Oct. 21–Nov. 11 – Brooklyn Institute for Social Research: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

We welcome back Brooklyn Institute for Social Research for another class, this time examining Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The class will be led by Jude Webre, and will take place on 4 Saturdays: October 21, October 28, November 4, and November 11, 2–5pm, at Word Up Community Bookshop. The course is capped at 20 students, and course readings go out one week before the start of class. To enroll, visit: https://thebrooklyninstitute.com/items/courses/ralph-ellison-invisible-man/

In 1945, Ralph Ellison began work on his epically ironic novel Invisible Man (1952), primarily to make sense of his involvement with radical politics in Harlem over the previous decade. On the fault line between art and politics, Ellison’s book makes a powerful claim for African-American experience and black modernism at the center of the American narrative. Yet the questions it raises about the ideology of race and the constraints it places on American class politics and aesthetic ideals remain unresolved today. Ellison viewed the cosmopolitan aspirations of modernism as both liberatory and, for black artists, bedeviled by race. As the American literary canon took shape in the early Cold War, Ellison argued for the plight of his narrator, “both black and American,” as emblematic of major, persistent paradoxes in American society.

In this course, our reading of Invisible Man will grapple with these questions in the text and its key contexts: Ellison’s intellectual biography and aesthetic development as well as the political climate of 1930s Harlem, when the narrative largely takes place. We will analyze the novel as a record of Ellison’s disillusionment with the Communist Party of America, asking both about his experience with the Party, and how might that experience have influenced his depiction of conflicts over race in American labor politics. Likewise, we’ll consider how the novel situates Harlem, then regarded as the capital of Black America, within the larger picture of the Jim Crow South and the Great Migration. How should we understand Ellison’s self-conscious placement of his novel in the tradition of American epic that includes Melville’s Moby-Dick? What is its relationship to the inventive forms of high modernism and jazz? In service of these questions about aesthetic, historical, political, and intellectual contexts, the course will draw on a selection of bebop recordings, the work of Adorno, dialogues with Ellison’s modernist interlocutors, and interchanges with contemporary writers and musicians, including Richard Wright, Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Burke, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk.

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research class on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
4 Saturdays: October 21, October 28, November 4, & November 11

Word Up Community Bookshop 
2113 Amsterdam Avenue (@ 165th St.)


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