Ralph Ellison, born in 1913, was a novelist, scholar, social and cultural critic, trumpet player, sculptor, and photographer. His novel Invisible Man, published in 1953, is a densely layered modernist narrative that resists all fixed interpretation. A poll of 200 literary critics in 1967 found it to be the greatest novel written by an American since the end of WW2. References to African-American folk tales and traditions coexist with influences from such works as T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” the first reading of which was, according to Ellison, a “moment of awakening.” In his psyche, James Joyce shared a table at a bar with Charlie Parker. During the 1930s, Ellison had been a fellow traveller of the Communist party, but, unlike the majority of writers with whom he had been associated at that time, he never defined himself as a “social realist.” This youthful experiment with ideological excess left him with a deep skepticism about purely intellectual systems of belief; direct action, to be effective, should be motivated by the call to shared sacrifice, a willingness to speak truth to power. ((In a famous argument, when Hannah Arendt criticized black parents for endangering their children by sending them off on Freedom Rides, he counseled against false caution, and he pointed her toward the long tradition of African-American resistance, in which even the most modest of gains had been purchased at great cost. Arendt later apologized.)) In his view, however, people’s animosities were as tangled as their affinities. No dialectic would mechanically unfold, nor could an ideology mandate progress. Rather than being the predictable result of four centuries of institutionalized violence and injustice, he argued that “much in Negro life remains a mystery.” An intricate web connected things, such that African-American culture defined mainstream U.S. culture as much as it was defined by it. For Ellison, liberation was, of necessity, a matter of personal development, vision, discipline, and virtue. The Invisible Man is invisible not only because his true nature goes unrecognized by society at large but also because so much of his life takes place at a great depth.
Amiri Baraka, born LeRoi Jones in 1934, was a poet, playwright, cultural and music critic, and social activist, for whom poetry was a weapon. He believed that any metaphorical revolt should be followed, in due course, by a physical one. In 1954, after being discharged from the US Air Force for possession of communist literature, he moved to Greenwich Village, where he met many avant-garde poets and developed a passion for blues and jazz. Totem Press, which he co-founded with his first wife Hettie Cohen, published Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and a number of other Beat writers. Like Ginsberg, Baraka was a seminal figure in the formation of the 1960s counterculture, and much of his writing shares the explosive, open-ended energy of this period. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, but in keeping with the root meaning of “revolution,” the way forward over the barricades led in a complex curve back to Africa. Baraka was a founder or co-founder of a number of organizations, including the New York Poets Theatre, the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School, and the Spirit House Players, the last two of which performed edgy, confrontational, socially-engaged works, focusing on such topics as police brutality. If his call to arms did not lead to the revolution he expected, and instead to that of Reagan, his ritual gestures again speak to the violence of the moment. Baraka is credited with having helped to close the gap between written and oral literature, and he is seen as the direct predecessor of both Spoken Word and Rap.
The opposition of Ellison to Baraka is almost too perfect in its symmetry, as if it had been engineered to illustrate some sociopolitical theory. If only the two writers had been able to actually meet or correspond or debate in public forums, each might have served as a valuable catalyst for the other. A space might have opened up beyond what might be seen as a ritualized Oedipal conflict. In this space, Baraka might have shared with Ellison some portion of his experimental energy and Ellison might have shared with Baraka some portion of his subtlety, his sense of the irreducible complexity of the world.
In 1958, when Baraka was still LeRoi Jones, he did make several attempts to reach out to the older writer, whom he then admired. He wrote to Ellison, praising his two essays on jazz, and shortly afterward sent him a copy of Yugen, a Beat magazine that he was editing. For whatever reason, Ellison did not respond. After this, a good number of years went by during which they did not comment publicly on each other’s work. Then, in his 1964 review of Baraka’s (then still Jones’s) Blues People, Ellison wrote, among other things, that Jones’s “scholarly analysis frequently shatters into the dissonance of accusation,” and also that “The tremendous burden of sociology which Jones would place upon this body of music is enough to give the blues the blues.” One would think that such sharp words would have been enough to prompt a counterattack or a defense of aesthetic principles, but Baraka did not choose to respond. In his 1965 essay “LeRoi Jones Talking,” however, he wrote that Ellison’s fate in American letters was “a cautionary tale, that of a black man isolated and enshrined in the lily-white academy and unable to generate more significant writing.” Sadly, the distance between the two writers was too rigid and too great.
Romare Bearden, Train Whistle Blues, 1979
In their debate at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute, Greg Tate and Greg Thomas have attempted to correct history by staging an exchange of perspectives as it could and perhaps should have occurred. In their re-imagination of the Ellison/Baraka opposition, direct challenges alternate with playful taunts. These exchanges have the energy of a competition but the warmth and generosity of a collaboration. Such a paradoxical tension is perhaps similar to what happens in a jazz group, where the players must constantly push each other to take risks, if not to the breaking point, and where they must somehow be both competitive and telepathically attuned. Jazz trumpeter and critic Steve Provizer told me once, “People always underestimate the athletic side to jazz. The traditional attitude is 'Prove what you can do or get the hell off the stage.’” In these debates, Greg Thomas and Greg Tate do indeed prove that they are virtuosos of the affectionate provocation, the anti-gravitational riff, and the context-shifting aside.