Historical Context

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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 poverty to whites and blacks alike; and World War II, which began in 1939 and ended in 1945. During the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration created federally funded job programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and made jobs within these programs available to blacks. In 1937, after strenuous work on the part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Hugo Black became the first African-American appointee to the United States Supreme Court. World War II marked an increased call to desegregate the armed forces, an act that was finalized in 1948 by Harry Truman.

The culmination of events known as the civil rights movement, or black freedom movement, began in 1954 with the outcome of the United States Supreme Court case, Brown v. the Board of Education, which declared the racial segregation of education unconstitutional. The year 1955 saw the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, take place; this event eventually resulted in the desegregation of buses in 1956. In 1957, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group committed to the non-violent direct action and boycotts that characterized the late 1950s and early 1960s. August 1963 marked the March on Washington, at which Dr. King delivered his ‘‘I Have A Dream’’ speech. The march was partially responsible for a new civil rights law proposed by President John F. Kennedy, which was later pushed through after Kennedy’s assassination by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited all forms of racial discrimination.

Literary Style

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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...

(This entire section contains 319 words.)

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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, and in fact, in ‘‘The World and the Jug’’ claims them as his ‘‘literary ancestors,’’ writers to whose level he aspires. Ellison demonstrates similar ambivalence about the work of his contemporary, Richard Wright. While in ‘‘Richard Wright’s Blues’’ he lauds Wright’s work as effective confrontation of white America with the brutal conditions for African Americans, in other pieces, he faults Wright for sacrificing quality writing in favor of ideology. These allusions serve as evidence of Ellison’s cultural assertions, a springboard for his ideas, and a measure for his own writing.

Compare and Contrast

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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 more rare, they still occur. For example, in 1998, James Byrd Jr., an African-American man from Texas, is dragged to his death behind a truck driven by three white men.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
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 Jim Crow, Oxford University Press, 1966. Woodward’s book is the definitive work detailing the relationship between the civil rights movement and the decades of segregation that preceded it.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide