Mary Rambo

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Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison (1914—1994)

Toni Morrison (b. 1931) American novelist

Song of Solomon


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Is both mother and spiritual guide for the narrator in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), who at this point in his life is trying to find a new identity. The narrator survived a paint-factory accident that hospitalized him and resulted in a symbolic rebirth after which his character is like a blank page. It is Mary Rambo who writes his new name and nurtures his new awareness of himself. Like Toni Morrison's Circe in Song of Solomon (1977), Mary is the preserver of Black life who helps carry on a Black tradition. She becomes physical and spiritual provider/sustainer for the narrator.

When Mary first appears, her speech and physical characteristics (she is a “big dark woman”) suggest the stereotypical southern mammy. But Mary is no mammy; she typifies that down-home maternalism that is evident in the extended family of African Americans. And in her own way she is a race-conscious individual who believes strongly that if Blacks are to survive it will be through Black youths. When the narrator becomes unsure of his future it is Mary who encourages him: “It's you young folks what's going to make the changes. Y'all's the ones. You got to lead and … move us all on up a little higher.”

Finding the narrator on the streets of Harlem, Mary nurses him back to health and then helps him to move from the sterile atmosphere of Men's House to a more fertile environment where he can recognize his African heritage. To this effect the narrator admits that Mary was “a force, a stable familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face.” Mary is no Beatrice, guiding the narrator through the underworld of Harlem, but she is a maternal figure and a moral gauge who helps the narrator on his way to self-determination.

—Ralph Reckley, Sr.

Subjects: Literature.

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