Ralph Ellison: Criticism
In 1955, Ellison was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and spent two years studying in Rome. Back in the United States, a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till was savagely murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. A few months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Civil Rights Movement was officially underway. And that's when Ellison's relationship with black America got really complicated.
Ellison believed in equality between the races. He supported non-violent, moderate groups like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was not a fan of radical groups that emerged later in the movement, such as the Black Panthers. Ellison's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, has pointed out that Ellison's distaste for radicalism wasn't unusual for black people of his age, who were a little older when the Civil Rights Movement started, and felt like the fiery stuff was better left to a younger crowd.
But to a new generation, Ellison's talk about getting along with white people and having blacks "fit in" to white society just missed the point. They felt he didn't understand them, and had compromised his identity as a black man in exchange for acceptance by white society. "There is a sense of anger with Ellison that he has sold out, that he has not dealt with things as they are, that he says little to Black people today and that he is dated in his outlook," wrote the African-American critic Ernest Kaiser in a 1970 essay. "There is in Invisible Man a sense of accommodation and willingness to try and change the prevalent white views...this is out-of-date with the current mood of young Black people in general."
The personal attacks deeply wounded Ellison—his biographer recounts a time when the author broke down in tears after a young black man at a party accused him of being an "Uncle Tom." Ellison made clear that he was not an ideologue, nor a politician, and was not going to speak like one in public. His first obligation, he said, was to art. Everything else was secondary. He later explained:
"Do you still ask why Hemingway was more important to me than Wright? Not because he was white, or more 'accepted.' But because he appreciated the things of this earth which I love and which Wright was too driven or deprived or inexperienced to know… But most important because Hemingway was a greater artist than Wright, who although a Negro like myself, and perhaps a great man, understood little if anything of these, at least to me, important things."14