The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

Robert J. Butler

To Move Without Moving: An Analysis of Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison's Trueblood Episode

Houston A.   Baker , Jr.

Them boss quails is like a good man, what he got to do he do.

Ralph Ellison Trueblood in Invisible Man
In his essay “Richard Wright's Blues,” Ralph Ellison states one of his cherished distinctions: “The function, the psychology, of artistic selectivity is to eliminate from art form all those elements of experience which contain no compelling significance. Life is as the sea, art a ship in which man conquers life's crushing formlessness, reducing it to a course, a series of swells, tides and wind currents inscribed on a chart.”  1 The distinction between nonsignificant life experiences and their inscribed, artistic significance (i.e., the meaning induced by form) leads Ellison to concur with André Malraux that artistic significance alone “enables man to conquer chaos and to master destiny” (S&A, 94).

Artistic “technique,” according to Ellison, is the agency through which artistic meaning and form are achieved. In “Hidden Name and Complex Fate” he writes:

It is a matter of outrageous irony, perhaps, but in literature the great social clashes of history no less than the painful experience of the individual are secondary to the meaning which they take on through the skill, the talent, the imagination, and personal vision of the writer who transforms them into art. Here they are reduced to more manageable proportions; here they are imbued with humane value; here, injustice and catastrophe become less important in themselves than what the writer makes of them.

(S&A, 148–49)
Even the thing-in-itself of lived, historical experience is thus seen as devoid of “humane value” before its sea change under the artist's transforming technique.

Since Ellison focuses his interest on the literary, the inscribed, work of art, he regards even folklore as part of that realm of life “elements…which contain no compelling significance” in themselves. In “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” he asserts:

The Negro writer is also an heir to the human experience which is literature, and this might well be more important to him than his living folk tradition. For me, at least, in the discontinuous, swiftly changing and diverse American culture, the stability of the Negro folk tradition became precious as a result of an act of literary discovery….For those who are able to translate [the folk tradition's] meanings into wider, more precise vocabularies it has much to offer indeed.

(S&A, 72–73)
During a BBC program recorded in May 1982 and titled “Garrulous Ghosts: The Literature of the American South,” Ellison stated that the fiction writer, to achieve proper resonance, must go beyond the blues—a primary and tragically eloquent form of American expression:

The blues are very important to me. I think of them as the closest approach to tragedy that we have in American art forms. And I'm not talking about black or white, I mean just American. Because they do combine the tragic and the comic in a very subtle way and, yes, they are very important to me. But they are also limited. And if you are going to write fiction there is a level of consciousness which you move toward which I would think transcends the blues.

Thus Ellison seems to regard Afro-American folklore, before its translation into “more precise vocabularies,” as part of lived experience. Art and chaos appear to be homologous with literature and folklore.

To infer such a homology from one or two critical remarks, however, is to risk the abyss of “false distinction,” especially when one is faced with a canon as rich as Ralph Ellison's. For it is certainly true that the disparagement of folk expression suggested by these remarks can be qualified by the praise of folklore implicit in Ellison's assertion that Afro-American expressive folk projections are a group's symbolically “profound” attempts to “humanize” the world. Such projections, even in their crudest forms, constitute the “humble base” on which “great literature” is erected (S&A, 172).

It does seem accurate, however, to say that Ellison's criticism repeatedly implies an extant, identifiable tradition of Western literary art—a tradition consisting of masters of form and technique who must be read, studied, emulated, and (if one is lucky and eloquent) equaled. This tradition stands as the signal, vital repository of “humane value.” And for Ellison the sphere that it describes is equivalent to the primum mobile, lending force and significance to all actions of the descending heavens and earth.

Hence, while division between folk and artistic may be only discursive, having no more factual reality than any other such division, it seems to matter to Ellison, who, as far as I know, never refers to himself as a folk artist. Moreover, in our era of sophisticated “folkloristics,” it seems mere evasion to shy from the assertion that Ellison's criticism ranks folklore below literary are on a total scale of value. What I argue is that the distinction between folklore and literary art evident in Ellison's critical practice collapses in his creative practice in Invisible Man's  2 Trueblood episode. Further, I suggest that an exacting analysis of this episode illuminates the relation not only between Ellison's critical and creative practices but also between what might be called the public and private commerce of black art in America.

The main character in the Trueblood episode, which occupies chapter 2 of Invisible Man, is both a country blues singer (a tenor of “crude, high, plaintively animal sounds”) and a virtuous prose narrator. To understand the disjunctiveness between Ellison's somewhat disparaging critical pronouncements on “raw” folklore and his striking fictional representation of the folk character, one must first comprehend, I think, the sharecropper Trueblood's dual manifestation as trickster and merchant, as creative and commercial man. Blues and narration, as modes of expression, conjoin and divide in harmony with these dichotomies. And the episode in its entirety is—as I demonstrate—a metaexpressive commentary on the incumbencies of Afro-American artists and the effects of their distinctive modes of expression.

In an essay that gives a brilliant ethnographic “reading” of the Balinese cockfight, the symbolic anthropologist Clifford Geertz asserts:

Like any art form—for that, finally, is what we are dealing with—the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.

(“Deep Play,” 443)
Catching up on the themes of Balinese society in symbolic form, the cockfight thus represents, in Geertz's words, “a metasocial commentary…a Balinese reading of Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves” (448). The anthropologist's claims imply that the various symbolic (or “semiotic”) systems of a culture—religion, politics, economics—can themselves be “raised” to a metasymbolic level by the orderings and processes of “ritual interactions” like the Balinese cockfight.

The coming together of semiotic systems in ways that enlarge and enhance the world of human meanings is the subject of Barbara Babcock-Abraham's essay “The Novel and the Carnival World.” Following the lead of Julia Kristeva, Babcock-Abraham's asserts that a “metalanguage” is a symbolic system that treats of symbolic systems; for example, Don Quixote “openly discusses other works of literature and takes the writing and reading of literature as its subject” (“Novel,” 912). Both social rituals and novels, since they “embed” other semiotic systems within their “texture,” are “multivocal,” “polyvalent,” or “polysemous”—that is, capable of speaking in a variety of mutually reflexive voices at once.

The multiple narrative frames and voices operative in Ellison's Trueblood episode include the novel Invisible Man, the protagonist's fictive autobiographical account, Norton's story recalled as part of the fictive autobiography, Trueblood's story as framed by the fictive autobiography, the sharecropper's own autobiographical recall, and the dream narrative within that autobiographical recall. All these stories reflect, or “objectify,” one another in ways that complicate their individual and composite meanings. Further, the symbolic systems suggested by the stories are not confined to (though they may implicitly comment on) such familiar social configurations as education, economics, politics, and religion. Subsuming these manifestations is the outer symbolic enterprise constituted by the novel itself. Moreover, the Trueblood episode heightens the multivocalic character of the novel from within, acting as a metacommentary on the literary and artistic system out of which the work is generated. Further enriching the burden of meanings in the episode is the Christian myth of the Fall and Sigmund Freud's mythic “narrative” concerning incest, which are both connoted (summoned as signifiers, in Babcock-Abraham's terms) and parodied, or inverted. I analyze the text's play on these myths later in my discussion.

For the moment, I am primarily interested in suggesting that the Trueblood episode, like other systematic symbolic phenomena, gains and generates its meanings in a dialogic relation with various systems of signs. The sharecropper chapter as a text derives its logic from its intertextual relation with surrounding and encompassing texts and, in turn, complicates their meanings. The Balinese cockfight, according to Geertz, can only tell a “metastory” because it is intertextually implicated in a world that is itself constituted by a repertoire of “stories” (e.g., those of economics and politics) that the Balinese tell themselves.

As a story that the author of Invisible Man tells himself about his own practice, the Trueblood episode clarifies distinctions that must be made between Ellison as critic and Ellison as artist. To elucidate its metaexpressive function, one must summon analytical instruments from areas that Ellison sharply debunks in his own criticism.

For example, at the outset of “The World and the Jug,” a masterly instructive essay on the criticism of Afro-American creativity, Ellison asks:

Why is it so often that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive modes of analysis? Why is that sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project?

(S&A, 115–16)
What I take these questions to imply is that a given artistic reality designed to represent “Negro American” experience should not be analyzed by “primitive” methods, which Ellison leaves unspecified but seems to associate with sociological, ideological, and political modes of analysis. In the following discussion I hope to demonstrate that sociology, anthropology, economics, politics, and ideology all provide models essential for the explication of the Trueblood episode. The first step, however, is to evoke the theater of Trueblood's performance.

Trueblood's narration has an unusual audience, but to the farmer and his Afro-American cohorts the physical setting is as familiar as train whistles in the Alabama night. The sharecropper, a white millionaire, and a naive undergraduate from a nearby black college have arranged themselves in a semi-circle of camp chairs in the sharecropper's yard. They occupy a swath of shade cast by the porch of a log cabin that has survived since the days of slavery, enduring hard times and the ravages of climate. The millionaire asks, “How are you faring now?…Perhaps I could help.” The sharecropper responds, “We ain't doing so bad, suh. ‘Fore they heard ‘bout what happen to us out here I couldn't get no help from nobody. Now lotta folks is curious and go outta their way to help” (IM, 52). What has occurred “out here”—in what the millionaire Mr. Norton refers to as “new territory for me” and what the narrator describes as a “desert” that “almost took [his] breath away” (IM, 45)—is Jim Trueblood's impregnation of both is wife and his daughter. The event has brought disgrace on the sharecropper and has mightily embarrassed officials at the nearby black college.

The whites in the neighborhood town and countryside, however, are scarcely outraged or perturbed by Trueblood's situation. Rather, they want to keep the sharecropper among them; they warn the college officials not to harass him or his family, and they provide money, provisions, and abundant work. “White folks,” says Trueblood, even “took to coming out here to see us and talk with us. Some of 'em was big white folks, too, from the big school way cross the State. Asked me lots ‘bout what I thought ‘bout things, and ‘bout my folks and the kids, and wrote it all down in a book” (IM, 53). Hence, when the farmer begins to recount the story of his incestuous act with his daughter Matty Lou, he does so as a man who has thoroughly rehearsed his tale and who has carefully refined his knowledge of his audience: “He cleared his throat, his eyes gleaming and his voice taking on a deep, incantatory quality, as though he had told the story many, many times” (IM, 53).

The art of storytelling is not a gift that Trueblood has acquired recently. He is introduced in Invisible Man as one who “told the old stories with a sense of humor and a magic that made them come alive” (IM, 46). A master storyteller, then, he recounts his provocative exploits to an audience that is by turns shamed, indignant, envious, humiliated, and enthralled.

The tale begins on a cold winter evening in the sharecropper's cabin. The smell of fat meat hangs in the air, and the last kindling crackles in the dying flames of the stove. Trueblood's daughter, in bed between her father and mother, sleepily whispers, “Daddy.” At the story's close, the sharecropper reports his resolution to prevent Aunt Cloe the midwife from aborting his incestuous issue. At the conclusion of his tale, he reiterates his judgment that he and his family “ain't doing so bad” in the wake of their ordeal.

Certainly the content and mode of narration the sharecropper chooses reflect his knowledge of what a white audience expects of the Afro-American. Mr. Norton is not only a “teller of polite Negro stories” (IM, 37) but also a man who sees nothing unusual about the pregnant Matty Lou's not having a husband. “But that shouldn't be so strange,” he remarks later (IM, 49). The white man's belief in the promiscuity of blacks is further suggested by Mr. Broadnax, the figure in Trueblood's dream who looks at the sharecropper and his daughter engaged in incest and says, “They just nigguhs, leave 'em do it” (IM, 58). In conformity with audience expectations, the sharecropper's narrative is aggressively sexual in its representations.

Beginning with an account of the feel of his daughter's naked arm pressed against him in bed, the farmer proceeds to reminisce about bygone days in Mobile when he would lie in bed in the evenings with a woman named Margaret and listen to the music from steamboats passing on the river. Next, he introduces the metaphor of the woman in a red dress “goin past you down a lane…and kinda switchin” her tail ‘cause she knows you watchin” (IM, 56). From this evocative picture, he turns to a detailed account of his dream on the night of his incestuous act.

The dream is a parodic allegory in which Trueblood goes in quest of “fat meat.” In this episode the name “Mr. Broadnax” (Mr. Broad-in-acts) captures the general concepts that mark any narrative as allegory. The man whose house is on the hill is a philanthropist who gives poor blacks (true bloods) sustaining gifts as “fat meat.” The model implied by this conceptualization certainly fits one turn-of-the century American typology, recalling the structural arrangement by which black southern colleges were able to sustain themselves. In one sense, the entire Trueblood episode can be read as a pejorative commentary on the castrating effects of white philanthropy. Trueblood's dream narrative is parodic because it reveals the crippling assumptions (the castrating import) of the philanthropic model suggested in “Broadnax.” The man who is broad-in-acts in the dream is the one who refers to the sharecropper and his daughter as “just nigguhs.” Further, his philanthropy—like Mr. Norton's—has a carnal undercurrent: it is dangerously and confusingly connected with the sexuality of Mrs. Broadnax. What he dispenses as sustaining “fat meat” may only be the temporarily satisfying thrill of sexual gratification. The “pilgrim,” or quester, in Trueblood's dream allegory flees from the dangers and limitations of such deceptive philanthropy. And the general expose effected by the narrative offers a devastating critique of that typography which saw white men on the hill (northern industrialists) as genuinely and philanthropically responsive to the needs of those in the valley (southern blacks).

Instructed to inquire as Mr. Broadnax's house, Trueblood finds himself violating a series of southern taboos and fleeing for his life. He enters the front door of the home, wanders into a woman's bedroom, and winds up trapped in the embraces of a scantily clad white woman. The gastronomic and sexual appetites surely converge at this juncture, and the phrase “fat meat” takes on a dangerous burden of significance. The dreamer breaks free, however, and escapes into the darkness and machinery of a grandfather clock. He runs until a bright electric light bursts over him, and he awakens to find himself engaged in sexual intercourse with his daughter.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud advances the hypothesis that the two taboos of totemism—the interdictions against slaying the totem animal and against incest—result from events in human prehistory.  3 Following Darwin's speculations, Freud claims that human beings first lived in small hordes in which one strong, jealous man took all women to himself, exiling the sons to protect his own exclusive sexual privileges. On one occasion, however, Freud suggests, the exiled sons arose, slew, and ate the father, and then, in remorse, established a taboo against such slaughter. To prevent discord among themselves and to ensure their newly achieved form of social organization, they also established a taboo against sexual intercourse with the women of their own clan. Exogamy, Freud concludes, is based on a prehistorical advance from a lower to a higher stage of social organization.

From Freud's point of view, Trueblood's dream and subsequent incest seem to represent a historical regression. The sharecropper's dreamed violations of southern social and sexual taboos are equivalent to a slaughter of the white patriarch represented by Mr. Broadnax, who does, indeed, control the “fat” and “fat meat” of the land. To eat fat meat is to partake of the totemic animal. And having run backward in time through the grandfather clock, Trueblood becomes the primal father, assuming all sexual prerogatives unto himself. He has warned away “the boy” (representing the tumultuous mob of exiled sons) who wanted to take away his daughter, and as the sexual partner of both Matty Lou and Kate, he reveals his own firm possession of all his “womenfolks”—his status, that is to say as a sexual producer secure against the wrath of his displaced “sons.” Insofar as Freud's notions of totemism represent a myth of progressive social evolution, the farmer's story acts as a countermyth of inversive social dissolution. It breaks society down into components and reveals man in what might be called his presocial and unaccomodated state.

