'Ralph Ellison: An American Journey'

Avon Kirkland and Stanley Crouch
Writer, director, producer; cultural critic
Thursday, August 25, 2005; 1:00 PM

Featuring the life and career of novelist Ralph Ellison, the American Masters film "Ralph Ellison: An American Journey" aired on PBS on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

A work about a black man whose intellect and talents could not overcome the barriers of his day, "The Invisible Man" won the National Book Award in 1953. Ellison himself never completed his second novel -- a fire in 1967 destroyed much of it -- and he spent the remainder of his life reconstructing its 2,000-page manuscript. He died in 1994, leaving it unfinished. In 1999, his literary executor edited the raw draft and released it under the title "Juneteenth." In this film -- named Outstanding Achievement in Documentary at Sundance 2002 -- American Masters offers re-creations from the novel and interviews with Cornel West, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others.

Writer, director and producer Avon Kirkland and cultural critic Stanley Crouch were online Thursday, Aug. 25, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the PBS American Masters film "Ralph Ellison: An American Journey" and the life of novelist Ralph Ellison.

Writer, director and producer Avon Kirkland has created, written or co-written and produced several award-wining programs about African Americans for a national public television audience. They include Up & Coming, a 25-episode black family drama series shown on primetime PBS in the 1980's, and Booker, a one-hour drama based on Booker T. Washington's childhood struggle for education during the Civil War and its aftermath. Booker was chosen as the series premiere of the PBS children's program Wonderworks and received numerous awards, including the 1985 Prix Jeunesse International Award. Also, Kirkland's docu-drama Simple Justice, based on Thurgood Marshall's role in the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, was shown on the PBS series American Experience. Kirkland also produced and directed Street Soldiers, a documentary about the outstanding youth rehabilitation work of the Omega Boys Club of San Francisco. Most recently, Mr. Kirkland wrote, directed and produced American Masters' "Ralph Ellison: An American Journey." He is currently producing a feature-length documentary on the controversial career and legacy of Booker T. Washington. Kirkland, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

Stanley Crouch is an editorial columnist for the New York Daily News and has written for the Village Voice, The New Yorker, The New York Times and many other publications. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, a Jean Stein Award and an Alphonse Fletcher Fellowship. His books of essays include Notes of A Hanging Judge, The All-American Skin Game, Always in Pursuit, and The Artificial White Man. The first published novel in a projected six-novel sequence is "Don't The Moon Look Lonesome." He has served as Artistic Consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Crouch is a frequent panelist on television and radio talk shows such as "Topic A" and "Charlie Rose."

The transcript follows.


Stanley Crouch: Hello! Any discussion of RALPH ELLISON has the potential for revealing aspects of American life and art and culture that we are not always aware of.


Rockville, Md.: Mr. Kirkland and Mr. Crouch;

Has "Invisible Man" been the greatest work of African American (or, more generally, any American) literature of the 20th century? What makes it so great?

Stanley Crouch: I wouldn't say that it is the greatest work of fiction of the 20th century -- there are others - but I would say it is one of them, because it captures the sensibility of an extremely intelligent individual from his skin inward and his skin outward. It renders very powerfully a variety of contexts, both rural and urban. It addresses the various ways in which an outsider can be misled, can underestimate or overestimate a range of perceptions that are passed on to him by people in an epic range of social classes and conditions. And it also gives us a very powerful rendition of what we today would call alternative American radical politics, or politics that presents itself as radical but actually is as committed to enslaving individuals as its opposition. I think all of those things work together for a powerful, forward moving narrative, and this can be said to explain why it's a great novel.


Avon Kirkland: May I just say at the beginning that there is an enhanced DVD version of the show that Ellison lovers (or haters) may find interesting. IT explores themes brought up and show and has an extra hour of video that features Stanley's incisive comments on African American identity, Ellison's personality, Ellison's blues aesthetic, and more . It's available at www. Also features Cornel West and Stanley's friend Amiri Baraka.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Why do you think Ellison shirked what some thought was his "responsibility" to be an activist?

Stanley Crouch: Well he was an activist. He just wasn't a loud mouth activist. He was an advisor to Lyndon Johnson. He was one of the people who helped develop public television. But he tended, from what I can tell, to first and foremost be a writer, which people like that self-willed imbecile Leroi Jones, thought he did not have the right to do.


Albany, N.Y.: Hi everyone--

I have yet to read "Juneteenth", but I remember that when it came out several reviews were fairly negative. Can you talk about what "Juneteenth" is all about?

Stanley Crouch: Well, I don't have much to say about it, because I don't really support the way in which it was edited and published. Because it was an enormously large manuscript and a number of things that Ellison read to me and that I had read from the book were not included in it. And I think, though I have enormous respect for him, I think that John Callahan, who is responsible for doing the editing, should be listed as co-author. Given what the book turned out to be and the various things that he chose to edit out. But soon we'll see the entire mass of pages that Ellison left behind him. Callahan is working on that.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How many pages of the second novel had been completed, and was Juneteenth the working title?

Stanley Crouch: No. It didn't have a working title as far as I know. Apparently a goodly amount of it was lost somewhere because Saul Bellow read 300 or 400 of the manuscript in the sixties and said at that time that it was at least as good as Invisible Man. I'm not sure that Callahan was able to bring that off with what was available to work with. But it still is finally a noble effort.


Bergen, N.J.: Mr. Crouch,

Is there any thing in the book that you would have changed if you had been his editor? Any area not explored to your satisfaction?

Stanley Crouch: With Juneteenth, I would have had to have read all those pages, so it's not something I could answer. Invisible Man, the answer would be not necessarily.


Atlantic City, N.J.: Mr. Crouch and Mr. Kirkland, What was it, in your mind, that made "Invisible Man" so extraordinary? Was it so extraordinary that you feel Ellison couldn't have topped it even if he had succeeded with the second Big Novel?

Avon Kirkland: There was so much that made it extraordinary. for one, Ellison's depiction of black people as not just victims but pro-active intelligent people who even under oppression fashioned a culture for themselves that has enriched and made more vital American culture


Morgantown, W.Va.: Ellison seems like an American like Walt Whitman or Sam Clemments, a man who loved the people of America, but maybe not the country as a whole. (This is a new pet theory of mine, in case you can't tell). Would you both agree or disagree?

Stanley Crouch: I would disagree. I think that he has a quarrel with the various levels of bigotry that were established. But I think any reasonable person would. At the same time I think he could see the surging, multi various energy and invention that makes America what it is. And in a way I.M. celebrates that as it attacks racism and the depersonalizing aspects of the Marxist derived organization he calls the Brotherhood.


Washington, D.C.: I have a passion for documentary films. How did you two get started in the industry and do you have any recommendations for someone who is interested in changing career fields from engineering to media production?

Thank you.

Avon Kirkland: Find yourself an entry level position and be prepared to work your but off. Incidentally, editors and cameramen tend to make the more than others on a project.


Washington, D.C.: Greetings. Reading Ralph Ellison by Anne Seidlitz on the PBS Web site prompts a few questions. I note that the author views INVISIBLE MAN as an affirmation of black identity, while providing a metaphor for anyone experiencing 'invisibility'. Yet at this stage of his life it is evident that Ellison is on to more than affirming a collective identity. In the end, the protagonist, who has no fixed or identifiable location in society, is invisible to everyone, his fellow blacks included. Somehow this seems to get occluded in characterizations of Ellison. Also, do you think that as time went on, Ellison's investment in being a spokesman for a collective experience, however unstereotypical, crowded out the radical individualistic dimension of the perspective embedded in the novel?

