When it was first published in 1964, Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act was hailed as his autobiography. Such critics as George P. Elliot and R. W. B. Lewis took their cue from Ellison himself, who in the volume's introduction wrote that the essays, “whatever their value,” were autobiographical. While there are discussions of Ellison's early life in the text, the work is a statement of his literary credo as it had evolved over a twenty-two year period. As biography it is more concerned with the history of a race rather than with the history of a person.
The text has an introduction and three divisions: “The Seer and the Seen,” which deals with literature and Ellison's literary career; “Sound and the Mainstream,” which deals with music and musicians; and “The Shadow and the Act,” which concerns itself with racial issues. Each article has the original date of production at its end, allowing the reader to chart Ellison's development as a writer from 1942, the date of the earliest piece, to 1964.
In “The Seer and the Seen,” Ellison uses literature as a vehicle for discussing the social consciousness of Blacks. He contends that whites assume that because Blacks have been brutalized in America they have become brutes and are unable to rise above this condition in life or in art. It is this vision that produces what Ellison calls “ideological” writing. But Blacks, according to Ellison, have been able to “deflect racial provocation and to master and control pain.” In short, Blacks have been able through discipline to transcend the negative environment spiritually and artistically and to contribute to the national growth on all levels. The second section of the book is a variation of the first, but instead of using literature as a springboard for his discussion, Ellison uses jazz. Originating in the Black community, jazz has been associated with poverty and low life, but the author contends that like the Black experience itself, the artists and the art form have transcended the limitations of the environment to triumph nationally. The third section is a bit more caustic. Here Ellison examines the effects of racism on Blacks and concludes that not only has it affected the population adversely, causing mental and emotional problems, but that during World War II it was responsible for the death of Blacks. The essays, coming as they did when America was experiencing a great deal of racial turbulence, must have had a sobering effect on the mainstream, for the book clearly indicates it is the Black experience in America that makes the American experience what it is: “It is practically impossible for the white American to think of sex, of economics, of children or women folk, or of sweeping socio-political changes without summoning into consciousness fear-flecked images of black men.” For Ellison Blacks have become “the gauge of the human condition in America.”
Shadow and Act is anchored in the African American literary canon between W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison. It shares a spiritual kinship with its “ancestor,” Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Shadow differs in structure and style from Souls, but both works demonstrate that despite adversity Blacks have made great artistic contributions to America. Ellison's essays also share a kinship with Amiri Baraka's Blues People, reviewed by Ellison in 1964, and James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son (1955) and More Notes of a Native Son (1961). Shadow anticipates such high-profile writers as Toni Morrison and Charles R. Johnson. Morrison's Playing in the Dark (1992), like Shadow, inquires into the role Blacks play in the literature of whites. And Johnson's Being and Race (1988) questions, as Shadow does, the importance of experience in creating a work of art. Shadow and Act is an important literary and social document because it not only affirms Black humanity but also states emphatically that despite cultural deprivation Blacks have given much to America in the form of art.
Related content in Oxford Index
Ralph Ellison (1914—1994)