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Ain't got no mother, ain't got no culture
Ain't got no friends, ain't got no schoolin'
Ain't got no love, ain't got no name
Ain't got no ticket, ain't got no token
Ain't got no god
–Nina Simone, “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life,” from the album Nuff Said (1968).
In between human intention and reality lies a disproportionate space that Albert Camus labels “the absurd.” Modern man’s affliction is thus absurd, as orthodox systems turn obsolete, the traditional virtues of the past cease to be familiar. The epistemology of the absurd may not have developed from American soil; but I argue that a resonant form of the absurd does. Absurdity becomes manifest by the form of the blues– American and absurd in creation, the blues depends on a feeling that things are not right. More precisely, the awareness of disproportionality between the interior self and the exterior inform the essence of American blues music. In the process of writing his first novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison writes to a friend: “I told Langston Hughes in fact, that it’s the blues, but nobody seems to understand what I mean.” Taking Ellison’s observation seriously, this project looks at the qualities contingent to the blues and Ellison’s Invisible Man.
In contrast as well as accompaniment to Ellison’s contribution to blues-based literature, Richard Wright too employs the blues in his fiction, yet in a different fashion. Like any instrumentalist or musician, Ellison and Wright navigate their crafts with decisive, individual personality. In following the quests of two protagonists in pursuit of the same thing, Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s The Outsider render profound parallels; but the ways in which freedom becomes exercised by their protagonists ultimately decipher divergence. Not only able to be read in the novels, but felt in the consciousness of their protagonists, Wright and Ellison express varying traditions of blues music that inspire questions of heroism. Protagonists Invisible Man and Cross Damon desire and facilitate their freedom, but when two characters, at first glance, bear recognition to each other: How seriously should we take these heroes or anti heroes, men or characters? Through unfolding and seemingly endless events of rage, injustice, and misunderstanding, both novels saturate their environment with absurdity (Invisible Man begins underground, to say the least), and in some ways their absurd actions are justified. Cross and Invisible Man are right to be angry, but what about when Cross commits murder? How far can these characters go until we stop rooting for them and stop reading? Life is too messy, dirty, and bulging. Wright and Ellison achieve and propagate this tone in their narrative as the absurdity unfolds and builds with each experience. Their protagonists face a challenge: To be, or not to be blue?
I've got life, I've got my freedom
I've got life
I've got the life
And I'm going to keep it
I've got the life
–Last lines of Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life,” from the album Nuff Said (1968).
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Reale, Miranda Virginia, "Despite the Blues: Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison’s Blues Based Works" (2020). Senior Projects Spring 2020. 126.
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