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Whose Blues?Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music$
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Adam Gussow

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781469660363

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469660363.001.0001

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Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and the Southern Blues Violences

Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and the Southern Blues Violences

(p.180) Bar 9 Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and the Southern Blues Violences
Whose Blues?

Adam Gussow

University of North Carolina Press

One of the most frequently quoted descriptions of the blues--“an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically”--was penned by Ralph Ellison in a 1945 review essay of Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy. This chapter uses Ellison’s formulation as an opening through which to explore the way in which three distinct but related modes of southern violence play significant roles in the major works of both authors. Disciplinary violence, including lynching, vagrancy laws, and prison farms, is white-on-black violence that aims to terrorize, immobilize, and punish. Retributive violence is black-on-white violence that resists or strikes back at disciplinary violence. Intimate violence is black-on-black violence driven by jealousy, hatred, and other strong passions. All three forms of violence show up in the blues tradition—and in Black Boy, where they help Wright craft a portrait of a blues-surcharged young Mississippian who, although bereft of the tools and training needed to express those blues musically, will ultimately find in literature, where words can be “weapons,” the outlet he so desperately needs. In Invisible Man and other texts, by contrast, Ellison employs the southern violences in ways that often heighten the comic element within blues’ tragicomic palette of emotions.

Keywords:   Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Violence, literature, Blues, autobiographical

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