In his introduction to Shadow and Act (1964), Ralph Ellison describes the essays to come as ‘‘an attempt to transform some of the themes, the problems, the enigmas, the contradictions of character and culture native to my predicament, into what Andre Malraux has described as ‘conscious thought.’’’
This collection consists of essays written over two decades, spanning Ellison’s growth as a literary and social critic, his rise to recognition as a serious fiction writer, and his establishment as a thinker and teacher. The essays are divided thematically into three sections; as the author summarizes, they are ‘‘concerned with literature and folklore, with Negro musical expression—especially jazz and the blues— and with the complex relationship between the Negro subculture and North America as a whole.’’
The bulk of the collection consists of the first section, ‘‘The Seer and the Seen,’’ in which Ellison uses interviews and essays to address his personal experience of being what he calls ‘‘Negro American,’’ of African descent, but specifically American. He draws on classic American authors, particularly Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Richard Wright, and both lauds and criticizes them in an effort to represent his experience. ‘‘Sound and the Mainstream’’ explores the way music is fundamental to his life and chronicles the careers and influence of several artists.
Shadow and the Act draws on different aspects of the way African American and Caucasian AmeriS can culture intersect. In keeping with his lifelong commitment to representing the individual with integrity, Ellison draws on personal anecdotes as well as his sophisticated analyses of literary and musical culture in an effort to chronicle his experience of being an African American.
The title Shadow and Act is drawn from a movie review Ellison wrote in 1948 for Magazine of the Year entitled ‘‘The Shadow and the Act.’’ The title makes reference to the disparity between screen images of African Americans, in effect mere shadows of real people designed to suit the ideas of the mainstream, and the reality of African-American life. The collection as a whole is aimed at representing the same disparity on a broader level; drawing on American folklore, ritual, literature, and music, Ellison illustrates the complicated relationship between American culture as a whole and what he calls the Negro-American subculture. In the course of essays, reviews, and interviews written over twenty-two years, Ellison demonstrates his evolution as a writer and a thinker, makes observations about American culture as a whole, and in particular, represents autobiographically his experience of being black in America.
Section One: ‘‘The Seer and the Seen’’
The first section of Shadow and Act is comprised of ten pieces mainly concerning fiction and folklore. In the interviews, ‘‘That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure’’ and ‘‘The Art of Fiction,’’ as well as in the speech, ‘‘Brave Words for a Startling Occasion,’’ Ellison discusses his influences and evolution as a writer, culminating in his novel Invisible Man. ‘‘Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity’’ and ‘‘Beating That Boy’’ concern ways that modern fiction writers struggle with how to represent African Americans in fiction. Ellison discusses the ways black Americans, by definition, challenge American cultural assumptions, and the responsibility of black and white writers alike in representing them. ‘‘Hidden Name and Complex Fate’’ is a discussion of the power of names, and of the act of naming, which is by definition the work of the novelist. ‘‘Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction’’ is Ellison’s introduction to the 1960 release of The Red Badge of Courage, in which he lauds the author’s skills, focused mainly on his use of moral imperative in his fiction. ‘‘Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke’’ is a response to Stanley Edgar Hyman’s assertions about the function of the ‘‘darky entertainer’’ in American culture. In his response, Ellison outlines his thesis that the comical image of the minstrel serves to invert white America’s guilt over slavery into laughter, and thus absolve the culture through identification. ‘‘Richard Wright’s Blues’’ is Ellison’s contention that the autobiographical Black Boy fits the definition of the blues, in the sense that the blues amount to the lyrical expression of individual pain and tragedy. ‘‘The Word and the Jug,’’ by contrast, is a response to critic Irving Howe’s assertion that Wright is a better and more culturally responsible writer than Ellison and James Baldwin. In the essay, Ellison discusses the ways that Wright’s writing falls short of major modern fiction because of its adherence to ideology, and he contends that social critics fall prey to the tendency to view minorities as isolated entities, rather than as part of the larger American culture.
Section Two: ‘‘Sound and the Mainstream’’
Part 2 of Shadow and Act is concerned with music, particularly jazz and blues, as expressions of African-American culture. ‘‘Living With Music’’ is Ellison’s account of the music in his neighborhood and how, although it can be cause for writer’s block, it is integral to his life. ‘‘The Golden Age, Time Past’’ is a nostalgic look at Minton’s Playhouse, the site of the evolution of jazz culture in New York. In ‘‘As the Spirit Moves Mahalia,’’ Ellison praises and chronicles the rise of Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who, despite her mastery of jazz and blues, maintains the church as her forum. ‘‘On Bird, Bird- Watching, and Jazz,’’ he speculates on the way that Charlie Parker, although preoccupied with avoiding the role of performer, effectively made his entire life a performance through his infamous wild behavior. Ellison essentially eulogizes jazz guitarist Charlie Christian and blues singer Jimmy Rushing in ‘‘The Charlie Christian Story’’ and ‘‘Remembering Jimmy.’’ In ‘‘Blues People,’’ Ellison takes writer LeRoi Jones to task for his limited vision in establishing blues in the context of American culture. Ralph Ellison
Section Three: ‘‘The Shadow and the Act’’
In the final section of Shadow and Act, Ellison considers the way African-American culture is both integrally a part of, but deeply misunderstood by, the mainstream. ‘‘Some Questions and Some Answers’’ is an interview in which Ellison espouses his notion that African-American culture is an outgrowth of and a response to the larger American culture and the ways it is impossible for the two to be mutually exclusive. ‘‘The Shadow and the Act’’ is Ellison’s response to several films that depict African Americans in new, though limited, ways. ‘‘The Way It Is’’ summarizes an interview with a middle-aged black woman in an effort to chronicle the effects of World War II, poverty, and discrimination on the average African American. In ‘‘Harlem Is Nowhere,’’ the author describes the work of the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic, a clinic that meets the needs of the chronically mentally ill in Harlem, and the ways that disenfranchisement of the African-American subculture has created conditions that foster mental illness. Finally, ‘‘An American Dilemma: A Review’’ is Ellison’s indictment of the attempt at practicing sociology in a vacuum. Once again he contends that African-American culture cannot be understood as simply a social pathology, but as interactive with and inextricably a part of American culture as a whole.
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