Stanley Crouch: Not at all. I don't think that Ellison ever was held down by the role of the Spokesman. He never went for that. He saw what was possible in a given community, and he understood its variety, and he was very critical of anything that denied that variety. But he was never your boil plate spokesman. He was always a great individual and his central concern was the respect of the individual and the possibilities that allow for individuality.


Washington, D.C.: Was Ellison surprised by the success of Invisible Man?

Stanley Crouch: I think he was.


Stanley Crouch: And I think he was also surprised by the fact that the book kept rising in esteem with each passing year.


Chincoteague, Va.: I was interested to learn that Saul Bellow was a friend of Ellison's. Did they have much of a professional relationship?

Stanley Crouch: I don't know how much of a professional relationship they had, but they talked a lot and had a lot of fun together and lived together in a house that Saul Bellow had in the fifties.


Jacksonville, Fla.: Fist I thank you all that put in the time to produce the segment. When I came across the show I had no intention on watching the show. I had never heard of Mr. Ellison or of his works and I think of myself as a writer. I am a black male who has faced the anger of being black in America. I longed for an ear to hear my voice, to hear my cry, my pain, my despair and disappointment. As I watch, the eye of my mind opened I found my self with Mr. Ellison as he recorded his thoughts. I found myself inspired in the basement with the invisible man turning on the lights, sleeping on the bed in a room away for all. I felt his pain his longing to be accepted for who and what he stood for. As Mr. Ellison life was told I began getting upset at what I saw and heard. I was disgusted on how the other black leaders look upon Mr. Ellison saying his writing did not ring the bell of aggression toward white America. How foolish they sounded how elementary were there thoughts. I took Mr. Ellison words as aggression. His aggression was focused inward to start there to look at your self to confront the chains that we have allowed to hinder us. Who can change the world if they are afraid to see what needs to change in them? That's what I saw as this black leader shot insults at his works. I understood his tears when another black man called him an uncle tom. I don't think it was an emotional break down it was sorrow that his voice was not heard that his peers could not see his fight was for them and himself. He was saying in his writing "I feel pain too but hate is not the path to love hate is hate no matter if you're black or white so love but first love yourself."

Avon Kirkland: Homeboy! I'm from Jacksonville too. Stanton High School. Blodgett Homes. Your final comments are quite astute. I think that Ellison may well have been sad rather than simply emotionally devastated. He actually gave the attacker a good piece of his mind before crying but it took too long to treat on video and we left it out.


Detroit, Mich.: For either: Do you think the protagonist in Invisible Man mirrors Ellison himself in any way?

Stanley Crouch: No. He didn't have that experience on the college campus. When he went in the Communist party he didn't have the experience the narrator had. Ellison was a very gifted writer, so I don't think its that far out to imagine that he imagined what he imagined.


Annandale, Va.: Did not see the documentary and am sorry I missed it. Love Ralph Ellison, particularly his essays. In one essay, he mentions that he considered certain writers his ancestors especially Hemingway whom he said taught him to shoot birds on the wing. Did he have any African-American writers whom he considered in this way?

Stanley Crouch: Well I'm sure he thought of Richard Wright as an ancestor because as far as I can tell Invisible Man is as much a high flown literary variation of Wright's Black Boy or American Hunger as it is anything else. If one closely examines the Wright memoir one will find many parallels between it and I.M. and will see certain things mentioned more or less in passing that Ellison seems to have expanded through remarkable passages of his own novel.


Ocean, N.J.: Mr. Kirkland, What was the biggest challenge making this film? How much material did you have to work with? It would seem like limited resources, as the quantity of Ellison's writings were so limited.

Avon Kirkland: IF you limit the writing resources to his fiction, then yes, the resources were relatively limited. But if you include his essays, as we tried to do, then thins open up quite a bit. Please read "Shadow and Act" and "Going to the Territory" and you will find a great mind opening up intellectual vistas of enormous richness,


Alexandria, Va..: Because I was introduced to both books at the same time, I tend to think of "Native Son" and "Invisible Man" as strongly linked. How would the two of you compare them? What was the relationship between Richard Wright and Ellison?

