A Most Powerful Autoethnography:
How Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man Retold the Story of the Black American Experience for the Cultural Mainstream
Black Authors and White Audiences
According to Ellison, one of the most difficult obstacles to an author's purpose, is the issue which many authors had faced before him, how to reach universality in the message, and appeal to an audience which possessed members of both the dominant and subordinate culture groups. Ellison demonstrates his comprehension of the difficulty of this task when he states, “the Negro novelist [perhaps] draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write… but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read” (Chester & Howard, 1955). Ellison was very aware and conscious of this phenomenon; it caused him distress, and he worked hard to reach universality in his novel.
Understanding the importance of reaching the target audience is one of the imperatives of every author. But the difficulty present in this task for the black American authors of the early 20th century posed a greater challenge than many other aspects of the writing process. Toni Morrison (1992), awarded black American author and educator of much acclaim in the academic community states that, “until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American Fiction have been positioned as white” (p. xii). This underlines the predicament that many black American authors of Ellison’s time were faced with: the disparity between the Black and mainstream American readership communities. Ellison states that, “Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience” (Chester & Howard, 1955). This was in part due to the fact that the first audience that an author must impress is his publisher, all of whom were likely white during this time period.
Additionally, at the turn of the 20th century, over 40 percent of black Americans were illiterate, and while this statistic drops drastically by 1950, this lack of access to common education prior to 1950 illustrates how black Americans were distanced from access to modern or classic literature (Snyder, 1993). Robert Bone, scholar of African-American literature and former professor of English at Columbia University, claims that, “Ellison’s revival of the picaresque reflects his group’s belated access to the basic conditions of bourgeois existence” (as cited in Reilly, 1970, p. 27). As a group, black American authors were confronted with this situation. While recognizing the power of literature to convey a message to a vast audience, their audience comprised mostly of white Americans, who were poorly motivated to interact with, and were unlikely to be able to identify with, the issues facing black Americans and their fight for dignity.
Therefore the question begs to be asked, to whom does Ellison write his novel? This question of audience is important, because successfully targeting and communicating with an audience can be an arduous task. Morrison (1992) states that, “Readers and writers both struggle to interpret and perform within a common language” (p. xii). And this is where the genius of Ellison’s technique begins to shine becasue his appeal is so widespread. What Ellison attempts to do with Invisible Man is draw on some of the more universal aspects of personal identity, but at the same time highlight the conflicts present in black American life.
To do both seems a monumental task, and indeed it is, but Invisible Man reaches that lofty place. Sundquist (1995) writes that, “The brilliance of Invisible Man lies in its capacity to draw power from and contribute to canonical American culture, which until recently has been typically identified as ‘white,’ while at the same time articulating perfectly the intellectual and social complexity of black America” (p. 7). What this means is that Ellison utilizes a precise combination of artistry and historically relevant aspects of black American life to in effect, ‘retell’, the story of the search for identity in the United States. “Ellison’s borrowings from African American writers and African American history leave little doubt that he intended to illuminate the ‘Blackness of America’” (Sundquist, 1995, p. 7).
Ellison believes that the search for identity lies at the heart of the American experience, not just the black American experience (Chester & Howard, 1955). In order to bridge the gap in communication between the Black and mainstream American he uses his skill with the literary canon, and his intimate experience with, and knowledge of black American culture, to craft a novel which members of the American public at large will identify with and understand. Importantly, this combination of rhetorical choices is intentional. Ellison knows that certain aspects of his novel will appeal to different parts of a very diverse audience, and it is these literary choices which compel recognition of the wide scope of appeal of Invisible Man.
What is Autoethnography?
Let us now come all the way back to the autoethnography, because this is what is relevant to authors and researchers of today in all of the humanities. I hope to make connections here that will show how truly powerful Invisible Man can be when looked at from the right perspective.
Understanding what autoethnography is, and what makes it so powerful, requires that we take a look back in history and consider the literary progression that lead up to its birth within the academic community. The recognized literary convention of autoethnography is a relatively modern phenomenon, yet according to Mary Louise Pratt (1991), a Silver Professor at New York University, audacious authors and scholars have been writing within its framework, and been putting its strengths to their use, for a long time (p. 35). Let us take a look at the history of the novel as a precursor to modern autoethnographic texts.
