In this 1966 interview with Robert Hughes, Ralph Ellison focuses on several aspects that helped him write Invisible Man, a novel that is often labelled “the greatest American novel.”
Early on in this video, Ellison discusses a few key points that led to his writing of the Invisible Man, noting how black leaders “at that time, seldom really led Negroes, but were usually dependent on the largesse of white supporters” (11:11 – 11:30). This over-dependency is prevalent throughout his novel: from the university’s heavy reliance on its white, rich beneficiaries, Dr. Bledsoe’s kicking out of the narrator to appease the same people (and to save his own reputation) to the narrator’s initial carrying out of the Brotherhood’s mission without questioning his white superiors and without catering to the real desires of the African American community, Ellison sought to incorporate this concept into his novel.
Later, Ellison reads a segment of his unpublished novel (which, 33 years later, was published in a heavily-edited version called Juneteenth.) The eloquence of this section Ellison attributes to his “Negro background, the eloquence which you find within the Negro church, wherein the minister, who might preach variations on the same sermon a hundred times a year or more, but who must at the same time believe that as he is initiated; he is a manipulator of emotions and of eloquence and of sacred vision, so to speak” (24:00 – 24:31). And indeed, his style and flow of words echoes this same sermon-style eloquence: “..Drums that told the news before it happened. Drums that spoke with big voices like big men! Drums like a conscience and a deep heartbeat that knew right from wrong. Drums that told us our time and told us where we were…” (20:45 – 21:17). This powerful paragraph captures the beauty of drums, the beauty of the African American people and culture, for drums are the symbol, the culture, the unity and livelihood of the African American community, and the power, the life, the identity that was stolen from the African-American community.
Thus, this kind of eloquence is particularly valuable to the American writer, this eloquence that was could speak past the barriers of race, of experiences, of similarities and differences and of any possibilities because “it has its own rhetorical shade, it has its own stable cluster of imagery” (26:00 – 26:20). Ellison notes his usage of the label “American writer,” and not “African-American writer,” stating that this type of writing has become integral to the American heritage. As Ellison sees it, the general American literary heritage is a culmination of the diversity and unity of cultures, races and ideas in the American community.