“Historically this is but a part of the larger conflict between older, dominant groups of white Americans…and the newer white and nonwhite groups…over the major group’s attempt to impose its ideals upon the rest, insisting that its exclusive image be accepted as the image of the American. This conflict should not, however, be misunderstood. For despite the impact of the American idea upon the world, the ‘American’ himself has not (fortunately for the United States, its minorities, and perhaps for the world) been finally defined. So that far from being socially undesirable this struggle between Americans as to what the American is to be is part of that democratic process through which the nation works to achieve itself.”
In his essay, Ellison seeks to address an aspect of this struggle over American identity, who shall construct it, who shall claim it, and what it tries to hide. He considers the ways in which African Americans have held a symbolic role in white America’s imagination. In looking at the part that has been played by literature in the fortification of this role he states, “Despite their billings as images of reality, these Negroes of fiction are counterfeits. They are projected aspects of an internal symbolic process through which, like a primitive tribesman dancing himself into the group frenzy necessary for battle, the white American prepares himself emotionally to perform a social role.”
He focuses on the distinction between the writing of 19th century America and 20th century America, specifically on the examples of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner and the respective ways in which they used black characters as means through which to construct white humanity. As Ellison says, African Americans became “a human ‘natural’ resource who, so that white men could become more human, was elected to undergo a process of institutionalized dehumanization.”
Ellison touches on several significant points as he builds his argument, including the social character of art. His concern with this aspect of art is that notion of “freedoms” involved in the creation and reception of art. Ideally, both the artist and the audience should have the freedom to connect to works from their own positions. “This is because it is not within the province of the artist to determine whether his work is social or not. Art by it nature is social. And while the artist can determine within a certain narrow scope the type of social effect he wishes his art to create, here his will is definitely limited. Once introduced into society, the work of art begins to pulsate with those meanings, emotions, ideas brought to it by it audience and over which the artist has but limited control.” It is in this way that art, and specifically literature for Ellison, becomes a significant social agent.
Ellison concludes with three concise points regarding the tasks of American writers both white and black. Consider his conclusion in conversation with Hughes, DuBois, Wright, and Morrison.