One reason for the sharecropper's singular sexual prerogatives is that the other Afro-Americans in his area are either so constrained or so battered by their encounters with society that they are incapable of a legitimate and productive sexuality. The sharecropper's territory is bounded on one side by the black college where the “sons” are indoctrinated in a course of instruction that leaves them impotent. On the other side lie the insane asylum and the veterans' home, residences of black men driven mad—or at least rendered psychologically and physically crippled—by their encounters with America. These “disabled veterans” are scarcely “family men” like Trueblood. Rather, they are listless souls who visit the whores in “the sun-shrunk shacks at the railroad crossing…hobbling down the tracks on crutches and canes; sometimes pushing the legless, thighless one in a red wheelchair” (IM, 35). In such male company Trueblood seems the only person capable of ensuring an authentic Afro-American lineage. When he finds himself atop Matty Lou, therefore, both the survival of the clan and the sharecropper's aversion to pain require him to reject the fate that has been physically or psychologically imposed on his male cohorts. He says, “There was only one way I can figger that I could git out: that was with a knife. But I didn't have no knife, and if you'all ever see them geld them young boar pigs in the fall, you know I knowed that was too much to pay to keep from sinnin” (IM, 59). In this reflection, he brings forward one of the dominant themes of Invisible Man. This theme—one frequently slighted, or omitted, in discussions of the novel—is black male sexuality.

Perhaps critical prudery prevents commentators from acknowledging the black male phallus as a dominant symbol in much of the ritual interaction of Invisible Man. In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, the symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner provides suggestive definitions for both “ritual” and “dominant symbols.” He describes ritual as “prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings or powers. The symbol is the smallest unit of ritual which still retains the specific properties of ritual behavior; it is the ultimate unit of specific structure in a ritual context” (19). For Turner, the most prominent—the “senior,” as it were—symbols in any ritual are dominant symbols (20); they fall into a class of their own. The important characteristic of such symbols is that they bring together disparate meanings, serving as a kind of condensed semiotic shorthand. Further, they can have both ideological and sensuous associations; the mudyi tree of Ndembu ritual, for example, refers both to the breast milk of the mother and to the axiomatic values of the matrilineal Ndembu society (28).

Ellison's Invisible Man is certainly an instance of “prescribed formal behavior” insofar as the novel is governed by the conventions of the artistic system in which it is situated, a system that resides ludically outside “technological routine” and promotes the cognitive exploration of all systems of “being” and “power,” whether mystical or not. The black phallus is a dominant symbol in the novel's formal patterns of behavior, as its manifold recurrence attests. In “The Art of Fiction: An Interview,” Ellison writes, “People rationalize what they shun or are incapable of dealing with; these superstitions and their rationalizations become rituals as they govern behavior. The rituals become social forms and it is one of the functions of the artist to recognize them and raise them to the level of art” (S&A, 175).

Stated in slightly different terms, Ellison's comment suggests an intertextual (indeed, a connoted) relation between the prescribed formal social behaviors of American racial interaction and the text of the novel. Insofar as Jim Crow social laws and the desperate mob exorcism of lynchings (with their attendant castrations) describe a formal pattern of Anglo-American behavior toward black men, this pattern offers an instance of ritual in which the black phallus gathers an extraordinary burden of disparate connotations, both sensuous and ideological. It should come as no surprise that an artist as perceptive as Ellison recognizes the black phallus as a dominant symbol of the sometimes bizarre social rituals of America and incorporates it into the text of a novel. In “The Art of Fiction,” in fact, Ellison calls the battle-royal episode of Invisible Man “a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo to appease the gods and ward off bad luck” (S&A, 175). He did not have to invent the ritual, he says; all he had to do was to provide “a broader context of meaning” for the patterns the episode represents.

The black phallus, then, does seem an implicit major symbol in Ellison's text, and prudery aside, there are venerable precedents for the discussion of male sexual symbols in ritual. For example, in “Deep Play” Geertz writes:

To anyone who has been in Bali any length of time, the deep psychological identification of Balinese men with their cocks is unmistakable. The double entendre here is deliberate. It works in exactly the same way in Balinese as it does in English, even to producing the same tired jokes, strained puns, and uninventive obscenities. [Gregory] Bateson and [Margaret] Mead have even suggested that, in line with the Balinese conception of the body as a set of separately animated parts, cocks are viewed as detachable, self-opinionated penises, ambulent genitals with a life of their own.

Certainly the notion of “ambulent genitals” figures in the tales of the roguish trickster recorded in Paul Radin's classic work The Trickster. In tale 16 of the Winnebago trickster cycle, Wakdjunkaga the trickster sends his penis across the waters of a lake to have intercourse with the chiefs daughter.  4

The black phallus as a symbol of unconstrained force that white men contradictorily envy and seek to destroy appears first in the opening chapter of Invisible Man. The influential white men of a small southern town force the protagonist and his fellow black boxers in the battle royal to gaze on a “magnificent blonde—stark naked” (IM, 18). The boys are threatened both for looking and for not looking, and the white men smile at their obvious fear and discomfiture. The boys know the bizarre consequences that accompany the white men's ascription of an animallike and voracious sexuality to black males. Hence, they respond in biologically normal but socially fearful (and justifiably embarrassed) ways. One boy strives to hide his erection with his boxing gloves, pleading desperately to go home. In this opening scene, the white woman as a parodic version of American ideals (“a small American flag tattooed upon her belly” (IM. 191), is forced into tantalizing interaction with the mythically potent force of the black phallus. But because the town's white males exercise total control of the situation, the scene is akin to a castration, excision, or lynching.

Castration is one function of the elaborate electrically wired glass box that incarcerates the protagonist in the factory-hospital episode: “‘Why not castration, doctor?’ a voice asked waggishly” (IM, 231). In the Brotherhood, the class struggle is rather devastatingly transformed into the “ass struggle” when the protagonist's penis displaces his oratory as ideological agent. A white woman who hears him deliver a speech and invites him home seizes his biceps passionately and says, “Teach me, talk to me. Teach me the beautiful ideology of Brotherhood” (IM, 405). And the protagonist admits that suddenly he “was lost” as “the conflict between the ideological and the biological, duty and desire,” became too subtly confused (IM, 406). Finally, in the nightmare that concludes the novel, the Invisible Man sees his own bloody testes, like those of the castrated Uranus of Greek myth, floating above the waters underneath a bridge's high arc (IM, 557). In the dream, he tells his inquisitors that his testes dripping blood on the black waters are not only his “generations wasting upon the water” but also the “sun” and the “moon”—and indeed, the very “world”—of his own human existence (IM, 558). The black phallus—in its creative, ambulent, generative power, even when castrated—is like the cosmos itself, a self-sustaining and self-renewing source of life, provoking both envy and fear in Anglo-American society.

While a number of episodes in Invisible Man (including Trueblood's dream) suggest the illusionary freedoms and taboo-induced fears accompanying interaction between the black phallus and white women, only the Trueblood encounter reveals the phallus as indeed producing Afro-American generations rather than wasting its seed upon the waters. The cosmic force of the phallus thus becomes, in the ritual action of the Trueblood episode, symbolic of type of royal paternity, an aristocratic procreativity turned inward to ensure the royalty (the truth, legitimacy, or authenticity) of an enduring black line of descent. In his outgoing phallic energy, therefore, the sharecropper is (as we learn on his first appearance in Invisible Man) indeed a “hard worker” who takes care of “his family's needs” (IM, 46). His family may, in a very real sense, be construed as the entire clan, or tribe, of Afro-America.

As cosmic creator, Trueblood is not bound by ordinary codes of restraint. He ventures chaos in an outrageously sexual manner—and survives. Like the Winnebago trickster Wakdjunkaga, he offers an inversive play on social norms. He is the violator of boundaries who—unlike the scapegoat—eludes banishment.  5 Indeed, he is so essential to whites in his sexual role that, after demonstrating his enviable ability to survive chaos, he and his family acquire new clothes and shoes, abundant food and work, long-needed eyeglasses, and even the means to reshingle their cabin. “I looks up at the mornin' sun,” says the farmer, describing the aftermath of his incestuous act, “and expects somehow for it to thunder. But it's already bright and clear….I yells, ‘Have mercy, Lawd!’ and waits. And there's nothin' but the clear bright mornin' sun” (IM, 64–65).

