In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) Ras the Exhorter (turned Ras the Destroyer) represents the nationalistic view of the African American. He is a foil to the narrator in that where the narrator seeks an integrated universe, Ras's major concern is nation-building for the Black American. As a result of his experiences the narrator has come to suspect any organization or group that is exclusive. He believes that the Blacks who do not become a part of the mainstream are “outside of history,” and he therefore rejects Ras's nationalist rhetoric as nonsense. Ras has been linked to Marcus Garvey. Certainly both the fictional character and the historical figure share a compelling view of Black nationalism, and they both demanded social justice for Blacks. Also, like Garvey, Ras has strong ties with Africa.
Ras, patrolling the streets of a riot-torn Harlem in his ancestral attire, astride a great black horse, is “dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian Chieftan.” Ras is also the short term for Rastafarian, originally a Jamaican religious group whose members trace their roots back to Ethiopia and to Haile Selassie. When Ras urges Blacks to unite, he, like Garvey, is not limiting his national movement to Harlem; he is pleading for nationalism throughout the Black diaspora. While Ellison (through the narrator) might reject Black nationalism as disruptive, Ras stands as a symbol of the malignant force that comes as a result of America's blindness (a blindness represented in the organization of the brotherhood and in the philanthropy of Mr. Norton) to the needs of oppressed minorities.
While Ras is a powerful character in the novel, Ellison, through his use of the comic, undercuts Ras's dignity and makes him appear clownish at times. Even in the scene where he appears majestic, Ellison uses the comic to downplay his regality. Despite Ras's proud bearing on this occasion, Ellison says he had “a hauty, vulgar dignity.” Instead of being robed in the skin of a lion or a leopard that is customary for African royalty, Ras is clad in a cape “made from the skin of some wild animal” that makes Ras himself look wild. And while Ras's appearance is “real, alive, [and] alarming,” the narrator insists that it was “more out of a dream than out of Harlem.” Ellison's depiction of Ras prefigures the negative images of the West Indian male that later appears in works by writers such as Toni Morrison and Chester Himes. One must add, however, that elements of the surreal and the comic pervade the novel, and Ras suffers no more from Ellison's pen than do other characters.
Ralph Reckley, Sr.