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Ralph Ellison: King of the Bingo Game and Invisible Man

By on Jul 24, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews, Short Story Reviews | 12 comments

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Note: You can read “King of the Bingo Game” at http://legacy.owensboro.kctcs.edu/crunyon/Eng262/07-paper/kobgtext.htm

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison, Author of The Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison, author of the week in my Wednesday Writing Group, wrote “King of the Bingo Game” in 1944, eight years before the publication of his monumental novel, Invisible Man. The story was an incubator for many of the techniques that grew to maturity in Invisible Man.

I well remember when I first discovered Ellison. My daughter brought home a copy when she came home for Thanksgiving break circa 1989. I read it hungrily, luxuriating in its intensity, style and rhythm. But I was angry. It had been published in the 1952 and I had never heard of it. The only possible reason for this was prejudice and this made me furious, furious that such a wonderful book had been withheld from me. The upside was the treat I had in store. After reading it, I started delving into what else I might have missed and discovered three ladies, Angela Davis, Zora Neal Hurston, and Alice Walker. An exciting and new world opened up to me. I was already familiar with James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright. These books had been assigned. Why wasn’t Ellison?

The first chapter of the Invisible Man tells of a young, naive boy, the valedictorian of his class, who goes to a meeting of the local Chamber of Commerce to give a speech, having been recommended by the Superintendent of Schools. I didn’t know about Battle Royals at the time but as he got into the story I realized there was a deep divergence between the young narrator’s idea of what was to happen and what his hosts had planned. He’s not catching on, I worried. He’s going to be badly hurt. He doesn’t know how these men can be.

The practice of fighting battles royal in this context continued long after the abolition of slavery. Some were still fought legally in the 1930s albeit with the use of gloves. However, most bouts in this period were fought illegally at “smokers”, unsanctioned and unregulated boxing matches, as preludes to the main event. Almost all fighters at these contests, both legal and illegal, were still black African Americans, although they were now allowed to keep their winnings which would be as little as $2, and not more than $5. A battle royal is the subject of the first chapter of Ralph Ellison‘s novel Invisible Man.1 

I found the first chapter deeply emotional and could read it only a page at a time. I assigned myself one page a day to give myself time to absorb it. I could see the men at the smoker. I knew how evil this kind of man is and how dangerous it was for the boy. I was afraid he would be humiliated and physically damaged by them and that the damage would be permanent. What actually happened wasn’t as bad as I had imagined and I was relieved that he got out of it alive with his scholarship in hand. With the first chapter over, I was able to read the rest of the book more calmly. Only a very great writer could have put me through so much agony.

It was a wonderful book and I empathized with his plight of being invisible although some might think it a little presumptuous on my part. After all I’m a white woman. What do I know about being a black man? I do know a little about how it feels to be invisible. Throughout life I’ve often felt that no one was paying attention to me because all they saw was my female self. I would say something and watch as my words slipped out and around and past the heads of the men surrounding me. They didn’t hear me. I wasn’t there. It became part of life, a frustrating part. I’d say to myself. I should have been a pole dancer or something. I’d sit in a meeting and think silently, Hey, I said that. Listen to me. I’m here. I’d call out silently trying to force the space around me to accept my presence, to give me a place in the sun. I’d smile. It was an Uncle Tom smile, an Oh well smile. But what I experienced was only a scant shadow of what it must have been like for Ralph Ellison. But it was precisely this scant shadow of understanding he was reaching for. In an interview with The Paris Review, he says,

One ironic witness to the beauty and universality of this art is the fact that the descendants of the very men who enslaved us can now sing the spirituals and find in the singing an exaltation of their own humanity. Just take a look at some of the slave songs, blues, folk ballads; their possibilities for the writer are infinitely suggestive. Some of them have named human situations so well that a whole corps of writers could not exhaust their universality.2 

 He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant but no one listened. He wasn’t there. He was invisible.

Some of what is wonderful about Ellison’s writing is the musicality. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it.The Invisible Man has a prologue and this is one book where you can’t skip the prologue. He writes about learning to listen in a new way, of hearing not only in time but in space as well.

“I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths.

And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz3 as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slave owners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:
“Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the ‘Blackness of Blackness.’ ”4 

 It’s a riff that continues for several pages.

“Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,

What did I do
To be so black
And blue?”

And that is the infernal, eternal question, the question he seeks to answer, the question he seeks to explain to us. The song lyrics by Fats Waller are horrible to consider but considerably easy to listen to. If they weren’t easy on the ear, we wouldn’t listen but encased as they are in a bluesy melody, they haunt and lead us gently to analyze the plight of a man who is so black and so blue. Heartbreaking lyrics. Instead of just reading them, listen to Louis Armstrong sing them. Click on the link or copy it into your address bar. It’ll take only four minutes and you’ll be glad you did. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kt3HUeg–FQ

Cold empty bed, springs hard as lead
Feels like ol’ Ned wished I was dead

What did I do to be so black and blue?
Even the mouse ran from my house

They laugh at you and scorn you too
What did I do to be so black and blue?

I’m white inside but that don’t help my case
‘Cause I can’t hide what is in my face?

How would it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?

How would it end, ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue?5

This story, “King of the Bingo Game” also experimented with musical riffs. This story is a mixture of realism and surrealism. He tells it in third person limited and it’s gritty and physical. I can smell the sweat, hear the bottle in its paper bag, see the bedbug. That’s the realism. Then he launches into surrealism with a dream like the improvisation of jazz musician. It’s a bold and brilliant leap.

Toward the story’s beginning the narrator slips into sleep and dreams of a train coming. It’s a precursor of what is to come. “the train had left the track and was following him right down the middle of the street, and all the while people laughing as he ran screaming.” That’s what happens in the story. He becomes a man derailed, a man who slides into insanity.

He’s alone, hungry and tired. He knows the show is fixed. He knows on some level that everything is fixed. In beautiful prose he describes the white beam of light, the narrow beam that falls exactly where it should. It doesn’t mess up. He’s comparing light and shadow, white and black. The white girl on the screen worries him. Things might get out of hand and you wouldn’t find a seat for nine months. A pregnancy? He sees a bedbug in broad daylight. They are creatures of the night. It frightens him that they’re out during the day. He checks for bedbugs but finds none.

He must have screamed in his sleep. A man nearby gives him a swig. He feels the “whiskey breaking a warm path straight through to the middle of him.” How beautiful. He thinks of Laura, his wife? He wants to win for her, to make her better. He has the sickness of the poor at their most desperate, the gamblers who believe in lady luck, those who buy lottery tickets and dream of winning big. He feels he can win. He has a good chance.

He gets Bingo, yells out, stumbles to the stage and is blinded by the light. It’s magical but real. He can smell the pomade. He is one of the chosen people. The man hands him a button attached to a string that moves the wheel of fortune. He’s attached to an umbilical cord, a magical puppeteer string that will bring him luck and with it, power and safety for Laura and he knows he must do this right. He must do this one thing right. He must succeed. He has been given a chance and he cannot blow it and go back into invisibility. He stands in the strong light and pushes the button but he can’t stop because if he stops, he’ll have to face reality and he can’t bear not to do it right, not to win the jackpot. It is here that he loses connection with reality. He soars like a jazz musician’s riff. He loses himself. He sees God and says aloud. “This is God.” The noise of the crowd overwhelms him and he enters an altered state. The trumpets shriek from the jukebox in his mind. He laughs, doesn’t know who he is and screams, “Who am I?” He is bursting inside. He has no one but Laura and she will die. The music soars to a fever pitch. His head bursts and he ruptures the blood vessels in his nose. He grins, an Old Tom grin, a grin to get him through but the act won’t work this time. He still thinks he has won but the curtain comes down and he is hit a blow on his head. The luck that had been so near, slips out of his body and runs out on the stage.

Read the Invisible Man, the full text, at http://bpi.edu/ourpages/auto/2010/5/11/36901472/Ralph%20Ellison%20-%20Invisible%20Man%20v3_0.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_royal []
  2. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5053/the-art-of-fiction-no-8-ralph-ellison []
  3. Weltschmerz, German, A feeling of world pain or weariness. []
  4. The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Prologue, page 7. []
  5. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/louisarmstrong/blackblue.html []

12 Comments

  1. Dev Swanson

    July 24, 2014

    Post a Reply

    I shook hands with Ralph Ellison in 1993 after a speech he gave accepting the first Harold Washington book award at the new library in Chicago. Invisible Man became a favorite during a college course on American social protest lit and had remained on my top 5 list for the previous 15 years. It’s now been there over 35.

    Because it’s a favorite, I’ve read lots of articles and commentaries about Ellison and Invisible Man. Even attended a panel discussion at the Chicago Humanities Festival in ’03. It’s always interesting to see what really impresses people about it and how the perspective on it changes.

    From the beginning, I felt Invisible Man was about me. And everybody. That we are all get born into certain circumstances and are identified more by our external characteristics than, shall we say, the content of our thought, actions or character. That, although this story happened to be about being black in America, it could easily be about being blonde. The cast and story would be different, but the feeling of not being genuinely seen or heard would be the same.

    Ellison was the person who made me realize that this feeling of “aloneness” is an inherent part of the human condition. That none of us ever really knows who anyone is except in context. Even our names are just window dressing, so the narrator doesn’t have one.

    Now I find myself more attracted to the underlying political discussion about the importance/necessity of finding balance between the approaches advocated by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. These are still being debated relative to racial equality, though the circumstances are somewhat changed.

    I will always admire Ellison’s attempts to translate jazz into prose.

      • hannahpowers

        July 25, 2014

        Post a Reply

        Annalise, It’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you liked the post.

    • hannahpowers

      July 25, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Thank you, Dev, for your comments on Ralph Ellison and for sharing part of your personal history with him. He’s that kind of writer and it seems he got under your skin as he did with many others. I envy you meeting him.
      I agree that he is delves into the universal, that the story could as easily been about a blonde. That’s a wonderful comment. I’ve given some thought lately to the dichotomy between how we think we are presenting ourselves and how we are perceived and the interrelationship between the seer and the seen. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to brushing over a fellow human’s depth of self with a cursory glance at his or her exterior. Why then do I mind so much when it is done to me?
      You are right, “aloneness is an inherent part of the human condition.” Very well put. Maybe someday you will explain to me what you mean by the last paragraph of your note when you refer to the balance between approaches.
      Thanks again for your comment. It has given me something to think about.

  2. Hannah, Even though I was aware of the name, Ralph Ellison, I had never read any of his writings.. What a talented man! As a reader, and not a writer of fiction, I felt that he had written “Kind of the Bingo Game” from a true incident, a happening that he embellished, a sort of urban legend that had grown from theater bingo. I dated this story “early thirties”; he was in his teens and was aware of this game of change and unfair rules. Thank you, fp

    • hannahpowers

      July 25, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Francella,
      You bring an interesting perspective to the story. My mother, born in 1917, talked about going to the movies to get dishes. If you went regularly you could collect a whole set for your trousseau. I think we had a plate or two when I was young that dated from those days. The finish was worn off in places.
      The theater bingo may well have been an urban legend. He was around thirty when he wrote the bingo story but he may have been remembering the thirties. Thanks for your comment.
      Hannah

    • hannahpowers

      July 28, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Cathy,
      I was able to put the link in for you and in reference to the link about the man who was killed in NY.

      Yes, it happens all the time and that is one thing I cannot share. I have no idea how it feels to be profiled and stopped, how it feels to be man handled, or how it feels to be killed or have a family member killed for no reason. Enforcement of the law isn’t fair and it reflects society’s values. You are right to be angry. It makes me angry too.
      Hannah

  3. Junie Brown

    July 29, 2014

    Post a Reply

    Hannah. Thank you for this post. I can see I must read The Invisible Man. I appear to have missed a lot. Junie

    • hannahpowers

      July 29, 2014

      Post a Reply

      Junie,
      The first chapter is a bear. It’s difficult emotionally but good. Let me know when you read it. I’d love to know your reaction.
      Anne

  4. D'Mari

    March 10, 2017

    Post a Reply

    This is an excellent essay. The only suggestion I would make is that you correct “Black and Blue” — it was written by Fats Waller. Armstrong gives a good rendition, but it’s Waller’s words that make it so powerful and he deserves to be credited.

    • hannahpowers

      March 10, 2017

      Post a Reply

      Thank you for telling me about my error. Fats Waller deserves the credit.
      Hannah

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