Noting that most tricksters “have an uncertain sexual status,” Victor Turner points out that on some occasions

tricksters appear with exaggerated phallic characteristics: Hermes is symbolized by the herm or pillar, the club, and the ithyphallic statue; Wakdjunkaga has a very long penis which has to be wrapped around him and put over his shoulder in a box; Eshu is represented in sculpture as having a long curved hairdress carved as a phallus.

(“Myth,” 580)

Such phallic figures are, for Turner, representatives par excellence of what he calls “liminality” (Forest, 93–112). Liminality describes that “betwixt and between” phrases of rites of passage when an individual has left one fixed social status and has not yet been incorporated into another. When African boys are secluded in the forest during circumcision rites, for example, they are in a liminal phase between childhood and adulthood. They receive, during this seclusion, mythic instruction in the origin and structures of their society. And this instruction serves not only to “deconstruct” the components of the ordered social world they have left behind but also to reveal these elements recombined into new and powerful components. The phallic trickster aptly represents the duality of this process. In his radically antinomian activities—incest, murder, and the destruction of sacred property—he symbolically captures what Turner describes as the “amoral and nonlogical” rhythms and outcomes of human biology and of meteorological climate: that is, the uncontrollable rhythms of nature (:Myth,” 577). But the trickster is also a cultural gift bearer. Turner emphasizes that “the Winnebago trickster transforms the pieces of his broken phallus into plants and flowers for men (580).” Hermes enriches human culture with dreams and music. In a sense, therefore, the phallic trickster is a force that is, paradoxically, both anticonventional and culturally benevolent. The paradox is dissolved in the definition of the trickster as the “prima materia—as undifferentiated raw material” from which all things derive (Forest, 98). Trueblood's sexual energies, antinomian acts, productive issue, and resonant expressivity make him—in his incestuous, liminal moments and their immediate aftermath—the quintessential trickster.

In his sexual manifestation, Ellison's sharecropper challenges not only the mundane restraints of his environment but also the fundamental Judeo-Christian categories on which they are founded. As I have already noted, he quickly abandons the notion of the knife—of casting out, in Mr. Norton's indignant (and wonderfully ironic) phrase, “the offending eye.” His virtual parodies of the notions of sin and sacrifice lend comic point to his latitudinarian challenge to Christian orthodoxy. When his wife brings the sharpened ax down on his head, Trueblood recalls, “I sees it, Lawd, yes! I sees it and seein' it I twists my head aside. Couldn't help it….I moves. Though I meant to keep still, I moves! Anybody but Jesus Christ hisself woulda moved” (IM, 63). So much for repentance and salvation through the bloody sacrifice of one's life. But Trueblood goes on to indicate why such sacrifice may not have been required of him: with the skill of a revisionist theologian, he distinguishes between “blood-sin” and “dream-sin” (IM, 62) and claims, with unshakable certainty, that only the dream of his encounter at the Broadnax household led to his sexual arousal and subsequent incest.

But while this casuistic claim suffices in the farmer's interaction with the social world, his earlier appraisal of the event suggests his role as a cosmically rebellious trickster. He says that when he awoke to discover himself atop Matty Lou, he felt that the act might not be sinful, because it happened in his sleep. But then he adds, “although maybe sometimes a man can look at a little old pigtail gal and see him a whore” (IM, 59). The naturalness, and the natural unpredictability, of sexual arousal implied by “although” seems more in keeping with the sharecropper's manifestation as black phallic energy.

Trueblood's sexual energies are not without complement in the and regions where the sharecropper and his family eke out their existence. His wife, Kate, is an awesome force of both new life and outgoing socioreligious fury. His yard is filled with the children she has borne, and his oldest child, Matty Lou, is Kate's double—a woman fully grown and sexually mature who looks just like her mother. Kate and Matty Lou—both moving with the “full-fronted motions of far-gone pregnancy” (IM, 47)—are the first human figures that Mr. Norton sees as he approaches the Trueblood property. The two bearers of new black life are engaged in a rite of purification, a workaday ritual of washing clothes in a huge boiling cauldron, which takes on significance as the men situate themselves in a semicircle near the porch where the “earth…was hard and white from where wash water had long been thrown” (IM, 51). In a sense the women (who flee behind the house at Norton's approach) are present, by ironic implication, as the sharecropper once more confessionally purges himself—as he, in vernacular terms, again “washes his dirty linen” before a white audience. Further, Matty Lou, as the object of Trueblood's incestuous desire, and Kate, as the irate agent of his punishment for fulfilling his desire, assume significant roles in his narrative.

The reversal of a traditional Freudian typology represented by Trueblood's dream encounter at the Broadnax Big House is reinforced by an implied parody of the Christian myth of the Fall.  6 For if the white Matty Lou becomes an ersatz Eve, the paradoxical recipient of the farmer's lust. Similarly, if Mr. Broadnax—an inhabitant of the sanctuarylike precincts of a house of “lighted candles and shiny furniture, and pictures on the walls, and soft stuff on the floor”—is the avenging father, or patriarch, of the dream, then the matriarchal Kate replaces him in exacting vengeance. The “fall” of Trueblood is thus enacted on two planes—on a dream level of Christian myth and on a quotidian level of southern black actuality. In its most intensely conscious and secular interpretation, the incestuous act is a rank violation that drives Kate to blind and murderous rage: “I heard Kate scream. It was a scream to make your blood run cold. It sounds like a woman who was watching a team of wild horses run down her baby chile and she caint move….She screams and starts to pickin' up the first thing that comes to her hand and throwin' it” (IM, 61).

The “doubleness” of Kate and Matty Lou is felt in the older woman's destructive and avenging energies, which elevate her to almost legendary proportions. Her woman's wrath as the sharecropper's illicit violation of “my chile!” spirals, inflating Kate to the metaphorical stature of an implacable executioner: “Then I sees her right up on me, big. She's swingin' her arms like a man swingin' a ten-pound sledge and I sees the knuckles of her hand is bruised and bleedin…and I sees her swing and I smells her sweat and…I sees that ax” (IM, 63). Trueblood tries to forestall Kate's punishing blow but, he says, he “might as well been pleadin' with a switch engine” (IM, 63). The ax falls, and the farmer receives the wound whose blood spills on Matty Lou. The wound becomes the “raw and moist” scar the protagonist notices when he first moves “up close” on the sharecropper (IM, 50).

Kate becomes not only an awesome agent of vengeance in the sharecropper's account but also the prime mover of the parodic ritual drama enacted in the chilly southern cabin. It is Kate's secular rage that results in the substitute castration-crucifixion represented by Trueblood's wound. She is the priestess who bestows the scarifying lines of passage, of initiation—the marks that forever brand the farmer as a “dirty lowdown wicked dog” (IM, 66). At her most severe, she is the moral, or socioreligious, agent of both Trueblood's “marking” and his exile. She banishes him from the community that rallies to support her in her sorrow. In keeping with her role as purifier—as supervisor of the wash—she cleans up the pollution, and dirt and danger, represented by Trueblood's taboo act.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that while Kate is a figure of moral outrage, she is also a fertile woman who, like her husband, provides “cultural gifts” in the form of new life. In her family manifestation, she is less a secular agent of moral justice than a sensitive, practical parent who turns away in sick disgust at the wound she inflicts on Trueblood. And though she first banishes the farmer, she also accepts his return, obeys his interdiction against abortions for herself and Matty Lou, and welcomes the material gains of that ironically accrue after Trueblood's fall from grace. The sharecropper says, “Except that my wife an daughter won't speak to me, I'm better off than I ever been before. And even if Kate won't speak to me she took the new clothes I brought her from up in town and now she's gettin' some eyeglasses made what she been needin' for so long” (IM, 67).

