Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” for February 5, 2009


Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison


“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.



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14 responses to “Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity” for February 5, 2009

  1. Tyler Nakatsu

    Towards the beginning of the essay Ellison writes “I purpose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted upon the body of the Negro giant, who – forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds” (137). This correlates directly to his three conclusive statements. However it is difficult for myself to understand how it is possible to achieve what he states in the conclusion through only one “Negro giant”? Or even many “Negro giants”? Shouldn’t an issue such as debunking the dominant discourses or canon in American literature and describing the American involve something greater? Personally I do not know what it can possibly be, but even te idea many “Negro giants” seem mild.

  2. Elliott Lamp

    The very beginning of this Essay before the actual text Ellison talks about how he wanted to change the text of his essay, but instead leaves it because it depicts how his writing was how “a young member of a minority felt about much of our writing. Thus I’ve left in much of the bias and short-sightedness, “. The Essay also Depicts how People like Mark Twain and others use african americans to almost raise the White folk of that time to a better social hierarchy. The question is though did these particular authors do this out of spite to have them look better at that time or because of the time frame that they lived and were raised in? And will the passing of time create a sense of equality between races?

  3. Camille Weatherill

    Does the location of the white writer and their exposure to African Americans affect the imagination of the whites towards those African Americans they write about?

  4. kristenmnelson

    Ellison criticizes white American readers for looking at fiction and claiming, “This is American reality”. However, he later refers to fiction as the “brightest instrument for recording sociological fact” in reference to potential African American pieces. Does he believe that these works would have more validity than a white American author’s, or is it just that his reality would be given a platform?

  5. Katie Joseph

    As I was reading Ralph Ellison’s Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity, the first paragraph really stood out to me. It reads, “ Perhaps the most insidious and leas understood form of segregation is that of the word. And by this I mean the word in all its complex formulations, from the proverb to the novel and stage play, the word with all its subtle power to suggest and foreshadow overt action while magically disgusting the moral consequences of that action and providing it with symbolic and psychological justification. For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it also has the power to blind, imprison and destroy. My question is how can a word have such and impact on a race. How can segregation make you feel free but also imprisoned? And where is the middle ground, if there is any?

  6. Whitney Harmon

    “Ritual, because the Negroes of fiction are so consistently false to human life that we must question just what they truly represent, both in the literary work and in the inner world of the white American” (Page 136).

    I understand that if the African Americans of fiction are false then we must redefine their roles. But I am wondering why doesn’t Ellison ask them to figure out what they represent to themselves? Why do they have to be defined within white America? I feel like having them be a mere representation takes away their humanity by having them represent something in someone else’s world and not their own.

  7. Brad Pearce

    I particularly enjoyed Ellison’s commentary on Faulkner. A quote from this essay is actually on the back of the Vintage Classics series of Faulkner’s novels.

    My question here is more specific, but I can’t help but wonder how Ellison would have felt about Popeye, the antagonist of Sanctuary. This novel is an examination of the nature of evil, and the protagonist is black but neither fits the stereotype of the “good nigger” or “bad nigger” as Ellison explains it.

    Have black writers done a better job at creating black male characters that defy stereotypes than white writers have?

  8. Lana C

    Ellison, seems very concerned throughout this essay about the image that pervious “White Americans” have given the “Black” populace, referring to older works of literature through out this piece. Because of the incorrect image that is portrayed by the majority he believes that the “…Negro writers and those of other minorities have their own task of contributing to the total image of American…” (148). If it is the job of the minorities to define themselves and not the majority then what steps must be defined in order to complete this new definition? Will it ever be completed? Will it always changing? How will the majorities view on the minority change as the minority define themselves?

  9. kristina long

    “Art by its nature it social…once introduced to society the work of art begins to pulsate with thoes meanings, emotions, ideas brought to it by its audience and over which the artist has but limited control.”

    I understand we have the ability to interpret a piece of work as we see fit. Ideas about works of art have changed numerous times over the centuries. But when does the audience of an authors novels become wronge? When picking apart someones art, does that in a way ruin the true emotions trying to be expressed?

  10. Tom C

    “I purpose that we view the whole American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a negro giant”

    I see this line and wonder why does the person have to be a giant? Or even a Negro? It is from his writing that I ask myself why he introduces race after arguing the “equality of all me”

  11. David Hagen

    Towards the end of his essay, Ellison writes, “…we see that the Negro stereotype is really an image of the unorganized, irrational forces of American life, forces through which, by projecting them in forms of images of an easily dominated minority, the white individual seeks to be at home in the vast unknown world of America. Perhaps the object of the stereotype is not so much to crush the Negro as to console the white man.”
    My question is this: is this not the reason for the existence of every stereotype, to console those who believe it as a means of rationalizing their discriminatory thoughts rather than as a means of crushing the minority that the stereotype concerns? Not that stereotypes don’t further oppress those about which they are believed, but that it is more a byproduct of the majority’s self-consolation than the reason behind the belief.

  12. Eric Irvin

    I think Ellison has a good interpretation of “Americans” back in the day V.S. the newer “ Americans” and the ideals of morals and tradition play a tremendous factor in how the new age is raised or brought up. I think it is good to see that in the 20th century we strive for better and take heed to our own ideals and morals in a positive since. What is the idealistic symbol of “African Americans” in this century?

  13. Lynette M

    I, like Brad, enjoyed a section where Ellison describes the effects of stereotypes on minorities. “As for the Negro minority, he has been more willing perhaps than any other artist to start with stereotype, accept it as true, and then seek out the human truth which hides.”

    My question is: When stereotypes are assigned to a minority or group, does the group grab onto it for self identity? Is there unity in stereotype?

  14. Katie Joseph

    Poet Don L. Lee writes, “… we must destroy Faulkner, dick, jane, and other perpetautos of evil. It is tome for DeBois, Nat Tuner, and Kwame Nkrumah. As Frantz Fanon points out, you destroy the culture, you destroy the people. This must not happen…” Why does Lee think that popular white American authors are evil and that they are destroying Black American culture?

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