Ellison’s life and the two decades during which Shadow and Act was written span a pivotal period in United States history, one full of change and activity. Born only half a century after the end of the Civil War, Ellison’s world was still resonating with the effects of the conflict. In the South, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, enforcing strict segregation between blacks and whites. Abolition of slavery crippled the South economically, and rampant poverty was the result. A rise in northern industry after the turn of the century followed and, consequently, so did a migration of southern blacks to northern urban centers.
The outcome of such a migration was manifold. On one hand, the 1920s marked a period of artistic experimentation during which African-American culture came into vogue. This national temperament, combined with a trend toward altruism and philanthropy on the part of many wealthy, white northerners, resulted in what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, a period during which African-American art and literature flourished. On the other hand, the movement disrupted family traditions from the South and set many African Americans adrift without family support, and the flood of labor to the North resulted in eventual unemployment and poverty. Two major events eventually helped to improve civil rights for African Americans: the Great Depression, which began with the stock market crash of 1929 and continued throughout the 1930s, bringing...
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Point of View
Many of the pieces that appear in Shadow and Act are drawn from progressive, left-leaning publications such as New Challenge, associated with the labor/communist parties. Some others are interviews and articles for literary magazines or publications with an educated, cultured bent. Hence, many of the pieces come from a first or third person, didactic point of view. They are straightforward and literal in tone, assuming an informed, educated audience. They also assume interest in and familiarity with the basics of civil rights issues, popular music, literature, and culture. Ellison makes the point that although his novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award, most African Americans (at the time of the interview) don’t know who he is. This point indicates that although he is African American himself, his ongoing dialogue about the status of race relations in the United States is not necessarily a part of the popular black subculture or the mainstream.
One of Ellison’s techniques for locating race issues in American culture is by alluding to the work of other writers. In some essays, in particular ‘‘Twentieth- Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,’’ he criticizes Twain, Hemingway, and Faulkner for portraying African Americans as only partial characters, not even human. At other points, generally later in his career, he embraces aspects of these authors’ works,...
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Compare and Contrast
1939: With the onset of World War II, African Americans call for the desegregation of the U.S. military. While blacks are allowed to serve, they are only allowed to serve in non-combat and support roles. Some gains are made during the war; for example, although it is very controversial, black pilots train at Tuskegee University to fight in the conflict.
Today: The U.S. military has been entirely desegregated since 1948.
1949: Films such as Intruder in the Dust and Home of the Brave depict African Americans in supporting roles and as caricatures.
Today: African Americans, such as Denzel Washington, star in mainstream box office hits and deliver Academy Award–winning performances.
1950s: In the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court rules that racial segregation in education is unconstitutional. Opposition to the ruling is huge, and organizations such as the White Citizens Council effectively keep schools segregated.
Today: All schools in the United States are desegregated and reflect the racial makeup of their communities. Poorer areas with a higher percentage of minorities, however, tend to have overcrowded schools with poorer quality education.
1950s: A fourteen-year-old boy is murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Today: Although such hate crimes are far...
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Topics for Further Study
Research and read some of the work of Richard Wright. In what ways did Wright and Ellison differ in style and philosophy?
Investigate the ideology of the black power movement. In what ways might Ellison’s politics be scrutinized by organizations affiliated with this movement?
Consider Ellison’s assertions about the ways jazz and blues are musical expressions of African- American culture. In what ways do more recent forms of music, such as rap and hip hop, express the African-American culture of today?
Choose a work by Twain or Faulkner that features an African-American character. Is the life of this character realistically portrayed?
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What Do I Read Next?
The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995) brings together many of the essays that appear in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory with previously unpublished essays and interviews.
Invisible Man (1953) is Ellison’s National Book Award–winning novel about a young African- American man’s search for identity through his encounters with both southern and northern culture.
In The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy (1970), Albert Murray dispels racist mythology with alternative African-American folklore.
Uncle Tom’s Children is Richard Wright’s 1938 collection of stories depicting the struggles of African Americans before the civil rights movement.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bigsby, C. W. E., ‘‘Improvising America: Ralph Ellison and the Paradox of Form,’’ in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, p. 137.
Elliot, George P., ‘‘Portrait of a Man on His Own,’’ in New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1964.
Staples, Brent, ‘‘Indivisible Man,’’ in New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1996.
Wright, John, ‘‘Slipping the Yoke,’’ in Speaking for You: The Vision of Ralph Ellison, edited by Kimberly W. Benston, Howard University Press, 1987, p. 65.
Bloom, Harold, Ralph Ellison, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Bloom’s text is a collection of critical essays on Ellison’s fiction and non-fiction.
Butler, Robert J., The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison, Greenwood Press, 2000. This work is a collection of critical essays on Ellison’s work that were published since the release of his posthumously published work.
Nadel, Alan, Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon, University of Iowa Press, 1988. Nadel offers a collection of essays addressing Ellison’s ambivalent relationship to other prominent American authors, including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner.
Woodward, C. Vann, The Strange Career of...
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