Influences of Twenties and Thirties

Influences of Twenties and Thirties


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



we discussed craft, in Harlem, there was no such concentration upon what is now termed

the “Black experience” as one encounters it today, not even between Wright and myself.

I was concerned, but I felt it to be something one worked out for oneself.



Influences of Twenties and Thirties

Existentialism and Negro Renaissance

By Ralph Ellison


One could say that during the Forties we were still being influenced by the attitudes and values of the Twenties and Thirties, and by perspectives introduced to our specific community of writers by Stalinists and the Trotskyist Left. There was also the influence of the WPA, which provided a number of us with our first opportunity for becoming writers. It also provided others who were already working at the craft with an opportunity to earn a living. And there was also present a current of intellectual influence derived from existentialism. I became aware of Kierkegaard and Unamuno a good while before existentialism became a literary “movement.” I picked it up through the writings of André Malraux, who was depicting existential concepts long before Sartre and Camus made them fashionable. I became interested after reading Man’s Hope, in which Unamuno appears as a character. In 1937, I was present at a party where Malraux was raising funds for the Spanish Loyalists, and shortly afterwards, Richard Wright and I were reading and discussing Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life.

Such ideas were new to me and very exciting in that they made me aware of existential elements in the spirituals and the blues. At the time, I was trying to make connections between my own background and the world of ideas, connections that I hadn’t had no problem in seeing connections between European and Afro-American music, so why not between my segregated condition and the world of ideas? So, I was groping. Marx and Freud were the dominant intellectual forces during that period, and I had become aware of Freud even before finishing high school. Marx, I encountered at Tuskegee—but how did you put the two together? I didn’t know, so I read, I talked, I asked questions and I listened. Such ideas concerned me as I turned from music to literature.

Now for the main ideological and intellectual forces operating within the small group in which I found myself: There was the psychological in the form of Freudianism, the political in the form of Marxism, and in Malraux’s fiction and criticism, which questioned the assertions of both, there were the concepts of existentialism. With these there was the living presence of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown and Alain Locke. Now I don’t mean that these figures were “influences” in any simple-minded way, but that their examples were part of the glamour of Harlem and thus important to your sense of opportunity. And, although you had a vague but different set of tunes tinkling in your head and sought other solutions and perhaps a more complex form in which to work, you respected them and their achievements. You respected them even after you discovered that some of them like, say, McKay, were inarticulate when it came to discussing technique. In fact, Wright was far more articulate in that area than either Hughes or McKay.

But, there was another factor which I found most important. The writers I’ve just mentioned related to Harlem and to the waning influence of the Negro Renaissance, but there was a wider world of culture to be found in New York, and I made my closest contacts with it on the Writers Project. There you were thrown in contact not only with black and white writers of your own age grouping, but with a number who had already achieved broad reputations. McKay was one of these, but most were white.

Then there was the old League of American Writers whose programs made it possible for me to meet important writers who had nothing to do with the WPA. My friendship with Wright gave me entrée to a number of such people, and they came to form, for me at least, a scattered but most meaningful intellectual community. Within it, the craft of fiction was passionately discussed. The philosophical and political implications of artistic styles were given endless attention. Myth, ritual and revolution got slammed around. On the project, I hung out with a few fellows of my own general age and the same subjects were discussed. Incidentally, most of them were Jewish, but this was before we realized what Hitler was really up to, so little time was spent discussing race or religion.

Instead, we discussed craft, in Harlem, there was no such concentration upon what is now termed the “Black experience” as one encounters it today, not even between Wright and myself. I was concerned, but I felt it to be something one worked out for oneself. I was living that experience, so what I wanted was to be able to make my own intellectual sense of it. Nor was there any question in my own mind about who I was or where I came from. It’s my face, it’s in the neighborhoods where I grew up, it’s in the Afro-Methodist Episcopal Church into which I was baptized, it was in the ex-slaves I knew as a child. I’m out of slaves on both sides of my family.

That was history, and I couldn’t undo it; my question was how did one bridge the gap intellectually (or at least imaginatively), between what one felt about Negro life, between what one felt about our people, and what was said about us—that is, the stereotyped identity imposed upon us by society. Yes, and what was there being written in areas lying beyond the confines of our neighborhoods that could be used in the task of adequately defining our humanity? How did one get American Negro life, that great, bursting, expressive capacity for life, into writing? Where did one discover ideas and techniques with which one could free one’s mind and achieve something of one’s possibilities?

In those days, interestingly enough, I knew a couple of the writers who’ve attacked me from time to time in Black World. They had little talent as writers but were then part of the communist apparatus and given to preaching internationalism, really meaning Russianism. Today they’re preaching “Blackness” in the same inept accents. Around the Communists they acted like whipping dogs that were so glad to be associated with whites that they accepted anything they were told and parroted any absurd interpretation of Negro experience that was handed down from above.

Today, barking behind what they consider to be the protective “big gate” of Black World, they perform like Supercargo in Invisible Man, barking and snarling at me in order to keep other possible dissenters in line. Years ago, after hearing me state some unorthodox opinions, one of them shook his head and stated, “Ellison, you say you want to be a novelist, but you’ll never make it, thinking like that.” No, I won’t give his name; I’m interested in the pattern, not the individual. These two have lived in New York for years, but they still retain their Calvinist compulsion to control the acts and imagination of others that you find in certain Black, down-home communities. They consider themselves the Black man’s white man and will do almost anything to prevent other Afro-Americans from testing their individual possibilities.

Perhaps it’s because they sense that the assertion of the independent imagination is a gesture toward freedom, and freedom is dangerous; freedom frightens them, so wanting to have it both ways, they growl like tigers in their blessedly segregated journals and then move among whites flinching as though they expect a blow. Every once in a while, I bump into one of these gents on the streets of Harlem, and after bad-mouthing me in Black World—which he knows I disdain to read—he approaches me with his tail wagging and grinning like a jackass eating briars. It’s so obscene that it’s damn near charming.

And yet, such people have been around for a long time. Years ago, the playwright Carlton Moss told me of attending a party during which my ambition to become a writer was discussed. At the time, I had been writing for two or three years, nevertheless, they decided right then and there that I was wasting my time. Since they couldn’t imagine themselves being successful writers, I had to be a fool for trying.

Source: The Essential Ellison (Interview)—Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon. Ishmael Reed’s and Al Young’s Y’Bird • Copyright © 1977, 1978 Y’Bird Magazine

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post 3 May 2009




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