Stanley Crouch: Richard Wright helped Ellison out a lot when he came to NY. They both discovered Dostoyefsky's Note From The Underground at the same time. They also discussed literary technique. Ellison was more given to certain literary techniques than Wright was. For Wright the surrealism that resulted from racism was enough in itself. But Ellison, at least one aspect of Ellison's technique, embraced the literary technique of surrealism. That's one of the differences between them. But there are many. I don't think Wright had the eloquence of Ellison or was as imaginative as Ellison. But he was surely a powerful writer.


New York, N.Y.: The Washington Post article announcing this on-line discussion states that 'Ralph Ellison's stature and respect emanate from a single novel, "The Invisible Man"...'

In actuality, his book's title is simply "Invisible Man." This a common mistake people make, thanks no doubt to the fame of the earlier H.G. Wells novel (and its subsequent film version) titled "The Invisible Man."

Now it is possible that Ellison left off the definite article in his title merely to distinguish his book from Wells'. But if either of you has any thoughts about why else he may have omitted it, would you please share them with the audience?

Avon Kirkland: I Think that Ellison used the title because it fits his subject. HE was saying that all black people were invisible, not seen as human beings. So his protagonist was a kind of African American Everyman.


San Jose, Calif.: Mr. Kirkland, Have you done any other American Masters programs? Has Ellison's ever been captured this way anywhere else?

Avon Kirkland: This was my first program for AM. Masters.

Avon Kirkland: IT is also the first major doc on Ellison.


Washington, D.C.: Besides the fire in 1967, what kept Ellison from producing at least one or even two more novels? I understand that "Juneteenth" was released after his death, but many people I know who have read it say it's more of a skeleton of what Ellison was trying to accomplish, rather than a complete work. Were his writing habits that meticulous?Thank you.

Stanley Crouch: First thing, I don't think anyone can answer that question. I think we just have to go with what we have. We have one very great novel. And we have another that in some opinions is not very great at all. But since it's not Ellison's work, so what? There are those who think that Juneteenth will some how mangle Ellison's reputation. But it's not a book he wrote. It's the result of pages that he hadn't edited and that were left behind, and things were left out because they didn't have the connections that Ellison would have put in that would have made other passages possible.... so there you have it. The longer one waits the greater the expectation is, and that can be intimidating. However great people might have wanted his next book to be, with each passing decade that desire raised the ante. So if had published another novel 40 years after the first one, he would have had to write As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, etc. in one novel. So that could have held him back. But finally, the truth of the matter is, we don't know.


Killington, Vt.: Dear Mr. Crouch,

Great insights into Mr. Ellison. How seriously do you think Ralph believed in Communism? Was it a passing phase?

Avon Kirkland: IT was a passing phase,especially when Ellison observed close-range how the Communist Party actually tried to discourage Wright from writing fiction. They were doctrinaire to the fullest and Ellison decide that he wanted none of it.


Indianapolis, Ind.: What distinguished Mr. Ellison in order to be published in a day and time when African American writers were scarce (or scarcely published)?

Stanley Crouch: Well, Ellison was a far more impressive literary man than the majority of writers of any ethnic background were at that time. He wasn't as great a writer as William Faulkner but I think he was a much more sophisticated man than Faulkner was, and I think that just kind of bowled the people over. Faulkner could create these peerless masterpieces but he didn't know that much about literature. He hadn't read that many books. But he read enough - obviously! There are many writers who are more learned and scholarly and conversant with literary theories than William Faulkner is. Which means that they might be better teachers than W. Faulkner. But we know they aren't' writers like William Faulkner. That's how talent works! That in fact is why a lot of literary people hate Faulkner. Because when they compare their education to his and then their talent to his, they realize that education won't make up for genius. While genius can make up for education.