The novel as we know it possesses roots in the school of philosophical thought known as ‘realism’, and does so because of its portrayal of real human experiences. Ian Watt (1957), literary historian, professor of English at Stanford University, and author of The Rise of the Novel, explains that before ‘realism’ gained strength in the Arts, the traditional models of literary convention were strictly adhered to, and that, “literary traditionalism was first and most fully challenged by the novel, whose primary criterion was truth to individual experience” (p. 12). This was a primary motivator of the movement toward ‘realism’ in the first place. Artists began to see the value in moving from traditional artistic conventions, and toward a paradigm in which the daily experiences of people became the primary focus of their art, whether in painting, sculpture or literature.
The social sciences are very much concerned with discovering the truths behind the human experience. It is this motivation that connects lived experiences with the belief that truth can be found by analyzing culture from a personal perspective. “Modern realism, of course begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses” (Watt, 1957, p. 12). This precept of the discovery of truth through experience is what gave rise to novelists such as have been mentioned here in this essay as Ellison’s inspirations, the picaresque novelists and greats of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Watt (1957) states, “that the novel is a full and authentic report of human experience” (p. 32). It is for this purpose that some novelists used this literary convention to examine the existential problems of minority cultures since the novel was born. What Ellison came to realize during his study of literature and research into the black American dilemma, was that a novel would serve as the strongest medium with which to challenge black American stereotypes and bridge the communication gap between black Americans and the rest of Mainstream America.
Let us now examine what exactly autoethnography is, and what role it plays in modern research and writing. Traditionally, researchers adhered to strict protocol regarding the subjugation of bias in their work. What constitutes reliable and valid research in the field of cultural anthropology and the social sciences has met the expectations held by the majority of the members of the elite in these fields. In order to prevent the creep of bias into the conclusions made by researchers, attempts were made to remove the observer from the experience under study.
Recently, there has been a shift, and qualitative research techniques now may include the use of the personal narrative in professional research environments, especially those that concern cultural examinations. Ellis, C., Adams, T., and Bochner A. (2011), Distinguished University Professors at University of South Florida, state that, “Autoethnography… expands and opens up a wider lens on the world, eschewing rigid definitions of what constitutes meaningful and useful research.” Qualitative research conventions have been stretched to include the personal narrative, personal perspective and cultural experiences of the individual.
Just as a the role of the novel was often used to inspire a closer look at realistic portrayals of human existence, autoethnography take this approach to a deeper level; authors engage in active research, and are members of the community they are writing about. Autoethnography can be defined as, “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). When scholars create an autoethnography, they attempt to reproduce the experience of their culture through their own experience in as accurate detail as possible.
They use “evocative and aesthetic” language to reproduce experiences, and, “retrospectively and selectively write about experiences that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture” (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). This is exactly what Ellison with Invisible Man. Autoethnography stands as a way for members of a cultural group to take ownership of the representation of their culture in literature; and to grapple with contrasting perspectives from a well-researched, yet personal, position. It is the authenticity of the research that supports the perspective of the author.
A very important point to make here is the fact that one of the purposes of autoethnography is to provide a medium for authors to interact with the mainstream ethnographic depictions made about their cultures (Pratt, 1991). This is so important, because often ethnographic studies misrepresent aspects of the culture they are studying, and then share their faulty findings with the mainstream culture at large. This phenomenon has led to rash decision making processes on the part of community decision makers, led to stereotypes, led to discriminatory practices, etc. And of course I do not simply describe a phenomena that has occurred in the United States. These results of one-sided ethnography has occurred in every time and place in which one community held power and sway over another, and made attempts to understand them.
However, by combining a personal approach and performing well-informed research, there is strength in the cultural interpretations that result. Heenan Chang (2008), professor of Education and Anthropology at Eastern University writes that, “Stemming from the field of anthropology, autoethnography shares the storytelling feature with other genres of self-narrative but transcends mere narration of self to engage in cultural analysis and interpretation” (p. 43). For the same reason that people prefer to hear a story from the original source, cultural analysis by members of the culture in question are inarguably more valid and resourceful than conclusions made by outsiders.
The power of autoethnography to enlighten an audience about the plights of a given human experience is what lends Ellison the ability to so potently evoke images of black American culture in Invisible Man. Howe (1952) writes that, “No other writer has captured so much of the confusion and agony, the hidden gloom and surface gaiety of Negro life.” Ellison experienced a full measure of black American culture himself, not isolated to one region. His experience writing about the black American plight, and the years he spent conducting interviews, very often face to face, built up an impressive repertoire on the current state of black American affairs. Having grown up in the Mid-West, attended college in the South and matured into his career as a writer in Harlem, the center of black American culture at the time, Ellison was well prepared to present a complete picture of black American culture to Mainstream America. Invisible Man is simply not just a novel, it is an autoethnography.
Bringing It All Together
What draws Ellison’s audience to his story? There are many likely reasons. One may be the draw to understand the protagonist, to see beyond his invisibility. Many readers likely want to become one of those who can see through the cloak of invisibility to the person beneath. The way Ellison paints the ‘invisibility’ as inevitable, unassailable, may incite a desire within the reader to say ‘I can see you!’. This is some of the genius of Ellison’s style, his ability to craft a compelling novel. Another reason I have already pointed out, the authenticity of the novel begs to be believed. The natural progression from one of the protagonists experiences to another paints a whole picture one stroke at a time, in a similar way that an argument is built upon one idea at a time. Ellison’s logic is subtle, pervasive and persuasive; he asks his audience to make no large leaps, but guides them through his narrator’s experiences one moment at a time; guides them through his culture one experience at a time.
As I stated in the beginning of this essay, the story is a powerful method of carrying forward the traditions of a culture. We respect the perspectives of those who have ‘been there’. And while it took decades, if not centuries, to recognize the power of the personal narrative to produce significant findings to the scientific community, it is not too late to recognize the contributions of those audacious authors who have given us insight into the human existence.
Ellison brought to the American consciousness a new picture of the black American, one who was nothing like the image of the slaves running from masters that had previously dominated the literature surrounding the black American experience. While these tales of slavery are just as important to the history of black Americans, Ellison choose to challenge derogatory stereotypes, and reimagine the struggle of intellectual black Americans to find themselves in the American landscape. Ellison’s own life was a living challenge to stereotypes harming Blacks in America, and Ellison himself struggled as an artist to conceptualize his own place in American history.
What Ellison did with Invisible Man was open up dialogue in America, to bridge the gap between Black and mainstream Americans to begin an exchange of healthy communication about the place for Blacks in the American consciousness. He did this for personal reasons, his own life’s path was fraught with discouragement and disillusionment. He did this for altruistic reasons, he desired to bring up his fellow black Americans, to put forth a revolutionary image of black Americans to the world at large. And he did these things successfully.
By putting together the elements of autoethnography, the personal narrative, research and cultural analysis, Ellison helped pave the way for a new interpretation of the black American existence in the United States. Jarrett (1954) writes that, “Ellison seems to transcend stereotyped material and achieves universality in his picture of a Negro intellectual,” and further, he reaches a, “truth about the human condition” (p. 422). During the writing process, Ellison’s intuition led him to realize that the experiences in his own life possessed many of the same themes that resonated with Mainstream America at large. He detailed many of the struggles that he witnessed his own culture experiencing, while weakening some of the barriers holding back Mainstream America from recognizing what some of those problems were.
Invisible Man should be reread by America for many reasons. Our current cultural predicament between the Black community and Mainstream America is as evident as when the novel was written. Ellison wrote a timeless piece of literature that really calls up into existence the struggle of a marginalized person to gain dignity, the difficult journey it is for a powerless person to have a positive impact on society. What insights might new generations uncover by reading this novel? How might America as one gigantic community reimagine black Americans and disband with slanderous stereotypes?
Invisible Man stands as one of the most impeccable examples of the power of autoethnography to present authentic, reliable and valid insights into a minority culture. More now than ever, this literary convention is ushering in a wave of cultural understanding to those in society who are listening. We must listen to these voices, and add our own when we can. Because it is only when we communicate that we are heard, and Ellison stands as a powerful instructor of what might be accomplished if we boldly share our story.
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