As a woman possessed of a practical (one might say a “blues”) sensibility, Kate knows than men are, indeed, sometimes “dirty lowdown wicked” dogs who can perceive a whore in a pigtailed girl. She is scarcely resigned to such a state of affairs where her own daughter is concerned but like the black mother so aptly described in Carolyn Rodger's poem “It Is Deep,” Kate knows that being “religiously girdled in her god”  7 will not pay the bills. She thus brings together the sacred and the secular, the moral and the practical, in a manner that makes her both a complement for Trueblood and (again in the words of Rodgers) a woman who “having waded through a storm, is very obviously, a sturdy Black bridge” (12).

To freight Trueblood's sexual manifestation and its complement in Kate with more significance than they can legitimately bear would be as much a critical disservice as were previous failures, or refusals, even to acknowledge these aspects. For while it is true that sexuality burdens the content of his narrative, it is also true that Trueblood himself metaphorically transforms his incestuous act into a single, symbolic instance of his total life situation:

There I was [atop Matty Lou] trying to git away with all my might, yet having to move without movin'. I flew in but I had to walk out. I had to move without movin'. I done thought ‘bout it since a heap, and when you think right hard you see that that's the way things is always been with me. That's just about been my life.

(IM, 59)

Like the formidable task of the Invisible man's grandfather, who gave up his gun during the Reconstruction but still had to fight a war, Trueblood's problem is that of getting out of a tight spot without undue motion—without perceivable moving. The grandfather adopted a strategy of extrication by indirection, pretending to affirm the designs of the dominant white society around him. Having relinquished his gun, he became “a spy in the enemy's country,” a man overcoming his adversaries with yeses. He represents the trickster as subtle deceiver. Trueblood, in contrast, claims that to “move without movin’” means to take a refractory situation uncompromisingly in hand: “You got holt to it,” he says, “and you caint let go even though you want to” (IM, 60). He conceives of himself in the throes of his incestuous ecstasies as “like that fellow…down in Birmingham. That one what locked hisself in his house and shot [with a gun that he had refused to give up] at them police until they set fire to the house and burned him up. I was lost” (IM, 60). An energetic, compulsive, even ecstatically expressive response is required:

Like that fellow [in Birmingham], I stayed….He mighta died, but I suspects now that he got a heapa satisfaction before he went. I know there ain't nothin' like what I went through, I caint tell how it was. It's like when a real drinkin' man gets drunk, or like a real sanctified religious woman gits so worked up she jumps outta her clothes, or when a real gamblin' man keeps on gamblin' when he's losing.

(IM, 60)
In his energetic response, Trueblood says a resounding no to all the castratingly tight spots of his existence as a poor black farmer in the undemocratic South.  8

The most discursively developed expressive form of this no is, of course, the narrative that Trueblood relates. But he has come to this narrative by way of music. He has fasted and reflected on his guilt or innocence until he thinks his “brains go'n bust,” and then, he recalls, “one night, way early in the morning', I looks up and sees the stars and starts singin'. I don't know what it was, some kinda church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin' the blues. I sings me some blues that night ain't never been sang before” (IM, 65–66). The first unpremeditated expression that Trueblood summons is a religious song. But the religious system that gives birth to the song is, presumably, one in which the term “incest” carries pejorative force. Hence, the sharecropper moves on, spontaneously, to the blues.

In The Legacy of the Blues, Samuel Charters writes:

Whatever else the blues was it was a language; a rich, vital, expressive language that stripped away the misconception that the black society in the United States was simply a poor, discouraged version of the white. It was impossible not to hear the differences. No one could listen to the blues without realizing that there are two Americas.

On the origins of this blues language, Giles Oakley quotes the blues singer Booker White: “You want to know where did the blues come from. The blues come from behind the mule. Well now, you can have the blues sitting at the table eating. But the foundation of the blues is walking behind the mule way back in slavery time” (Devil's Music, 7). The language that Trueblood summons to contain his act grows out of the soil he works, a soil that has witnessed the unrecompensed labor of many thousand blacks walking “behind the mule,” realizing, as they negotiated the long furrows, the absurdity of working from “can to caint” for the profit of others.

Born on a farm in Alabama and working, at the time of his incestuous act, as an impoverished, cold, poorly provisioned sharecropper, Trueblood has the inherent blues capacity of a songster like Lightnin' Hopkins, who asserts, “I had the one thing you need to be a blues singer. I was born with the blues” (Charters, 183). Originating in the field hollers and work songs of the agrarian South and becoming codified as stable forms by the second decade of the twentieth century, the blues offer a language that connotes a world of transience, instability, hard luck, brutalizing work, lost love, minimal security, and enduring human wit and resourcefulness in the face of disaster. The blues enjoin one to accept hard luck because, without it, there is “no luck at all.” The lyrics are often charged with a surreal humor that wonders if “a match box will hold my clothes.” In short, the “other America” that they signal is a world of common labor, spare circumstances, and grimly lusty lyrical challenges to a bleak fate.

In the system of the blues Trueblood finds the meet symbolic code for expressing the negativity of his own act. Since he is both a magical storyteller and a blues singer par excellence, he can incorporate the lean economics and fateful intranscience of the blues world into his autobiographical narrative. His metaphorical talent, which transforms a steamboat's musicians into a boss quail's whistle and then likens the actions of the quail to those of a good man who “do” what he “got to do,” reflects a basic understanding of the earthy resonances of blues. He says of his evenings listening to boats in Mobile:

They used to have musicianers on them boats, and sometimes I used to wake her [Margaret] up to hear the music when they come up the river. I'd be layin' there and it would be quiet and I could hear it comin' from way, way off. Like when you quail huntin' and it's getting dark and you can hear the boss bird whistlin' tryin' to get the covey together again, and he's coming toward you slow and whistlin' soft, ‘cause he knows you somewhere around with your gun. Still he got to round them up, so he keeps on comin’. Them boss quails is like a good man, what he got to do he do.

(IM, 55).
Further, the farmer begins his story by describing his desperate economic straits, like those frequently recorded in blues—that is, no wood for fuel and no work or aid to be found (IM, 53)—and then traces the outcome of his plight. Matty Lou is in bed with her mother and father because it is freezing: “It was so cold all of us had to sleep together; me, the ole lady and the gal. That's how it started” (IM, 53). It seems appropriate—even natural—that blues should expressively frame the act resulting from such bitter black agrarian circumstances. And it is, in fact, blues affirmation of human identity in the face of dehumanizing circumstance that resonates throughout the sharecropper's triumphant penultimate utterance: “I make up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself and ain't nothin' I can so but let whatever is gonna happen, happen” (IM, 66).

The farmer's statement is not an expression of transcendence. It is, instead, an affirmation of a still recognizable humanity by a singer who has incorporated his personal disaster into a code of blues meanings emanating from an unpredictably chaotic world. In translating his tragedy into the vocabulary and semantics of the blues and, subsequently, into the electrifying expression of his narrative, Trueblood realizes that he is not so changed by catastrophe that he must condemn, mortify, or redefine his essential self. This self, as the preceding, discussion indicates, is in many ways the obverse of the stable, predictable, puritanical, productive, law-abiding ideal self of the American industrialist-capitalist society.

The words the sharecropper issues for “behind the mule” provide a moral opposition (if not a moral corrective) to the confident expressions of control emanating from Mr. Norton's technological world. From a pluralistic perspective, the counteractive patterns represented by the sharecropper and the millionaire point to a positive homeostasis in American life. In the southern regions represented by Trueblood, an oppositional model might suggest, the duty-bound but enfeebled rationalist of northern industry can always achieve renewal and a kind of shamanistic cure for the ills of civilization. But the millionaire in the narrative episode hardly appears to represent a rejuvenated Fisher King. At the close of the sharecropper's story, in fact, he seems paralyzed by the ghostly torpor of a stunned Benito Cereno or a horrified Mr. Kurtz. Thus a pluralistic model that projects revivifying opposition as the relation between sharecropper and millionaire does not adequately explain the Norton-Trueblood interaction. Some of the more significant implications of the episode, in fact, seem to reside not in the opposition between industrial technocrat and agrarian farmer, but in the two sectors' commercial consensus on Afro-American expressive culture. Eshu and Hermes are not only figures of powerful creative instinct. They are also gods of the marketplace. Two analytical reflections on the study of literature and ideology, one by Fredric Jameson and the other by Hayden White, elucidate the commercial consensus achieved by Trueblood and his millionaire auditor.

