The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Civil Rights Movement

BEFORE

1940 Richard Wright’s Native Son discusses the criminal roles that white society creates for African-Americans.

1950 African-American writer Gwendolyn Brooks wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her collection Annie Allen. It charts a woman’s move from individual freedom to more engaged ideas of progress.

AFTER

1953 In Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin reflects on his own life and involvement with the Church as an African-American, showing both its positive side and its oppressive hold.

1969 Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings expresses the author’s changing responses to the violence of racism.

The African-American Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s sought to end racial segregation and discrimination in the USA through protest and civil disobedience. Authors such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison engaged with the movement, writing about the systematic disenfranchisement, overt racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence that pervaded the USA.

An isolated activist

Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Ralph Ellison first studied music at Tuskagee Institute in Alabama, but later moved to New York to pursue courses in the visual arts. Here, he met Richard Wright and was influenced both by his writing and his communist affiliations. Following service in the merchant navy in World War II, Ellison became disillusioned with left-wing ideology and began writing Invisible Man, a book concerned with political and social protest. Ellison found a new form for the protest novel, removed from earlier Realist and Naturalist works. His style was idiosyncratic, both in structure and narrative, describing events based on his experience of being a black man, and what that meant in a personal and public perspective in US society.

The book’s narrator is invisible, unnamed, and completely alone: society chooses either not to see him, or to ignore him. He lives underground, mirroring the segregation of African-Americans at the time. In his isolation, the narrator reflects passionately on the path his life has taken – from public speaker in his youth, to disgraced college student and mistreated worker in a white factory in Harlem, to involvement with the politically ambiguous Brotherhood. The narrator muses over the injustices he has suffered in life, but finally he concludes that he must live a life that is true to his nature and his wider responsibilities: he is ready to emerge into the world.

See also: Les Misérables • Their Eyes Were Watching God • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings