double-edged reward of sexuality. Western culture's) legacy is pictured as a heap of artifacts. in Baraka's poems. and cold sterility. "we own/ the night.. Dead lady/ of thinking.love's skein upon the ground.. "A thread/ of meaning. Baraka now claims the power of revolutionary vision for himself. in the final poem. . Damballah. infertile Jane and to propose his own image of the (black-owned) night: may . accepting ghostly isolation as the price for rapture. My body in the tomb Shall leap into the light lost In my mother's womb. those sterile products of the Western imagination delineated in Blues People: "A trail/ of objects. Appropriately. I. . but to the "meaning" of dawn. or rather to the emptiness of "light" which. As in the poem that concludes his essay. Yeats's poem developed from his quasi-mystical notion of "the black mass of Eden". "The Dead Lady Canonized. Meaning light" . the night's image." Dead nouns. Crow Jane's "thread" unwinds. 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. "State/Meant. is identified with disease. . ironically performing a black mass around Yeats's figure. .. not to the intense experience of night.she is described as the "Dead virgin/ of the mind's echo." Crow Jane's (again. recasting these lines from "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" But Love has pitched his mansion in The place of excrement. a grave of her own."25 Baraka here rejects the West as "death/ly white" and asserts of the true black magicians. to borrow again Harold Bloom's terminology) from Yeats's true sensibility. kind father." In a rather sharp swerve (or clinamen.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. 346 ." The poem begins." Yet Baraka's clinamen does not rest here. Erect .
the Yeatsean landscape. black lip hung/ in dawn's gray wind. leaving only the literal excrementitious mansion of her dead and deadening "images. Baraka violently inverts this purpose. he is a renegade entertainer ("black lip hung . indeed. His struggling voice within these poems is a prisoner of a foreign language. like Williams. the "grey" hero of The Slave. relate. Yeats's lines. Baraka. bomb. illuminated ancestral womb. Baraka divests Crazy Jane of her sublime madness. Baraka tells Crow Jane. He performs for her like a Willie Best.27 "Tell" means. more radically. the last." Yet this is not all." so his later disavowal and abuse of Western influences lend his recent art the appearance of indeed representing a "post-Western form.26 thereby investing them with authority and power. is dis-covering his image of Western culture. . a crucial player in this new black mass. yet he may say. Baraka does not simply transform. . He is." Like Walker Vessels." Ultimately. . . as the grey movement/ of clouds. "I'm going . forming an African/Afro-American frame to the examination of Western tradition. Baraka's persona is here venerating Yeats's symbols. but it may also mean understand or. as author of the Crow Jane poems. . the shucking and jiving hero of Baraka's eight-part masterpiece "A Poem for Willie Best." Yet (like both Willie Best and Walker Vessels). but a grim end to the "dark process" of her tradition's continuity. discover. And. in fact.the creative fount . conjuring the African gods in an effort to repair what is "rent." is an explicit link to this aspect of the Willie Best figure). 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. and molds it into a new structure by wedding furious critique to conventional Afro-American expressions and the language of Pan-African mythologies. The "grave" (Yeats's "tomb") of Baraka's Jane is not a door leading toward a pure.sew up her bleeding hole. of course." to close the womb . with their equivocations. This complete rejection of Crow Jane joins the end of the series with its opening epigram. weld body and soul in a vision of antinomian frenzy producing ecstatic wholeness. you don't relieve my cares. For. with King Lear's fool. inverts its imagery and themes. He enters the scene in "Crow Jane's Manner": "Me." And in "Crow Jane in High Society" he attacks himself as Crow Jane's poetic lackey: "And I tell/ her symbols.of his Western protagonist. "I can tell what I can tell. "sole" (or soul) and "whole" (or hole). or rather." The sequence as a whole is entirely characteristic of Baraka's most revolutionary works: it appropriates a classic Euro-American form." 347 . Baraka-the-author and Baraka-the-persona merge and pronounce Crow Jane's death sentence in unison.
