A STUDY OF BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS AND RACISM IN RICHARD WRIGHTS NATIVE SON AND RALPH ELLISON’S INVISIBLE MAN
The twentieth century American literary scene is characterized by the emergence of black writers who are concerned with creating what is called “Black Consciousness”. This concept became a form of literary expression associated with the Afro-American movement whose concern was for the discovery of the meaning of black man’s experience. Black, consciousness has to do with the revolutionary consciousness which occupies most Afro-American writing. This concept places emphasis on the Afro-American search for self-esteem in a hostile social environment and the search for a language to affirm a “black selfhood” as well as express the richness of an oral culture. These elements are examined in Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. These works marked a high point in the Black-American literary tradition. Both novels are protests against the hatred, injustices and racism in the America society.
The racial prejudices and the American racial dilemma inform the choice of themes by these authors. Wright’s novel represents what has been described as protest to black fiction. Wright is a central figure in Afro-American literature. Ellison’s novel is indebted to Native Son for certain themes i.e. the social invisibility of black Americans and the blindness of the whites to their individuality.
1.1 The Afro-American tradition
Racial freedom in the face of white oppression and injustice is a social necessity of black life. The Afro-American novelist as a spokesman for his people places his art at the disposal of the course of freedom. These writers possess a sense of commitment to racial justice and racial freedom. The Afro-American literature of the last couple of decades witnessed remarkable transformations. The artistic ambition of the black writers in America. Thus, history provides and impetus for current black writing. The efforts to define the Afro-American experience have influenced the choice of theme and the literary traditions of Afro-American literature. It then follows that the basic themes and literature traditions of Afro-American writing is associated with black experience.
The dominant themes of Afro-American literature have been identified as the search for freedom. The theme has been explored by several Afro-American authors who often believe they have a commitment towards the liberation of the generality of the Afro-American people. This issue is explored in such novels as Ellison’s Invisible Man whose protagonist embarked on a journey to achieve self-knowledge in order to gain his freedom. This trend is repeated in other Afro-American novels like Jean Toomer’s Cane, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright’s Native Son, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain and Toni Morrison’s Sula. The protagonists of all these novels have one thing in common; they are all involved in the struggle to achieve freedom.
The much talked about Afro-American literary tradition is a complex term. There is no gainsaying that certain themes and tropes recur in Afro-American fiction. The Afro-American writers like other writers have literary antecedents. Over the years, Afro-American fiction has changed the artistic achievements if the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s remains a crucial factor in Afro-American literature.
More so, when it has been argued that the 1980s is the continuation of the Harlem Renaissance and that his Renaissance of the 1920s and the slave narratives of the nineteenth century are at the heart of the 1980s renaissance in black letters. The Afro-American literary tradition may be identified in terms of the peculiarities of literary styles, themes, myth, folk culture as well as the structures. A definition the Afro-American tradition is a complex issue. Louis Gates Jr. suggests that “The basis of a tradition must be a shared pattern of language use'”. The Afro-American literary tradition may be considered in terms of the existence of rhetorical tropes in black literature. The concept of an Afro-American tradition offers a framework for viewing the works of contemporary Afro-American writers in relation to the intertextuality of various texts. There is no gainsaying that several texts that belong the Afro-American canon are related to other black texts. Hence, we find such texts as Ralph Ellison’sInvisible Man, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Jean Toomer’s Cane, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and a host of others, related to one another in terms of substance and contents. This relationship may be identified in terms of race, the author’s choice of theme as well as the existence of black consciousness and identify as suggested by these authors’ use of what has been described as the language of blackness as represented in the rhetorical strategies used by these authors in rendering the much talked about black experience.
The language ‘used by the Afro-American writer has been described as that which is created, refined and tested by centuries of racial oppression and racial assertion. The language used reflects the reality of the Afro-American history. This language may equally be regarded as a testimony to the Afro-American experience of slavery and racial oppression the rhetorical skill of the American blacks offers stylistic resources to ‘the black writers. The Afro-American writer is given to the use of slave narratives, black oral tradition and folklore as a representation of their blackness and experience. The Afro-American narratives strategies invariably become the tool with which the black writers achieve a black consciousness.
1.2 Black consciousness and the Afro-American writer
Awareness of being black is the most powerful and most fertile single inspiration for most black writers in America. It is ironic that blackness so long regarded as a handicap – socially and culturally, should be an artistic strength 2.
Blackness has been identified as the recurring and controlling trope of all Afro-American literary tradition. Blackness has become some kind of creative element in Afro-American literature. This is evident in the choice of theme and language. The importance of the recognition of blackness in Afro-American literature has to a large extent influenced the artistic endeavor of most black writers. It has been pointed out that:
Consciousness of blackness has brought an especial intensity to the statement of the Afro-Americans as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; a distinction and beauty of language evident in the poems of Langston Hughes; an unusual ways of rendering scenes as observed in the work of Jean roomer3.
What is suggested here points to the fact that, the definition of freedom and the search for an identity in Ellison’s invisible man, Langston Hughes’ use of language and racy colloquial in his poems as well as Jean Toomer’s style of writing result (rom these authors’ awareness of their blackness. Perhaps one may equally suggest that since blackness is woven into the texture of the black writer’s art, the aesthetics of the Afro-American art is expected to reflect these authors’ acceptance of their blackness, black pride and black solidarity. All of these are related to the objectives of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s which has affinity with Black Consciousness Movement. Most black writers of this period wrote for black people, what they often chose as their subject matter revolves around their blackness. Thus, their blackness is regarded as an absolute theme and necessity.
