For the agnostics and atheists among us, there is no divine force dictating our paths. We are only that which we decide, individually and collectively, and can achieve with our own intellect. The human body has natural limitations. And coincidence is merely coincidence.
But every so often, I’m confronted with seemingly unconnected factoids that give some credence to cosmic intervention. For instance, the fact that Ralph Ellison died on April 16, 1994, only three days before the release of Nas’s classic debut album, Illmatic, on April 19, 1994. Ellison, of course, is best known for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, a work now heralded as one of the greatest American novels. Drawing from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground both thematically and narratively, Ellison artfully constructs the psychic terror of a black man living in a society of political and social hierarchies that render him, this unnamed narrator/protagonist, invisible, at least insofar as anyone can be bothered to understand his basic humanity.
Ellison’s time had come: he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the no-longer-young age of eighty-one. But there is some poetry to be found in the passing of one of the most influential black writers in American letters only days before the release of the most influential hip-hop album of all time. Illmatic, like Invisible Man, is a document of black male life, this time from the vantage point of a post–Civil Rights, post-Reaganomics urban landscape. Nas captures the paranoid sensibility of a black man highly aware of his own mortality, attempting to survive in a world that offers him little more than drugs, police, guns, and prison.
Ellison left us with little to no indication as to his thoughts about hip-hop, though he shared real estate with the birthplace of that culture. His observations are mostly relegated to aesthetics. In a New Yorker profile that appeared shortly before Ellison’s death, David Remnick notes that “he watches the black kids in Harlem in their baggy hip-hop gear walking down Broadway, and on the same day he sees white suburban kids on television affecting the same style.” Remnick points to this as a sign of the integration within American culture that Ellison had anticipated and warmly embraced. Arnold Rampersad, in his 2007 biography, offers this observation of Ellison’s on Harlem in the 1980s:
Ralph’s neighborhood remained a source of annoyance. Now it had become a cacophony of boom boxes: “Here we are, assailed by the new style portable jukeboxes which every little bastard within miles appears to own, and which they love to share with us deprived ones, even if it’s four in the morning.”
Even with little to go on, I imagine that Ellison had little regard for hip-hop, given his reverence for jazz (of the non-avant-garde variety) and dismissal of funk (which he described as “that most odoriferous of musical(?) styles”). He had the profile of a hip-hop hater, but the genre has certainly drawn from the well of his influence. Yasiin Bey (née Mos Def) rapped on his song “Hip-Hop” from the 1999 album Black on Both Sides: “We went from picking cotton / to chain gang line chopping / To be-bopping / To hip-hopping / Blues people got the blue chip stock option / Invisible Man, got the whole world watching.” Kendrick Lamar has been compared to Invisible Man’s narrator, with hip-hop journalist Andreas Hale writing: “The narrator of Invisible Man spends nearly two decades trying to convince white America that he is to be accepted … Much like the nameless character in Invisible Man, Kendrick feels guilty for investing so much time in becoming immortalized in his music, touring the globe while his friends and family back home were dealing with hard times.”
What pulls me further toward the belief in a godlike ordering of human time lines, with regards to Ellison’s death and the release of Illmatic, is that one of the lines on the album so perfectly embodies an Ellisonian idea. In what is perhaps his best essay, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” Ellison expounds upon advice given to him by Hazel Harrison, a “highly respected concert pianist and teacher.” Ellison was a music major at Tuskegee Institute, specializing in trumpet, and after one decidedly awful recital, he sought solace in Miss Harrison’s basement studio. He was seeking a sympathetic pat on the back, but instead received advice that at first confused him. Miss Harrison said to him, “You must always play your best, even if it’s only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man hidden behind the stove … There’ll always be the little man whom you don’t expect, and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform!”
Chehaw Station was a humble train stop near the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Archival images of it suggest that, even in 1931, it wasn’t a place where one would want to spend much time. Yet Miss Harrison created from it a valuable parable to pass along to her pupil. In the essay, Ellison reflects upon the presence of the little man behind the stove, and applies the metaphor to a critique of American literature:
As representative of the American audience writ small, the little man draws upon the uncodified Americanness of his experience—whether of life or of art—as he engages in a silent dialogue with the artist’s exposition of forms, offering or rejecting the work of art on the basis of what he feels to be its affirmation or distortion of American experience.
Ellison comes to understand, and wants us to understand, that the value of imagining the little man as part of the audience is this: he “challenges the artist to reach out for new heights of expressiveness.” The little man, once we begin to consider his presence, is far more sophisticated than presumed. Though he is attuned to the standards of the broad literary landscape, he has an understanding of American culture that is not represented by them. He is critical of the traditions, precisely because they are unrecognizable in his version of America. In order to create a genuine American art form, Ellison instructs, the little man behind the stove cannot be dismissed based on his humble station, for he is perhaps best suited to apprehend the value of any art that presumes to define the American experience.
Though Ellison, throughout many of his other essays, makes the argument that the artistic and the political should remain separate, this expansive notion of the literary audience seems to ask us to intertwine the two. The question of audience is, implicitly, one of citizenship—who counts and who does not. Who is afforded the assumption of inherent worth? Who deserves to be spoken to and created for?
Nas answers these questions directly and rhythmically on the song “Memory Lane (Sittin in da Park),” where he starts: “I rap for listeners, bluntheads, fly ladies, and prisoners / Hennessy-holders and old-school niggas.” His Chehaw Station is the Queensbridge Housing Projects, and the little man behind the stove is an assortment of characters populating his everyday life (and is not limited by gender). In reaching for them, Nas created a seminal work of hip-hop that has only grown in stature within a larger musical world in the twenty-plus years since its release.
One of the many places where Nas differs from Ellison is that he chose to create for the little man behind the stove without wondering whether that little man had a sophisticated appreciation of the American musical world. “Many of us, by the way, read our first Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mann in barbershops, heard our first opera on phonographs,” Ellison wrote. For Ellison, the little man is deserving of his consideration because he possesses deep knowledge of the American masters. It is less the little man who warrants his artistic attention and more the little man’s unique perspective on that which has filtered into the canon.
But to truly consider the little man is to also acknowledge that he has his own intellectual and artistic traditions, and to find value in those as well. This becomes crucial in a time where the backlash to desires for a more inclusive literary landscape leads to reductive arguments about literary merit versus diversity. If “literary merit” has only ever been defined by a singular voice, what merit does it possess? For every gentle push to consider that the definition be altered, that we include artists who challenge that dominant voice, there is the loud and immediate counterargument that we must hold on to our traditions, thereby shutting those other voices out.
I think of recent works from Eve L. Ewing (Electric Arches) and Jenny Zhang (Sour Heart). They place their focus on their own respective Chehaw Stations, and their work becomes wholly American through it. In a delicate, life-affirming experimental mix of poetry and prose, Ewing explores black girlhood in Chicago. Zhang explores first-generation Chinese girls in Brooklyn via their bodies’ most uncompromisingly human aspects. What allows these authors to sing freely is not an imaginary homogenous American audience ready to listen, but their respect for those Americans who have been told they are not American. As artists, they are redefining the very concept of our country’s cultural identity and pushing our literary imaginations past our social reality.
“Reject the little man in the name of purity,” Ellison admonished, “or as one who aspires beyond his social station or cultural capacity—fine! But it is worth remembering that one of the implicitly creative functions of art in the USA … is the defining and correlating of diverse American experiences by bringing previously unknown patterns, details, and emotions into view along with those that are generally recognized.”
When we deny the little man behind the stove, we deny ourselves.
Mychal Denzel Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, now available in paperback.