grits. having entered a drugstore restaurant. Though Ellison absorbs influences more openly than Baraka. but one which. Toward this end. and Brockway are cast as guileful trickster figures of contrasting moral value. Ellison seems to be 348 .28 Ellison's eclecticism. Bledsoe. and lifelike. one consonant with his conception of Afro-American identity.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. Ralph Ellison has also sought to forge a unique cultural instrument. the Brotherhood leader is "Jack the bear" as prefigured in the hero's meeting with the rabbit Wheatstraw. For example. while surely contrary to Baraka's nationalist aesthetic. A similar problematizing of folk motifs is evident when the narrator. The result is a critique of tradition as strenuous as Baraka's. engages our ceaseless capacities for mystification and demystification of his intentions. Yet the insidious Brother Jack is also a trickster. if only by way of finding out why I was not there . is oriented toward a similar elevation of the black self in relation to a given image of culture.29 The complexity of Ellison's aesthetic is evident in many aspects of Invisible Man. 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. As with the blues. he faces the same problem of creatively and coherently renovating his models.or better. it is due less to the revolution's or Baraka's own uncertainty than to the demands thrust upon him by the past. and by way of using literature as a means of clarifying the peculiar and particular experience out of which I came. If this movement has appeared at times confusing and self-contradictory. At the same time. Ellison shows us black and white characters enacting the same archetypical roles. a rabbit (his "movements" are "those of a lively small animal" [IM. Using a wealth of folkloristic material. by way of finding how I could use that very powerful literary tradition by way of making literature my own. it has developed dialectically toward a purer reflection of his essential vision. 250] ) who ensnares the bearish narrator. is repelled by the "special" of pork chops. because of Ellison's simultaneous embrace and revision of borrowed material. and hot biscuits which a white man then orders (IM. 157-58). 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. Peter Wheatstraw. original.
just start singin'. 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. Jim Trueblood best exemplifies the individual's acceptance and creative transformation of tradition. Ellison structures into his narrative several exemplars of false and proper uses of tradition. Tod Clifton. I sings me some blues that night ain't never been sang before.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). he creates form where chaos had reigned. employs the worst aspect of minstrel tradition. As a suffering figure cast in the mold of classic tragedy. 63). ordering the warring details of his past by accepting their ambiguities and his own isolated identity. the tragicomic bluesman who. and face Matty Lou too. in other words.himself a complex amalgam of European (blind Homer) and Afro-American roots . I didn't think 'bout it. If the purveyors of folk culture are the "bearers of something precious" (IM. this "something" cannot be uncritically imposed on life but must be shaped into currently meaningful form. Trueblood adds the comic lyricism that mitigates and structures experience.is the individual's responsibility. I looks up and sees the stars and I starts singin'. yeah. way early in the mornin'. and this . one night. however. He refuses to allow the image to control his identity. Yet soon. some kinda church song. happen. I made up my mind that I was goin' back home and face Kate. the Sambo image. Barbee . Trueblood faces the paradox of inevitable sin: "I thinks and thinks.again. until I thinks my brain go'n bust. only to transcend its stereotypical implications. I don't know what it was. 58] ). on the other hand. simultaneously reshapes tradition and reconnects his personal voice with the community's: Finally. I guess. Having fomented chaos in his home. He becomes. 'bout how I'm guilty and how I ain't guilty" (IM.asserting that the meaning of inherited patterns is not given but determined by function and context. (IM. Homer A. Trueblood becomes a wounded outcast caught in the tragic web of absurd circumstance ("I had to move without movin' " [IM. with his invisible puppeteer's thread. as in the blues . instead. I don't mean to. To the tragic protagonist's ability to suffer and question his fate. 63) Trueblood's narrative effectively combines the Afro-American 349 . 381). All I know is I ends up singin' the blues. in recognizing his necessary distinction from society. he controls the Sambo doll. Of all the paradigmatic artists in Invisible Man.
" to organize his past as prerequisite 350 . as Trueblood claimed. "distorted in the interest of a design" (IM. Bledsoe. Trueblood. near the novel's end. and the paper on which Jack had written his new name ."30 In addition. after sifting through the contradictory details of the past (as embodied by such models as his grandfather. by the sheer diversity and internal tension of the roles it invokes. the incest tale's standard function of establishing taboo is undermined by Trueblood's blues-inspired acceptance of his absurd predicament. the hero burns the contents of his briefcase . Clifton's doll. "I ain't nobody but myself.idioms of blues-singing and tale-telling with the universal themes of incest and tragic suffering. "undercuts the conventional image of the Negro folk character whose major reference for most readers is the kindly Uncle Remus. It would be a mistake. in effect. The hero learns that he must become a kind of Trueblood who." that "I" gives birth to itself by choosing its fathers: "I yam what I am!" (IM. which arouses Norton's horror and the hero's shame. His bumbling journey from darkness to light and back again is. Ellison is careful to point out the functionality of the hero's fire . forges anew the "possibilities" of selfhood. then." for this rejection of prefabricated models calls attention. The past is not destroyed but rather transmuted into a form useful in the present. is evoked throughout the novel) serves as a foil to the quasi-picaresque chronicle of the hero's quest. Mary Rambo. as Ellison would say. The value of the past.he renounces any specific claims of the past. must be imposed upon one's experience. 231).among them his diploma. Trueblood. 380). Yet even these traditions are. however. After all. for Ellison. and Brockway). uses the trappings of venerated custom to transcend the bonds they would impose on life. to take this scene as a final dismissal of acquired symbols and modes. It also serves as an inescapable touchstone of judgment on that quest. from Louis Armstrong's lament in the "Prologue" to the "Epilogue's" final line. Through this exorcistic act he accepts the blues' lesson that there is "no scapegoat but the self. has already made the hero realize that some form. whose fluid purity of possibility is equivalent to faceless chaos. Trueblood's shattering tale of incest. If the gifts of the past are of ambiguous value. IV Like Trueblood singing the blues alone. as Gene Bluestein notes.it must light his way through the underground passageway. some defining pattern. to the ultimate necessity of self-definition. For. the figure of Rinehart. Wheatstraw. Ellison's hero goes underground to write his "memoirs. is that it provides us with tested and pliable patterns that best facilitate formation of our unique features. a tour through the collective history of his race during which he meets and chooses from among his ancestors. The blues tradition (which. And if. it is only because they manifest the curious splendor of human complexity. Yet when. Barbee.
with Rinehart. . The narrator calls the image on Mary's bank "self-mocking. And. For Ellison. He encounters the ambiguously "veiled" statue of the Founder (a former slave) and both good and bad masked tricksters (Wheatstraw and Jack." and Baraka would agree. "I may shape the mask but it doesn't shape me. While he discovers that Bledsoe is villainously deceptive behind his mask ("his face twitched and cracked like the surface of dark water" [IM. The mask worn by Baraka's characters is a legacy of slavery. we find revealing difference within a common symbol for identity. Ellison suggests that the Sambo image is more valuable controlled than rejected." Part 7). is a formal response to experience and tradition. respectively. 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. once more. a debasing subterfuge heretofore necessary for survival."32 The narrator of Invisible Man is constantly made the butt of this joke. The mask. "masking is a play upon possibility" that gives man an "ironic awareness of the joke that always lies between appearance and reality. Here. was completely detached from the black. It may be stifling sham (Bledsoe."31 A major motif throughout Invisible Man and the critical works is the metaphor of masking implicit in this appeal.for reassimilation with society as a presumably named and visible entity. like his prototype. 125]). is a striking parallel to Baraka's work which." 351 . like the blues. speaks for all of Baraka's people when he shirks his "renegade disguise" and declares. 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 . a liberating self-creation (Trueblood. 59). again. he also learns that Trueblood is heroically shrewd "behind his eyes" (IM. Wheatstraw). 385-86). "I'm tired of losing. Melville's Confidence Man. to rephrase Mary's attitude toward Harlem. Just as the Afro-American's past must be stripped away to recall seminal African strength. Jack) or. who resembles Clifton's Sambo doll with its two grinning faces and doubled fists (IM. . He might say./ 'I got ta cut 'cha' " ("A Poem for Willie Best. explicitly employs the same device. so must the inherited mask of servility be lifted to reveal the true black self. 373]). from Willie Best ("a renegade behind the mask") to those heroes of the drama who struggle with split loyalties. Ellison has exhorted all of us to join his hero and "make up our faces and our minds. Willie Best. mask-like face" [IM. for Ellison. embodying a bit of both good and bad). 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. between the discontinuity of social tradition and that sense of the past which clings to the mind.
.33 Ellison and Baraka have fashioned two distinct images of the Afro-American "familial past. depends on their own critiques of their predecessors' visions. have sought strategies for saving and improving the best aspects of the black self. Despite Ellison and Baraka's differences. Baraka believes only the namer controls the history and identity of the named. "slave" name (whether individual . there is an essential correspondence between their efforts."Negro") is symbolic resignation to the oppressor as both literal and dozens-playing "signifier." in Selected (London: Faber. How tomorrow's poets will reconstruct that self. Acceptance of one's given. No. "Ellison's Zoot Suit. He finds a strong..)." Their art teaches us that this past is not a static. 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.d. p. All references to Invisible Man (henceforth designated IM) are from this paperback edition. 14. and how they will name it. 31-50." Ellison. Baraka."Jones" . rpt. 307.. I borrow this term from Howard Felperin's forthcoming study of literary tradition in Elizabethan tragedy. Essays 1917-1932 2 3 4 A seminal effort in this regard is Larry Neal's essay. n.or generic . ideal form but a protean idea freshly rethought and revalued by the black artist's individual consciousness. as critics and creators of tradition. who believes the slave past and its attendant masks must be abandoned for new forms. 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.2 (December 1970). 1932). embraces his European appellation (Ralph Waldo Ellison) as a valuable reflection of the multi-cultural heritage available to him. Shakespearean Representation: Imitation and Innovation in Elizabethan Tragedy.This leads us to perhaps the most revealing parallel between these two tradition-conscious writers: their very Afro-American concern with names. New York: New American Library. "Tradition and the Individual Talent. Yale University NOTES 1 Ralph Ellison. Both writers. on the other hand. 20. Signet. 352 . p. Invisible Man (1952." Black World." Following his mentor Malcolm X. symbolically enacted his vision by supplanting "Everett LeRoi Jones" with "Imamu Amiri Baraka.
Well." Black Magic (New York: Bobbs-Merrill.5 A notable exception is Charles T." Studies in the Literary Imagination. 2 (April 1974). 20. 1976). which examines Toomer's figurative and idealized conceptions of race and geography as the enabling forces of his art. 13-14." Twentieth Century Literature. No. 78. inchoate in Blues People. No. 14." by William C. It may be relevant. 15 16 17 353 . Chapter 3. 256. and all other quotations in the following discussion of Baraka's theory. if you're brown. From "Precise Techniques. you're right.. becomes increasingly evident in Baraka's drama from Dutchman and The Slave to Great Goodness of Life. unless otherwise noted. 1967). stick around.2 (Spring 1973). My emphasis. 173: Interviewers. Page references to Blues People (abbreviated BP) will be given in parentheses. are from Blues People (New York: Morrow. 90. 1969). symbols and images which are based on folk material. p. 1963). 256. 7. stay back. See especially Court Royal of Great Goodness of Life and the whole black community during the Middle Passage section of Slave Ship. Vintage. In my book this sort of thing was merged with the meanings which blackness and light have long had in Western mythology. No. p. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Black Music. "Jean Toomer and the South: Region and Race as Elements Within a Literary Imagination. The old man's knife wound explicitly connects him to the blues tradition of fellow slave-figure Jim Trueblood. Slave Ship. 176. This and other quotations in this paragraphare from Black Music (New York: Morrow. For example. to note that Ellison cites just this blues formula as a gloss to Invisible Man in "The Art of Fiction: An Interview. pp.. if you're white." p. 2 (1974)." p. 23-39. 253. is also a step in this direction." in Shadow and Act. p. 126-40. and my Baraka: The Renegade and the Mask (New Haven: Yale University Press." in Shadow and Act (New York: Random House. p. "Blues People.. "Blues People. Neil Schmitz's "Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmaei Reed. Fischer. "Blues People. p. Davis' essay. Can you give us an example of the use of folklore in your own novel? Ellison. there is the old saying amongst Negroes: If you're black. and finally becomes the guiding thesis of his latest major play. 259-305." in Shadow and Act. "Richard Wright's Blues. The Massachusetts Review. Trueblood's tale is discussed below. there are certain themes. This idea. For greater exposition of these concepts see "The Pre-Revolutionary Writings of Imamu Amiri Baraka. as a prelude to discussion of Ellison's objections to Baraka's blues theory. 1964).
"Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke.18 19 "Blues People." "The Blues as a Literary Theme. 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 354 . 156. pp. "The Myth of a 'Negro Literature. 1966). "Richard Wright's Blues." in Shadow and Act. My emphasis. Home. 167. See The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press." illustrating his later claim that "I learned so many words for what I wanted to say. in light of Baraka's treatment of Yeats in the "Crazy Jane" poems. "The World and the Jug. 55 and 53. 148." p." Shadow and Act. for example. Near the beginning of The Slave. Compare in the two essays. 2 (Spring 1974)." ed. p.." p. Ellison's analyses of Black Bov's "cultural barrenness of black life" passage. No." in Shadow and Act. is the necessary starting point of the post-Renaissance writer's creativity. 105-115. 107-43. 1972). 15. pp. 1973)." "On Initiation Rites and Power: Ralph Ellison Speaks at West Point. Bloom asserts. 156. Moore.' " in Home (New York: Morrow." in The Voice of the Folk (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Harold Bloom employs this term as a label for the poet's misinterpretation of a prior poet which." In Part 7 of "A Poem for Willie Best.130. that Ellison cites Yeats's theory of the mask in this essay with great enthusiasm.. 94. But almost none of them are mine. Walker quotes from Yeats's "News for the Delphic Oracle. 256. 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. Raise Race Rays Raze (New York: Random House. It is interesting. 140.. p." Willie is described as having "Black skin/ and hanging lip. 252. Ellison admits as much in the later essay "The World and the Jug. pp. p. Robert H. p. Contemporary Literature." p." p. "Hidden Name and Complex Fate. 1972). "Hidden Name and Complex Fate.
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