Fredric Jameson writes:

The term “ideology” stands as the sign for a problem yet to be solved, a mental operation which remains to be executed. It does not presuppose cut-and-dried sociological stereotypes like the notion of the “bourgeois” or the “petty bourgeois” but is rather a mediatory concept: that is, it is an imperative to re-invent a relationship between the linguistic or aesthetic or conceptual fact in question and its social ground….Ideological analysis may…be described as the rewriting of a particular narrative trait or seme as a function of its social, historical, or political context.

(Jameson, 510–11)
Jameson's interest in a reinvented relation between linguistic fact and social ground is a function of his conviction that all acts of narration inscribe social ideologies. In other words, there is always a historical, or ideological, subtext in a literary work of art. For, since history is accessible to us only through texts, the literary work of art either has to “rewrite” the historical texts of its time or “textualize” the uninscribed events of its day in order to “contextualize” itself. What Jameson calls the “ideology of form” White calls “reflection theory.” If literary art can indeed be said to reflect, through inscription, the social ground from which it originates, at what level of a specifically social domain, asks White, does such reflection occur? How can we most appropriately view literary works of art as distinctively “social” entities?

White's answer is that ideological analysis must begin with a society's exchange system and must regard the literary work as “merely one commodity among others and moreover as a commodity that has to be considered as not different in kind from any other.” To adopt such an analytical strategy, according to White, is to comprehend “not only the alienation of the artist which the representation of the value of his product in terms of money alone might foster, but also the tendency of the artist to fetishize his own produce as being itself the universal sign and incarnation of value in a given social system” (White, 378). White could justifiably summon Ellison's previously quoted remarks on the transformative powers of art to illustrate the “fetishizing” of art as the incarnation of value. In Ellison's view, however, artistic value is not a sign or incarnation in a given social system but, rather, a sign of humane value in toto. What is pertinent about White's remarks for the present discussion, however, is that the relation Jameson would reinvent is for White an economic one involving challenging questions of axiology.

To apply Jameson's and White's reflections in analyzing the Trueblood episode, one can begin by recognizing that the sharecropper's achievement of expressive narrative form is immediately bracketed by the exchange system of Anglo-American society. Recalling his first narration of his story to a group of whites, the sharecropper remembers that Sheriff Barbour asked him to tell what happened:

…and I tole him and he called in some more men and they made me tell it again. They wanted to hear about the gal lots of times and they gimme somethin' to eat and drink and some tobacco. Surprised me, ‘cause I was scared and spectin’ somethin' different. Why, I guess there ain't a colored man in the county who ever got to take so much of the white folkses' time as I did.

(IM, 52).
Food, drink, tobacco, and audience time are commodities the sharecropper receives in barter for the commodity he delivers—his story. The narrative of incest, after its first telling, accrues an ever-spiraling exchange value. The Truebloods receive all the items enumerated earlier, as well as a one-hundred-dollar bill from Mr. Norton's Moroccan-leather wallet. The exchange value of the story thus moves from a system of barter to a money economy overseen by northern industrialists. The status of the farmer's story as a commodity cannot be ignored.

As an artistic form incorporating the historical and ideological subtext of American industrial society, the sharecropper's tale represents a supreme capitalist fantasy. The family, as the fundamental social unit of middle-class society, is governed by the property concept. A man marries—takes a wife as his exclusive “property”—to produce legitimate heirs who will keep their father's wealth (i.e., his property in the family. Among royalty of the aristocracy such marriages may describe an exclusive circle of exchange. Only certain women are eligible as royal or aristocratic wives. And in the tightest of all circumstances, incest may be justified as the sole available means of preserving intact the family heritage—the nobleman's or aristocrat's property. An unfettered, incestuous procreativity that results not only in new and legitimate heirs but also in a marked increase in property (e.g., Trueblood's situation) can be viewed as a capitalist dream. And if such results can be achieved without fear of holy sanction, then procreation becomes a secular feat of human engineering.

Mr. Norton reflects that his “real life's work” has been, not his banking or his researches, but his “first-hand organizing of human life” (IM. 42). What more exacting control could this millionaire New Englander have exercised than the incestuous domination of his own human family as a productive unit, eternally giving birth to new profits? Only terror of dreadful heavenly retribution (i.e., of punishment for “impropriety”) had prevented him from attempting such a construction of life with his pathetically idealized only child, now deceased. Part of his stupefaction at the conclusion of the sharecropper's narrative results from his realization that he might have safely effected such a productive arrangement of life. One need not belabor the capitalist-fantasy aspect of Trueblood's narrative, however, to comprehend his story's commodity status in an industrial-capitalist system of exchange. What the farmer is ultimately merchandising is an image of himself that is itself a product—a bizarre product—of the slave trade that made industrial America possible.

Africans became slaves through what the West Indian novelist George Lamming describes as an act of “commercial deportation” overseen by the white West (Lamming, 93). In America, Africans were classified as “chattel personal” and turned into commodities. To forestall the moral guilt associated with this aberrant, mercantile transformation, white Americans conceptualized a degraded, subhuman animal as a substitute for the actual African. This categorical parody found its public, physical embodiment in the mask of the minstrel theatrical. As Ellison writes in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” the African in America was thus reduced to a “negative sign” (S&A, 63): “the [minstrel] mask was the thing (the ‘thing’ in more ways than one) and its function was to veil the humanity of Negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience's awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask.” Following the lead of Constance Rourke, Ellison asserts that the minstrel show is, in fact, a “ritual of exorcism” (S&A, 64). But what of the minstrel performance given by the Afro-American who dons the mask? In such performances, writes Ellison:

Motives of race, status, economics and guilt are always clustered….The comic point is inseparable from the racial identity of the performer…who by assuming the group-debasing role for gain not only substantiates the audience's belief in the “blackness” of things black, but relieves it, with dreamlike efficiency, of its guilt by accepting the very profit motive that was involved in the designation of the Negro as a national scapegoat in the first place. There are all kinds of comedy; here one is reminded of the tribesman in Green Hills of Africa who hid his laughing face in shame at the sight of a gut-shot hyena jerking out its own intestines and eating them, in Hemingway's words, “with relish.”

(S&A, 64–65)

Trueblood, who assumes the minstrel mask to the utter chagrin of the Invisible man (“How can he tell this to white men, I thought, when he knows they'll say that all Negroes do such things?”), has indeed accepted the profit motive that gave birth to that mask in the first place. He tells his tale with relish: “He talked willingly now, with a kind of satisfaction and no trace of hesitancy or shame” (IM, 53). The firm lines of capitalist economics are, therefore, not the only ideological inscriptions in the sharecropper's narrative. The story also contains the distorting contours of that mask constructed by the directors of the economic system to subsume their guilt. The rambunctiously sexual, lyrical, and sin-adoring “darky” is an image dear to the hearts of white America.

Ideologically, then, there is every reason to regard the sharecropper's story as a commodity in harmony with its social ground—with the system of exchange sanctioned by the dominant Anglo-American society. For though Trueblood has been denied “book learning” by the nearby black college, he has not failed to garner some knowledge of marketing. Just as the college officials peddle the sharecropper's “primitive spirituals” to the white millionaires who descend every spring, so Trueblood sells his own expressive product—a carefully constructed narrative, framed to fit market demands. His actions as a merchant seem to compromise his status as a blues artist, as a character of undeniable folk authenticity. And his delineation as an untrammeled and energetic prime mover singing a deep blues no to social constraints appears to collapse under the impress of ideological analysis. The complexities of American culture, however, enable him to reconcile a merchandising role as oral storyteller with his position as an antinomian trickster. For the Afro-American blues manifest an effective, expressive duality that Samuel Charters captures as follows:

The blues has always had a duality to it. One of its sides is its personal creativity—the consciousness of a creative individual using it as a form of expression. The other side is the blues as entertainment. But the blues is a style of music that emphasizes integrity—so how does a singer change his style without losing his credibility as a blues artist?

