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Lower (for Ralph Ellison) – Black Writers, part 4

Posted by Jon on February 26, 2007

What follows is a brief reflection upon, and poem inspired (mostly) by Ralph Ellison.

(Re the poem I also have to thank Toni Morrison for her insightful, if painful, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. It will be obvious to those readers of the latter that I was affected by it even while likely indulging in the very things she finds irritating.)


Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, is my personal favorite among novels authored by African American writers. There really is not another serious contender against it, though there are many other black novelists whom I like very much. (If I had to choose just one or two more, I’d pick James Baldwin’s Another Country [can’t wait to see the comments on that!] and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.)

Exactly why Ellison flips my tumblers is hard to explain. But I think it has a lot to do with his being able to write a “racial” novel that nonetheless takes us past race into the heart of ourselves. For a white reader, encountering “racial” novels

This quotation from Invisible Man offers a taste:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed, everything except me.

Ellison’s character begins the story as a naive southern black man — nearly a boy, really — going to a school suspiciously similar to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute located in Alabama. He inadvertently gets into trouble for race-mixing (innocently, but appearances are everything!). The head of the school sends him to New York, where he takes a message from the man to various white men. He doesn’t know the message’s content, and it later turns out the message is a warning not to trust the young man! From there to the novel’s ending, which takes place in the sewers of New York City, we observe a man relentlessly in pursuit of himself despite the various definitions others try to overlay onto him. The Brotherhood (Ellison’s version of the American Communist Party of his day) attempts to use him; various others do the same.

The end of the novel — actually its “epilogue” — is to me one of the most powerful human statements I’ve ever read anywhere. It’s last lines and overall thrust inspired what follows.



Young, I imagined the limbs of
black women wrapped around me,
desperate for rescue, desperate
for one white heart that understood.
I strove with them in loving lust,
Knew gentle every inch of skin, a
Kiss kiss kiss of my own body,
The hope of love rushing toward
Only me, there, in the darkness of
my white and lonely imagination.
(I rescued her to define her — “mine.”)

Young, I inhabited my ignorance
as thoroughly as a diving suit;
down, lower, into depths of darkness
I saw, in my helmet’s visor,
My own pale and lonesome reflection.
They swam just out of sight, their
Limbs and murmurs the waters themselves
Waters between us as deep and wide,
Deep and wide as reflected stars’
White light on its dark surface.

Younger, I thought not on these things
Until with eleven year eyes and ears, in spring
I saw our neighbor dance, yes,
dance and sing, screaming “They got him!
They got that commie nigger
Martin Luther King!”[1] Yes, everything
Changed without my knowing,
That same year as my awakening
Innocence died, and I had nightmares
About dark women touching me painlessly
(though I awakened, weeping and terrified)

The sicknesses of light and dark swirled
in a place I could not enter,
and if not enter, then how to fix it?
Singing “red and yellow, black and white”
While white colored the rest, and the best
I could do was read Soul on Ice[2] and
Pretend I understood a rapist’s rage
While away from my safe prairies, Watts
Burned[3] and Chicago cops beat yippies[4]
and murdered young black Fred in bed[5]

Still young, though not as much, I
read the books and studied the times,
Hoping for entrance to the dark sea, the
Unity, denied the sinner (who of course was me)
Needing a dark savior, but not yet
Understanding that this too was reflection
and thus, rejection, of the truth of it.
Down, down, into the dark sea, my
Diving suit between good air and water
Which might baptize or might kill me.
(Jesus, sex, and blackness my ghosts.)

I washed ashore, cast out by the waters
Finally willing, though clueless, to learn.
The place where heavenly waters flow was
Barred to me: Unity? My dreams faded.
“This is your suffering, not to know another’s,
or in knowing another’s, knowing
you cannot save them from it.”
This voice, coming to me from the Other, echoed
of Theodicy[6], and breaking, I almost heard…
Ready to cave in to the truth of it all.

There are no waters, and there is no other.
The diving suit of lies makes them real.
The smoking gun of misplaced pity denies, defends,
when nothing else keeps the truth at bay.
Here is the truth, poor boy, dear child.
There are no doorways — no, not one.
There is only a road, and that road
Goes Lower, takes you lower, down into yourself,
Lower until darkness blinds day’s lies
And brings you, newborn, into the sight of yourself.
(Christ, who is God but also one man, will wait.)

-Jon Trott (c) 2007, all rights reserved.

[1] This incident, alas, actually occurred to the author April 4, 1968.
[2] Eldridge Cleaver’s book, Soul on Ice, told of his career as a rapist, a prisoner, and an eventual member of the Black Panthers, a 1960s era radical activist group.
[3] The Watts riots of 1965. See:
[4] “Yippies” is a term coined (I believe) by Abbie Hoffman, author of “Steal This Book” among others. In 1968, the Democrat Convention was held in Chicago. As the entire nation (including myself at only 11 years of age) watched, the police basically attacked non-violent yippies, hippies, and even news people with their billy clubs.
[5] “Young black Fred” was Fred Hampton, a Black Panther who (along with fellow panther Mark Clark) was murdered in his own apartment by Chicago Police. Hampton, wounded but very much alive, was assassinated by the police after his arrest with two shots to the head.
[6] A Theodicy is a theological explanation of the antinomy (apparent contradiction) between God being wholly loving and wholly powerful and yet allowing terribly evil things to happen to those He loves.

Links to more info on Ralph Ellison and Invisible Man:

I was glad to find a good page and links on Ellison on Calvin College’s site.
PBS “American Masters” page on Ellison for teachers.
Wikipedia on Ralph Ellison

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Phillis Wheatley – Black Writers, part 3

Posted by Jon on February 26, 2007

I’m taking my time getting back to the novelists. Today, I’m swinging back to one of, if not the, first African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley’s name, as with so many slave names, unintentionally mapped her history. Phillis was the name of the slave ship that brought her to America; she was only (according to her eventual owner in a 1772 letter) between seven and eight years old. John Wheatley, her owner’s name, became the rest of hers.

She apparently learned English at an astonishing rate of speed. And it wasn’t long before she showed abilities as a writer, though it also seemed for some more an amusement (Look, an African can write words!) than art. Thomas Jefferson in particular found her poetry worthless (but seemed, as his affair with Sally Hemmings proved, to have strong opinions on what young African slave girls were for… writing not being among those talents).

Looking back, it is easy to criticize Wheatley from the opposite end of the spectrum. With our hindsight we might think of accusing her of caving in to the white narrative regarding her own race and personhood. But that seems more than a bit simplistic to me. Sure she was a product of her culture, just as we are of our own. But she also gently challenged, or at least bent from their otherwise rigidly defined norms, the way in which she and her race were viewed by the white culture she was embedded within.

Consider this poem as an example:

On being brought from Africa to America.

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Today’s reader will be perplexed by some of the above and annoyed with some as well. The reference “black as Cain” refers to the theologically erroneous belief that when God marked Cain after the latter murdered Abel, He marked him with black skin. Thus, believers in this doctrine drew a corollary that all Africans and/or dark-skinned peoples were offspring of Cain, marked with his mark of sin. The fact that Wheatley accepted such a doctrine isn’t surprising in light of the lack of options she likely had to it.

A deeper issue, likely to perplex and irritate readers, is Wheatley’s suggestion that her enslavement is part of a redemptive Divine Mystery. Those waters are too deep for this very white and male human being to go paddling about in. But one thing I do resonate with over the vast expanse of time, race, and gender separating us… meaning and beauty can indeed be drawn from terrible suffering. While I don’t want to fall into the usual patronizing nonsense regarding blackness as victimhood (which those of us white folk who have allegedly “tender” hearts love as a narrative!), Wheatley’s own words do more than plead.

Christianity is subversive of all authority, though the nature of that subversion works from within as often as from without. In fact, the work within is where new birth originates, a new vision and new interrelationship between human and God, human and her fellow-human. Wheatley’s vision was a seemingly passive one, yet not as passive as it seemed. Like the Apostle Paul, so easily misunderstood on the issue of slavery, the message of equality undeniable lies at the heart of things.

Wheatley expressed this in various ways. Perhaps one of the more striking I could find comes in her eulogizing over the death of evangelist George Whitfield, and her recreation of what his message of redemption said as well as to whom it was said:

“Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
“Take him ye starving sinners, for your food;
“Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
“Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
“Take him my dear Americans, he said,
“Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
“Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
Impartial Saviour is his title due:
“Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood,
“You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”

[from On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitfield, 1770]

Impartial Savior? The One who promises not only to American (that is, to white) but also to African slave, “You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God”?

This is the most gentle, whispering subversion. Yet at its core it contains a mustard seed enough to overthrow the greatest darkness of heart this nation ever knew.

Wheatley did occasionally let her inmost heart express itself more freely than even this. Attempt to imagine with what care a black slave woman in America had to guard her words when her owners and benefactors were all around her, as well as being her only audience. Then imagine she had only the tools of her captors to express herself with, their thoughts, even their religion (though in truth it was often not their religion–or, to subversively quote Nietzsche, “Christianity is a religion of slaves and women”).

Phillis Wheatley’s life after the American Revolution began to unravel. When her master died, she shortly afterward married a freed black man, John Peters. But John eventually left her.
In 1784, after giving birth to her third child, Phillis died. Her child died hours later.

A complete second volume of poetry had been completed, it is said. But those poems have never been recovered. Perhaps that serves as a metaphor of sorts for not only the life of one brilliant lonely woman, but for the lives of a people who, in each of their unique and individual ways, had to find the words of poets and, in speaking them, discover the strange and lonely path of the prophets.

I dare not suggest I know such things. At best, I know of such things. But that of is all the difference between Stephen who, as he was stoned cried out to God, and Paul, who stood by holding the coats of those casting stones. For Paul, there remained the need to be knocked off his high horse and to hear the mouth of murdered Stephen — the mouth of Jesus Christ — sigh out truth and forgiveness.

This is the quiet, secret subversion of Phillis Wheatley which is also the subversive love of Christ for even the persecutors of his beloved.

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Jon’s Favorite African-American Writers, part 2

Posted by Jon on February 6, 2007

I promised I’d try to do better by African American women in the literature department. And in the process, I seem to have rediscovered an incredibly powerful voice that for me may end up a star in my personal galaxy. I’d seen the movie of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and also read various bits of her writings over the years. But pondering her this year brought a deeper realization of just what powers of description — both of nature and of the inner human terrain — she uniquely possessed.

* A short but good biography of Zora Neale Hurston.
* More on her probably most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
* And the 2005 movie (by the same name:

And… here’s my pathetic little homage to her. In it I attempted to borrow some of her own images and reflect them very imperfectly back.

The Bee in Every Blossom (for Zora Hurston)

“I did not just fall in love, I made a parachute jump.”
– Zora Neale Hurston

Your words are rich as honey
And sting like making love
Your suffered lack of money
That’s not what you were made of…

You worked in sorrow’s kitchen
Licking out the pots and pans
You went under then you came up
Lazarus kind of woman

You’re the bee in every blossom
The spring that comes each day
You stung yourself for sweetness
It was a way to let you pray
Zora… Zora…

The spices hang about you, girl
Like dark skin, exotic clothes
A heart / mind kind of fusion
Both as sharp and true as swords.

Your eyes were watching gods
The strange gods of men’s design
Your cosmic lonely shadow
Proved their idols dumb and blind

You’re the bee in every blossom
The spring that comes each day
You stung yourself for sweetness
It was a way you let us pray
Zora… Zora…

You died in a welfare home
And were buried nameless underground
But I saw you this December
Chicago’s winter swirled ’round

Zora of the ageless Spring
Receive this as my offering
I know a man who suffers all
Like you he still loves everything…

Sweet bee, sweet honey, sweet bee…
Love’s sting.

