20 November, 2012
African American Literature
The Great Migration, Alienation, and Reincarnation in Baldwin & Ellison: An Atypical Comparison
The great migration of roughly 1.6 million blacks to the Northern U.S (Historical Census), and most notably New York City in the early nineteen-hundreds eventually culminated in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which brought forth an enormous influx of artistic accomplishments generated by a new generation of African American musicians, artists, writers, poets and playwrights (Huggins). This exciting and new movement was unique in that it longed for the development of a new identity of what it is to be “black” in America, while still holding high hopes for future generations of African Americans. However, while this movement was certainly among the most socially progressive and significant moments and African American history, it still recognized a rich historical identity and seldom failed to emphasize its roots in the South.
Literature generated during this time period especially perpetuated and embraced the importance of recognizing the deep seeded history of black Americans and often emphasized the fact that any attempt to divorce or ignore this rich past is inherently an exercise in futility and would ultimately lead to the failure of developing a true sense of self for African Americans within the new social constructs of the twentieth century (Macey). Novels such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin both feature characters who are internally struggling to identify themselves within these newly developed social constructs, however find it impossible to do so without supplementing this self-exploration with a strong understanding of the implications of their cultural history and how it effects the decisions they make in the present. Moreover, this understanding allows the characters to enhance their own ability to better recognize African Americans’ place in white society, and determine what from that history they must essentially discard or embrace in order to advance socially as a people.
In Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, he explores many of the political aspects and concerns for African Americans of the early twentieth century. At the beginning of the novel we meet the narrator (who is never given a name) who is an intelligent and charismatic young black man with an affinity for public speaking. Early on, Ellison embeds a prominent black historical figure within the plot of the novel, referencing Booker T. Washington often, and citing him as a forerunner for the narrator’s inspiration.
“ …[T]he narrator remembers that as a young man about to graduate high school ‘I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington,” who hoped to follow his idol’s advice and perhaps emulate his career (Kostelanetz, 172)”. Ellison’s narrator even adopts much of the language Washington was famous for in the speech the narrator gives following his high school graduation that occurs at the beginning of the novel, and even quotes Washington verbatim: “We of the young generation extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator,’ I shouted… a ship lost at sea for many days suddenly a friendly vessel From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: water, water ; we die of thirst! The answer from the friendly vessel came back: Cast down your bucket where you are…” (Ellison, 30). The more compelling use of Washington’s words during this scene, however, comes with the use of the word ‘social responsibility’. The narrator repeats this phrase several times and receives praise from the audience, however he eventually allows his words to slip and instead, says ‘social equality’, to which the audience responds by angry jeers from the crowd” (Ellison, 31).
The fact that the narrator is greeted with immense and wide spread praise by the white people in the audience when he urges his black...