(Charters, 168)

As entertainment, the blues, whether classic or country, were sung professionally in theaters.  9 And their public theatricality is analogous to the Afro-American's donning of the minstrel mask. There is, perhaps, something obscenely—though profitably—gut-wrenching about Afro-Americans delivering up carefully modified versions of their essential expressive selves for the entertainment of their Anglo-American oppressors. And, as Charters implies, the question of integrity looms large. But the most appropriate inquiry in the wake of his comment is, Integrity, as what?

To deliver the blues as entertainment—if one is an entertainer—is to maintain a fidelity to one's role. Again, if the performance required is that of a minstrel and one is a genuine performer, then donning the mask is an act consistent with one's stature. There are always fundamental economic questions involved in such uneasy' Afro-American public postures. As Ellison suggests, Afro-Americans, in their guise as entertainers, season the possum of black expressive culture to the taste of their Anglo-American audience, maintaining, in the process, their integrity as performers. But in private sessions—in the closed circle of their own community—everybody knows that the punch line to the recipe (and the proper response to the performer's constrictive dilemma) is, “Damn the possum! That sho' is some good gravy!” It is just possible that the “gravy” is the inimitable technique of the Afro-American artist, a technique (derived from lived blues experience) as capable of “playing possum” as of presenting one.

A further question, however, has to do with the artist's affective response to being treated as a commodity. And with this query, White's and Jameson's global formulations prove less valuable than a closer inspection of the self-reflexive expressivity of AfroAmerican spokespersons in general. Ellison's Trueblood episode, for example, suggests that the angst assumed to accompany commodity status is greatly alleviated when that status constitutes a sole means of securing power in a hegemonic system.

In the Trueblood episode, blacks who inhabit the southern college's terrain assume that they have transcended the peasant rank of sharecroppers and their cohorts. In fact, both the college's inhabitants and Trueblood's agrarian fellows are but constituencies of a single underclass. When the college authorities threaten the farmer with exile or arrest, he has only to turn to the white Mr. Buchanan, “the boss man,” to secure immunity and a favorable audience before Sheriff Barbour, “the white law” (IM, 52). The imperious fiats of whites relegate all blacks to an underclass. In Trueblood's words, “no matter how biggity a nigguh gits, the white folks can always cut him down” (IM, 53). For those in this underclass, Ellison's episode implies, expressive representation is the only means of prevailing.

Dr. Bledsoe, for example, endorses lying as an effective strategy in interacting with Mr. Norton and the other college trustees. And Trueblood himself adopts tale telling (which is often conflated with lying in black oral tradition) as a mode of expression that allows him a degree of dignity and freedom within the confines of a severe white hegemony. The expressive “mask,” one might say, is as indispensable for college blacks as it is for those beyond the school's boundaries. Describing the initial meeting between Mr. Norton and the sharecropper, the protagonist says, “I hurried behind him [Mr. Norton], seeing him stop when he reached the man and the children. They became silent, their faces clouding over, their features becoming soft and negative, their eyes bland and deceptive. They were crouching behind their eyes waiting for him to speak—just as I recognized that I was trembling behind my own” (IM, 50). The evasive silence of these blacks is as expressive of power relations in the South as the mendacious strategy advocated by Dr. Bledsoe.

When the protagonist returns from his ill-fated encounters with Trueblood and the crew at the Golden Day, the school's principal asks him is he is unaware that blacks have “lied enough decent homes and drives [got enough material advantage by lying] for you to show him [Mr. Norton]” (IM, 136). When the protagonist responds that he was obeying Mr. Norton's orders by showing the millionaire the “slum” regions of Trueblood rather than “decent homes and drives,” Bledsoe exclaims, “He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it's a habit with them….My God, boy! You're black and living in the South—did you forget how to lie?” (IM, 136).

Artful evasion and expressive illusion are equally traditional black expressive modes in interracial exchange in America. Such modes, the Trueblood episode implies, are the only resources that blacks at any level can barter for a semblance of decency and control in their lives. Making black expressiveness a commodity, therefore, is not simply a gesture in a bourgeois economics of art. Rather, it is a crucial move in a repertoire of black survival motions in the United States. To examine the status of Afro-American expressiveness as a commodity, then, is to do more than observe, within the constraints of an institutional theory of art, that the art world is a function of economics. In a very real sense, AfroAmerica's exchange power has always been coextensive with its stock of expressive resources. What is implicit in an analysis of black expressiveness as a commodity is not a limited history of the “clerks” but a total history of Afro-American cultural interaction in America.

In When Harlem Was in Vogue—a brilliant study that treats the black artistic awakening of the 1920s known as the “Harlem Renaissance”—David Levering Lewis captures the essential juxtaposition between white hegemony and black creativity as a negotiable power of exchange. Writing of Charles Johnson, the energetic black editor of Opportunity magazine during this period, Lewis says:

[Johnson] gauged more accurately than perhaps any other Afro-American intellectual the scope and depth of the national drive to “put the nigger in his place” after the war, to keep him out of the officer corps, out of labor unions and skilled job, out of the North and quaking for his very existence in the South—and out of politics everywhere. Johnson found that one area alone—probably because of its very implausibility—had not been proscribed. No exclusionary rules had been laid down regarding a place in the arts. Here was a small crack in the wall of racism, a fissure that was worth trying to widen.

“Exclusionary rules” were certainly implicit in the arts during the 1920s, but what Lewis suggests is that they were far less rigid and explicit than they were in other domains. Blacks thus sought to widen the “fissure,” to gain what power they could to determine their own lives, through a renaissance of black expressiveness.

An ideological analysis of expressiveness as a commodity should take adequate account of the defining variables in the culture where this commercialization occurs. In AfroAmerican culture, exchanging words for safety and profit is scarcely an alienating act. It is, instead, a defining act in aesthetics. Further, it is an act that lies at the heart of AfroAmerican politics conceived in terms of who gets what and when and how. Making a commodity of black expressiveness, as I try to make clear in my concluding section, does entail inscription of an identifying economics. But aggressively positive manifestations of this process (despite the dualism it presupposes) result from a self-reflexive acknowledgment that only the “economics of slavery” gives valuable and specifically black resonance to Afro-American works of art.

The critic George Kent observes a “mathematical consistency between Ellison's pronouncements and his creative performance” (Kent, 161). Insofar as Ellison provides insightful critical interpretations of his own novel and its characters, Kent's judgment is correct. But the “critical pronouncements” in Ellison's canon that suggests a devaluing of Afro-American folklore hardly seem consistent with the implications of his Trueblood episode. Such statements are properly regarded, I believe, as public remarks by Ellison the merchant rather than as incisive, affective comments by Ellison the creative genius.

Trueblood's duality is, finally, also that of his creator. For Ellison knows that his work as an Afro-American artist derives from those “economics of slavery” that provided conditions of existence for Afro-American folklore. Black folk expression is a product of the impoverishment of blacks in American. The blues, as a case in point, are unthinkable for those happy with their lot.

Yet, if folk artists are to turn a profit from their monumental creative energies (which are often counteractive, or inversive, vis-à-vis Anglo-American culture), they must take a lesson from the boss quail and “move without moving.” They must, in essence, sufficiently modify their folk forms (and amply advertise themselves) to merchandise such forms as commodities in the artistic market. To make their products commensurate with a capitalistic marketplace, folk artists may even have to don masks that distort their genuine selves. Ralph Ellison is a master of such strategies.

