Ralph Ellison could be abrasive. His biographer Arnold Rampersad records that James Baldwin thought Ellison ‘the angriest man he knew’. Shirley Hazzard observed that when Ellison was drinking he ‘could become obnoxious very quickly’. His friend Albert Murray recognised something in him that was ‘potentially violent, very violent. He was ready to take on people and use whatever street corner language they understood. He was ready to fight, to come to blows. You really didn’t want to mess with Ralph Ellison.’
His masterpiece, Invisible Man (1952), the only novel he published in his lifetime, begins with a moment of explosive rage. The unnamed narrator is walking down a dark street and accidentally bumps into a blond man, who calls him something – we don’t know what – so he seizes him and shouts at him to apologise, then beats him to the ground and takes out a knife to slit his throat, stopping himself only when he realises that ‘the man had not seen me’.
At this very early stage of the novel, it has been hinted but not made explicit that Ellison’s narrator is a black man. The immediate inference, however, is that a racist slur has enraged him. That sense of anger remains close to the surface. Later in the book, there is a scene where the Invisible Man is threatened with expulsion from his southern Jim Crow college following a misadventure with the institution’s rich white benefactor. When the college president – himself a black man – racially abuses him, the Invisible Man loses his cool again. ‘I’ll fight you,’ he screams. ‘I swear it, I’ll fight!’