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Jon’s Favorite African-American Writers, part 1

Posted by Jon on February 6, 2007

The fact that African American history, culture, and especially literature means so much to me can be (and probably should be) cause for suspicion. But rather than in futility attempt to submerge into my own motives (and the motives for those motives, and the motives for the motives of those motives), I’d like to offer some quotes (and maybe, maybe not) some later meanderings of my own about specific writers. The latter might even be instructive for someone.

Today’s offering comes from the “Harlem Renaissance” writers — a group of names which came into prominence between the start of the twentieth century and the 1929 stock market crash. The list of names varies from historian to historian, some requiring that the writers lived in Harlem while others requiring only that the writer be relationally or psychologically involved with the movement.

Arguably one of the earliest voices of the movement, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) had deeply Christian sensibilities and wrote with elequence nearly unmatched. His “We Wear the Mask” seems astonishingly blunt considering the era when he wrote it. But with the background being that of a post-W.E.B. Dubois world where the latter’s 1903 The Souls of Black Folk had helped transform the race issue to one of being a white problem, not a black one, Dunbar’s sentiments gain context.
We Wear the Mask

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

And mouth with myriad subtleties,
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To Thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) may have been the best known of the movement’s writers at the time, and his abilities remain evident. Hughes’ poetry captured the agony of race in many tones. Some poems, such as his tragic and stark “Cross,” jab right to the point:


My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder were I’m going to die,
Being neither white nor black?

Other of Hughes’ poems are (would we expect different?) about simple, painful love, such as “La Vie C’est la Vie,” or while dealing with matters of race take a more subtle and nuanced approach, such as “Letter to My Sister”:

Letter to My Sister

It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods;
To taunt them with the tongue’s thin tip,
Or strut in the weakness of mere humanity,
Or draw a line daring them to cross;
The gods own the searing lightning,
The drowning waters, tormenting fears
And anger of red sins.

Oh, but worse still if you mince timidly–
Dodge this way or that, or kneel or pray,
Be kind, or sweat agony drops
Or lay your quick body over your feeble young;
If you have beauty or none, if celibate
Or vowed–the gods are Juggernaut,
Passing over . . . over . . .

This you may do:
Lock your heart, then, quietly,
And lest they peer within,
Light no lamp when dark comes down
Raise no shade for sun;
Breathless must your breath come through
If you’d die and dare deny
The gods their god-like fun.

A fellow poet, known and appreciated by Hughes, was Claude McKay. His poetry was erotic, defiant, yet contained tremors of faith which later in his life flowered into a conversion to Catholicism. All those notes are struck in “Harlem Shadows”:

Harlem Shadows

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!

Through the long night until the silver break
Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.

Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.

And his cries to a lover seem of a piece with his cries to God, as “A Red Flower” and “Prayer” prove:

A Red Flower

Your lips are like a southern lily red,
Wet with the soft rain-kisses of the night,
In which the brown bee buries deep its head,
When still the dawn’s a silver sea of light.

Your lips betray the secret of your soul,
The dark delicious essence that is you,
A mystery of life, the flaming goal
I seek through mazy pathways strange and new.

Your lips are the red symbol of a dream,
What visions of warm lilies they impart,
That line the green bank of a fair blue stream,
With butterflies and bees close to each heart!

Brown bees that murmur sounds of music rare,
That softly fall upon the langourous breeze,
Wafting them gently on the quiet air
Among untended avenues of trees.

O were I hovering, a bee, to probe
Deep down within your scented heart, fair flower,
Enfolded by your soft vermilion robe,
Amorous of sweets, for but one perfect hour!


‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.
Mine eyes are open but they cannot see for gloom of night:
I can no more than lift my heart to thee for inward light.

The wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul;
In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.
For Passion and all the pleasures it can give will die the death;
But this of me eternally must live, thy borrowed breath.

‘Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling;
I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling.

Tomorrow or soon… I will offer a few more quotes and thoughts (mostly quotes) from my personal African-American literary favorites, including Ralph Ellison (who knocks me out), James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. A note: yes, I realize my taste is decidedly male-centric. This is not a-purpose, mind you. I’ll do a post on feminine African-American voices (fromPhillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison).


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