Ellison reconciles the trickster's manifestations as untrammeled creator and as god of the marketplace by providing critical advertisements for himself as a novelist that carefully bracket the impoverishing economics of Afro-America. For example, in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” he writes, “I use folklore in my work not because I am a Negro, but because writers like Eliot and Joyce made me conscious of the literary value of my folk inheritance. My cultural background, like that of most Americans, is dual (my middle name, sadly enough, is Waldo)” (S&A, 72).  10 What is designed in this quotation as “literary value” is in reality market value. Joyce and Eliot taught Ellison that if he was a skillful enough strategist and spokesman he could market his own folklore. What is bracketed, of course, is the economics that required Ellison, if he wished to be an Afro-American artist, to turn to Afro-American folklore as a traditional, authenticating source for his art. Like his sharecropper, Ellison is wont to make literary value out of socioeconomic necessity. But he is also an artist who recognizes that Afro-American folk forms have value in themselves; they “have named human situations so well,” he suggests in “The Art of Fiction,” that a whole corps of writers could not exhaust their universality” (S&A, 173). What Ellison achieves in the Trueblood episode is a dizzying hall of mirrors, a redundancy of structure, that enables him to extend the value of Afro-American folk forms by combining them with an array of Western narrative forms and tropes. Written novel and sung blues, polysyllabic autobiography and vernacular personal narrative, a Christian Fall and an inversive triumph of the black trickster—all are conjoined in a magnificently embedded manner.

The foregoing analysis suggests that it is in such creative instances that one discovers Ellison's artistic genius, a genius that links him inextricably and positively to his invented sharecropper. For in the Trueblood episode conceived as a chapter in a novel, one finds not only the same kind of metaexpressive commentary that marks the character's narration to Norton but also the same type of self-reflexive artist that the sharecropper's recitation implies—an artist who is fully aware of the contours and limitations, the rewards and dilemmas, of the Afro-American's uniquely expressive craft.

In the expository, critical moment, by contrast, one often finds a quite different Ralph Ellison. Instead of the reflexive artist, one finds the reflective spokesman. Paraphrasing Babcock-Abrahams, who uses a “failed” Narcissus to illustrate the difference between the “reflective” and the “reflexive,” one might say that in his criticism Ralph Ellison is not narcissistic enough (“Reflexivity,” 4). His reflections in Shadow and Act seem to define Afro-American folk expressiveness in art as a sign of identity, a sign that marked the creator as unequivocally Afro-American and, hence, other. I have sought to demonstrate, however, that Ellison's folk expressiveness is, in fact, “identity within difference.” While critics experience alienation, artists can detach themselves from, survive, and even laugh at their initial experiences of otherness. Like Velazquez in his Las Meninas or the Van Eyck of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, the creator of Trueblood is “conscious of being self-conscious of himself” as artist.  11 Instead of solacing himself with critical distinctions, he employs reflexivity mirroring narratives to multiply distinctions and move playfully across categorical boundaries. Like his sharecropper, he knows indisputably that his most meaningful identity is his Afro-American self image in acts of expressive creativity.

Ralph Ellison's bracketings as a public critic, therefore, do not forestall his private artistic recognition that he “ain't nobody but himself.” And it is out of this realization that a magnificent folk creation such as Trueblood emerges. Both the creator and his agrarian folk storyteller have the wisdom to know that they are resourceful “whistlers” for the tribe. They know that their primary matrix as artists is coextensive not with a capitalistic society but with material circumstances like those implied by the blues singer Howard Wolf:

Well I'm a po' boy, long way from home.
Well, I'm a po' boy, long was from home.
No spendin' money in my pocket, no spare meat on my bone.
(Nicholas, 85).

One might say that in the brilliant reflexivity of the Trueblood encounter, we hear the blues whistle among the high-comic thickets. We glimpse Ellison's creative genius beneath his Western critical mask. And while we stand awaiting the next high-cultural pronouncement from the critic, we are startled by a captivating sound of flattened thirds and sevenths—the private artist's blues-filled flight.


1. Ralph Ellison Shadow and Act, 82–83. This work comprises the bulk of Ellison's critical canon. All subsequent references to this work are cited in text as S&A.

2. Ellison, Invisible Man, 55. All subsequent references to this work are cited in text as IM.

3. One of the general questions provoking Freud's inquiry into totemism is “What is the ultimate source of the horror of incest which must be recognized as the root of exogamy?” Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo. 122, 141–46.

4. Paul Radin, The Trickster, Tale 16. Originally published in 1955 in London by Routledge & Kcgan Paul, it has been reprinted several times, the most recent by Schockcn Books, Inc. in 1972.

5. For a stimulating discussion of the trickster in his various literary and nonliterary guises, consult Barbara Babcock-Abraham's provocative essay, “‘A Tolerated Margin of Mess’: The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 11 (1974): 147–86. She writes, “In contrast to the scapegoat or tragic victim, trickster belongs to the comic modality or marginality where violation is generally the precondition for laughter and communitas, and there tends to be an incorporation of the outsider, a leveling of hierarchy, a reversal of statues” (153).

6. I had enlightening conversations with Kimberly Benston on the Trueblood episode's parodic representation of the Fall, a subject that he explores as some length in a critical work in progress. I am grateful for his generous help.

7. See Carolyn Rodgers, How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems, 11.

8. The significance of the sharecropper's incestuous progeny may be analogous to that of the broken link of leg chain given to the Invisible Man during his early days in the Brotherhood. Presenting the link. Brother Tarp says, “I don't think of it in terms of but two words, yes and no, but it signifies a heap more” (IM, 379).

9. Ellison introduces this claim, which contradicts LeRoi Jones's assertations on blues, in a review of Jones's book Blues People in Shadow and Act, 249.

10. The implicit “trickiness” of Ellison's claim—its use of words to “signify” quite other than what they seem to intend on the surface—is an aspect of the Afro-American “critic as trickster.” In “The Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” a paper presented at the Modern Language Association Convention, New York, December 30, 1981, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., began an analysis—in quite suggestive terms—of the trickster's “semiotic” manifestation. For Gates, the Afro-American folk figure of the “signifying monkey” is an archetype of the AfroAmerican critic. In the essays “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” and “The World and the Jug,” Ellison demonstrates, one can certainly conclude, an elegant mastery of what might be termed the “exacerbating strategies” of the monkey. Perhaps one also hears his low Afro-American voice directing a sotto voce “Yo' Mamma!” at heavyweights of the Anglo-American critical establishment.

11. “Reflexivity,” 4. One of the most intriguing recent discussions of the Velazquez painting is Michel Foucault's in The Order of Things, 3–16. Jay Ruby briefly discusses the Van Eyck in the introduction to his anthology, A Crack in the Mirror. 12–13.


Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara. “The Novel and the Carnival World.” Modern Language Notes 89 (1974): 912.
___. “Reflexivity: Definitions and Discriminations.” Semiotica 30 (1980): 4.
Charters, Samuel. The Legacy of the Blues: Lives of Twelve Great Bluesmen. New York: DaCapo 1977.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1974.
___. Shadow and Act. New York: Signet-NAL, 1966.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Random House, 1973.
Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1950.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic, 1973.
Jameson, Fredric. “The Symbolic Inference; or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis.” Critical Inquiry 4 (1978): 510–11.
Kent, George. Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture. Chicago: Third World, 1972.
Lamming, George. Season of Adventure. London: Allison and Busby, 1979. Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Nicholas, A.S., ed. Woke Up This Mornin': Poetry of the Blues. New York: Bantam, 1973.
Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: Harvest, 1976.
Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1955.
Rodgers, Carolyn. How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Ruby, Jay ed. A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.
___. “Myth and Symbol.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Vol. 10. New York: Free Press, 1986.
White, Hayden. “Literature and Social Action: Reflections on the Reflection Theory of Literary Art.” New Literary History 12 (1980): 378.

From PMLA 98 (October 1983), 828–845.

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The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison --


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