Invisible Man. Senior Seminar: “Techniques of the Observer” May 17, 2011. On reading literature (at Tuskegee, where he went to study music).
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Senior Seminar: “Techniques of the Observer”
May 17, 2011
“Even then a process which I described earlier had begun to operate. The more I learned of literature in this conscious way, the more details of my background became transformed. I heard undertones in remembered conversations which had escaped me before, local customs took on more universal meaning, values which I hadn’t understood were revealed; some of the people I had known were diminished while others were elevated in stature. More important, I began to see my own possibilities with more objective, and in some ways, more hopeful eyes” (160).
“…it is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own… From the dim beginnings, before I ever thought consciously of writing, there was my own name, and there was, doubtless, a certain magic in it. From the start I was uncomfortable with it, and in my earliest years it caused me much puzzlement. Neither could I understand what a poet was, nor why, exactly, my father had chosen to name me after one. Perhaps I could have understood it perfectly well had he named me after his own father, but that name had been given to an older brother who died and thus was out of the question. But why hadn’t he named me after a hero, such as Jack Johnson [a boxer], or a soldier like Colonel Charles Young, or a great seaman like Admiral Dewey, or an educator like Booker T. Washington, or a great orator and abolitionist like Frederick Douglass? Or again, why hadn’t he named me (as so many Negro parents had done) after President Teddy Roosevelt?” (Ellison 147, 150-151).
“I recall finding [during my early school years]…while seeking adventure in back alley…a large photographic lens…mounted handsomely in a tube of shiny brass, it spoke to me of distant worlds of possibility. I played with it, looking through it with squinted eyes, holding it in shafts of sunlight, and tried to use it for a magic lantern. But most of this was as unrewarding as my attempts to make music come from a phonograph record by holding the needle in my fingers.
I could burn holes through newspapers with it, or I could pretend that it was a telescope, the barrel of a canon, or the third eye of a monster—I being the monster—but I could do nothing at all about its proper function of making images; nothing to make it yield its secret. But I could not discard it” (Ellison 153).
“In order to orient myself I also began to learn that the American novel had long concerned itself with the puzzle of the one-and-the-many; the mystery of how each of us, despite his origin in diverse regions, with our diverse racial, cultural, religious backgrounds, speaking his own diverse idiom of the American with his own accent, is, nevertheless, American. And with this concern with the implicit pluralism of the country and with the composite nature of the ideal character called “the American,” there goes a concern with gauging the health of the American promise, with depicting the extent to which it was being achieved, being made manifest in our daily conduct…
I would no more strive to write great novels by leaving out the complexity of circumstances which go to make up the Negro experience and which alone go to make the obvious injustice bearable, than I would think of think of preparing myself to become President of the United States simply by studying Negro American history or confining myself to studying those laws affecting civil rights” (165).