Dark Memories in the Early Voice of Novelist Ralph Ellison



By Ralph Ellison

Random House, 173 pp., $23

For Buster and Riley, two fictional African-American boys created by Ralph Ellison, ebonics is the only language they speak. In this collection of short stories, including three about Buster and Riley, Ellison at least establishes that the speech patterns and clipped grammar of ebonics flourished in the 1930s and '40s between two boys.

Today black children in Oakland, Calif., speak ebonics and create a stir when school officials recognize it as valid.

Ellison, the author of the famed novel "Invisible Man," published in 1952, also establishes in these stories - written before "Invisible Man" - that the racial segregation and bias that limited the lives of "colored" people decades ago linger today.

So, even though Ellison writes with power and clarity about being black in a white world some 55 years ago, the issues haven't changed much, as seen through the burning of some black churches recently or a record racial-discrimination lawsuit against Texaco that was settled out of court.

Today the inner cities of America, for the most part, remain ethnically and economically segregated.

Thus, there is an immediacy in the echo of these stories, despite the rural setting of some of them in the days before TV, megastar black athletes, and McDonald's. And the passage of time has transformed a few of the characters into stereotypes, a situation saved only by Ellison's power to put them all in a social context from story to story. And an introduction to Ellison's life and beliefs by editor John Callahan is helpful too.

The first story, "A Party Down at the Square," is the most harrowing and perhaps the sharpest-drawn of all the stories, a vast and ugly reality given a fine point in only 11 pages.

The narrator is an anonymous white boy witnessing the burning of a black man in an Alabama town square. No reason is given for the horror. The boy is first enthralled, then entertained, and finally sickened as the mob rules the night.

A small airplane, caught in winds, mistakes the fire for a landing signal. The plane clips a wire which in turn electrocutes a white woman. The boy, carried along by the crowd, is only momentarily diverted by the plane and the woman before returning to the horror of the tortured black man.

Ellison makes the boy a witness without a conscience, as surely as thousands of white boys were when witnessing the lynchings of blacks that were common in the South for years. The boy has no moral reference point provided by family or community. Because the boy vomited in a physical reaction, his uncle calls him "the gutless wonder from Cincinnati."

Other stories become quick, clear fragments pulled from Ellison's experiences. He was known to have ridden the rails as a young man, and several short pieces focus on eluding the "bulls," the railroad police who beat the rail-riding blacks with clubs and chased them off.

In the three stories about Buster and Riley - told with almost a Huck Finn quality - the boys are mischievous, always daring each other, uttering rumors as truths, and always scolded by adults who warn them about the hazards of being uppity blacks in the white world.

After Riley sings a song about being president, Aunt Kate tells him he has to learn to live in the white world while he is young so he won't be "buttin' yo head 'ginst a col' white wall all yo born days."

The collection of stories as a whole is greater than its parts.

Ellison's easy style, idioms, and simple declarative sentences, are perfectly suited for measuring the world as he saw it. Despite the hassle and danger of being black in a white world, Ellison was drawn to the inherent possibilities of his country.

In the story "The Black Ball," a boy asks his father, "Brown's much nicer than white, isn't it, Daddy?"

And the father replies, "Some people think so. But American is better than both, son."

* David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.

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