Ralph Ellison’s eulogy for a slain black man should be read by all today
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is read by many in school. Maybe you even read it. Maybe you even recall a scene or two, like the famous “Battle Royal”, in which the narrator, a promising black high school student, attends a local civic banquet in his 1930s southern town to receive a scholarship to attend college. But first he has to fight in a group boxing match against other black youths as part of the evening’s entertainment.
Of course, Ellison’s narrator doesn’t seem all that bothered by his inclusion in the boxing match, or the fact that there is a battle royal at all. This is a contrast with reason Ellison wants to make clear. Shit is mad fucked up, and we are supposed to notice that.
But by the end of the novel, the narrator is no longer so accepting of the status quo. He is disgusted; both with himself and with everyone else around him. And it takes the death of his friend Todd Clifton for him to realize that.
Todd is arrested for the crime of selling goods on the street without a permit. He is treated roughly and struck several times. He responds, knocking the officer to the ground. Embarrassed, the officer pulls out his gun and shoots Todd dead.
You see Todd Clifton was killed, or we should say more accurately murdered in a confrontation with a police officer that feels all too familiar.
But here’s the thing. It was all too familiar then as well! And the narrator is fucking tired of the story. Read his opening remarks of his eulogy for Todd and feel the frustration and anger and nihilism that explode from his words
“What are you waiting for me to tell you?” I shouted suddenly, my voice strangely crisp in on the windless air. “What good will it do? What if I say that this isn’t a funeral, that it’s a holiday celebration, that if you stick around the band will end up playing “Damit-the-Hell the Fun’s All Over’? Or do you expect to see some magic, the dead rise up and walk again? Go home, he’s dead as he’ll ever die. That’s the end in the beginning and there’s no encore. There’ll be no miracles and there’s no one here to preach a sermon. Go home, forget him. He’s inside this box, newly dead. Go home and don’t think about him. He’s dead and you’ve got all you can do to think about you.” I paused. They were whispering and looking upward.
“I’ve told you to go home,” I shouted, “but you keep standing there. Don’t you know it’s hot out here in the sun? So what if you wait for what little I can tell you? Can I say in twenty minutes what was building twenty-one years and ended in twenty seconds? What are you waiting for , when all I can tell you is his name? And when I tell you, what will you know that you didn’t know already, except, perhaps, his name?”
Here Ellison flips the eulogy on its head. Funerals are not for the deceased, but for the consolation of the living. Funerals are an opportunity to let the family and friends grieve. Eulogies are meant to make the people hearing them feel better.
And Ellison will have none of that. No one gets to feel better today. No one gets to grieve in communal sorrow, expurgating guilt through ritual and song. No, goddammit, Ellison will not let everyone off that easy.
He attacks the inherent selfishness of the individual: “he’s dead and you’ve got all you can do to think about you”. Ellison knows that today isn’t about Todd Clifton, it’s about you. It’s always been about you. And if you only care about yourself then just go home now.
But Ellison isn’t blaming people for thinking of only themselves. After all, it’s what the narrator has been doing the entire time. Selling out his people for his own personal gain. But now his eyes are open. He is confronting his self-contradiction. And he is really fucking pissed off at himself.
But imbued in his anger with himself is his realization of the futility of resistance. He doesn’t have any answers. What should be done? How should they fight injustice? He has no idea.
So he mocks the typical pattern of a eulogy in which one describes the life and death of the deceased, by stating that he won’t provide that information because “what will you know that you didn’t know already?”.
You know the story. I know the story. We all know the story. And what does it matter? Why does it matter? How can it possibly matter if it will never change?
Shit is pretty bleak, but can you blame him?
Like Ellison I do not have any answers, nor if I did would I expect you to listen to them from me. But his words should echo has warnings. We must remember. Individuals matter. People matter. But we must show that in areas beyond funerals. We must live the compassion we now show only at the time of death.