Folklore, jazz and blue songs served as major source of inspiration for most black authors . The identification of blackness as a priority therefore distinguishes black writers in America. This is reiterated in the words of Charles T. Davis:
For nearly all black writers in America, that sense of difference was the recognition of blackness. But for most, blackness was the spur, the barb or the spirit or pain that moved artist to achieve distinction.4
It is important to acknowledge the role and the achievements of the proponents of the, Black Consciousness Movement. W.E.B. Du Bis was the leader of the twentieth century political and aesthetic thought. He devoted himself to the task of uplifting the black race through literature. He believed that the black writer has a duty not only to uplift his race but also to elevate the rest of the world’s opinion about the generality of the black man. He abhorred and discredited negative portrayal of blacks in white American literature. As the editor-in-chief ofThe Crisis: a journal Of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). He wrote various articles through which he projected his idea on such issues as the concept of racial pride which became a forceful concept in discussions and works by black writers.
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is crucial to this discourse on contemporary Afro-American writing in order to show how the past prefigured the present. The 1920s was a period when Afro-American art and culture flourished. The Afro-American literature was viewed by many intellectuals as a means for a direct confrontation of white American racist practices and its effects on Afro.
The period witnessed the production of numerous texts of art by Afro-American writers who had moved to the Harlem City enmasse in an attempt to escape from the lynching and segregation which was prevalent in the South. The result of this settlement was the creation of what has been described as “a progressive international black consciousness and culture”5 In essence, there was Afro-American creation of a collective consciousness of black identity. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance wrote to define the culture and exhibit a sense of pride in their racial heritage.
Charles S. Johnson was equally instrumental to the course of the Harlem Renaissance. His achievement is summarized in the words of Langston Hughes as someone who “did more to encourage and develop Negro writers during the 1920s than anyone else in America.6
Alain Locke was one of the ‘godfathers” of the New Negro Renaissance. He was the one who coined the phrase “New Negro”. He is submission on the question of race pride is summarized in his essay The New Negro (1925) as follows:
The day of aunties, uncles and mammies is equally gone. Uncle Tom and
Sambo have passed on …. .in the very process of being transformed.7
In this essay, Locke registers his misgiving with the unjust and negative stereotypes of blacks in American literature. He equally announced the beginning of a new development in Afro-American literature, i.e. literature which is concerned with blacks who are proud of their race. He actually suggests that black writers like Langston Hughes, Claude Mckay and other young writers of the Harlem Renaissance should use black folklore as the source of their inspiration. The publication of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) is also an important development in Afro-American literature. This book was regarded as “the first full length book by a black writer to come out of the period”.8 Jean Toomer is regarded as one of the authors who have helped in shaping the fiction of the 1980s.
1.3 Contemporary Afro-American writers
The most important thing to the Afro-American writer of this century, both the old and the younger generations is the idea of using their artistic talent to make things better for, themselves and the generality of the blacks. The writers of the contemporary Afro-American literature like their predecessors of the Harlem Renaissance are devoted to the task of examining the social and political forces that have shaped: the America culture. The centuriesof racial oppression and racial assertion has influenced the Afro-American literary tradition. The whole range of racial experience is entrenched in the oral traditions of the Afro-American and since most black writers derive their sources from the Afro-American culture and oral tradition, oral traditional and culture continues to reflect and shape the Afro-American literary traditions.
Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison have won critical recognition and acclaim as major America authors. Their works are regarded as outstanding part of a literary tradition created by Afro-American intellectuals. Their works are regarded as significant apart of a distinct form of literary expression i.e. Afro-American fiction.
Wright’s ascension to a major rank among American writers of this century is a significant issue in Afro-American literary history. His literary achievements have been described as that which represented a triumph of the human personality. Native Son (1940) is regarded as one of the most important novels in contemporary American literature. The literary achievements of both Wright and Ellison have been described in term of top level performance. Wright is credited for the establishment of a new naturalist school of black literature. His establishment of a protest tradition protest tradition which influenced a host of other black writers like Chester Himes and James Baldwin drew a lot of attention from critics like Robert Bone who acknowledged the existence of Wright School of thought. Protest stands out as a distinctive character of Richard Wright’s art. He is regarded as the first black novelist to depict the plight of urban masses and the first black novelist to address the subject of racial oppression from the point of view of the naturalistic tradition; a tradition which was hitherto untapped by black American novelists. Native Son is regarded as Wright’s pioneer effort in this regard. His works are said to have “exerted an immense gravitational pull on subsequent Negro fiction”.9Wright’s disciples like him were preoccupied with protest. Chester Himes is one of his notable- disciples. His novels If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusades (1947) were written in Wright’s protest tradition.
Ellison stands out as a writer of the first magnitude in Afro-American literature. He has been described as “one of those original talents who has created a personal idiom to convert his personal vision” 10 His novel only Invisible Man won the National Book Award as the best American novel of 1952. He occupies a prominent place in the Who is Who of Contemporary Black American Literature.
He repudiates Wright’s naturalism and turns to the broad tradition established by Joyce, Kafka and Faulkner.
His literary achievement is closely linked with his imaginative use of black folk culture and folklore materials. This has influenced other major Afro-American writers of recent times like Ishmael Reed whose popular novel Mumbo Jumbo is describes as being related to Ellison’s Invisible Man in terms of specific use of language and his imaginative use of black American oral tradition and folklore.
The importance of Wright an Ellison lies in the fact that with the publication of such novels as Native Son and Invisible Man, they have set a high standard in contemporary black fiction.