Arlington, Va.: Hello. I went on the PBS Web site and viewed Ellison's timeline. There is a picture of him with a big bandage on his head and it looks like a mug shot. Can you explain this photo? Thank you.

Avon Kirkland: That's how he looked when he arrived at Tuskegee after having gotten there by freight train. That was a dangerous way to travel, especially for a black man going south. But Ellison was tough and also had a switchblade in his pocket.


Wintergreen, Va.: Mr. Crouch,

Beside "Invisible Man," I've never read any other of Ellison's work. I wonder--did he write any poetry, or was he focused on novels and essays instead?

Stanley Crouch: If you haven't read anything beside that then you are ready for the collected essays of Ellison, which constitute perhaps the finest single gathering of essays on American culture by anyone. He didn't write any poetry that I know of.


Montreal, Canada: I am quite interested in this question of victimization. I understand quite well how Ellison attempted to break free from this by creating a multi-faceted character and bringing up issues negotiation of one's personal identity. But how can one avoid the issue of victimization all together? In the novel, "Invisible Man" is still being positioned by people and the society around him. I agree that Jazz musicians did create a totally new and independent art form, however many blues lyrics evoke daily experiences under oppression, which gives them their cathartic quality. Does speaking of an oppressive situation relegate one to the position of victim? Can one completely separate the idea of being positioned by something (i.e. victim) if one's reinvention in necessarily dependant on an oppressive situation? In your opinion does one's ability to reinvent ones within the context of oppression liberate one from 'victimization'?

Avon Kirkland: Briefly, Clyde Taylor addresses your concern on a DVD containing one-hour of additional discussion of certain Ellison themes (check "". IT is not an either/or issue but a both/and. Individual effort plus community action to overcome oppression. Check out the DVD; Clyde is eloquent on the subject.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Amazing show last night! Thanks for bringing Ellison's story to life; what was the hardest part of the program to make?

Avon Kirkland: the hardest part was to actually use all of the great bites we got from folks like Stanley, Cornel West , and everyone else.


Cabot, Ark.: The "battle royal":

a. Would the leading citizens of a small southern town be likely to take part in an event of this nature?

b. Could an event like this take place in a small town without the local ladies learning about it?

c. What is the likelihood of any group of southern white men in the 1920's or 30's showing a white woman to blacks?

d. How far would they have to go, at how much cost, to find a white woman who would take part in the events described?

e. How would one go about electrifying a rug?

Have you ever heard of a rug which would conduct electricity?

f. What college, anywhere, any time, would issue a scholarship "to whom it may concern"?

g. Why does no one identify this story for what it obviously is: a fable. Is it because it faithfully reflects what everyone wants to believe?

Stanley Crouch: I think you should read Jeffrey Ward's biography of Jack Johnson which describes these Battle Royales which people were put in rings together, fought to the finish and the last man standing won whatever the little purse was. Secondarily, the nude white female seems to have been a prostitute. So prostitutes do what they're hired to do. She didn't have sex with them. She was supposed to titillate them but then found herself threatened more by the lust of a bunch of drunken white guys. Lastly, I think that Ellison was knew how one would go about electrifying a rug since he built crystal sets and later built component stereo equipment. So he knew a lot about electricity, what conducts it and what doesn't. Finally, I think the questioner is right in saying that it is sort of a fable. But again, it's one of Ellison's brilliant combinations of the real and the surreal, the mythic and the fable-like. It has all of those different layers functioning at one time. There is a very visceral reality to it, and then there is a surreal quality. And then there is,as the element of fable to it.


Stanley Crouch: Some of the questions were interesting, some were not -- but it was well worth while so we should all support PBS. And I would suggest to those interested in Ralph Ellison that you get the DVD which provides vast improvements on the documentary. So there you have it!


Glen Air, Pa.: I missed the program; do you know when it will air again?

Avon Kirkland: Don't know. But check your library for a DVD. OR check the American Maters Web site for a link to the distributor.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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