Friday, May 01, 2015

Ralph Ellison's " King of the Bingo Game" - Undertstand it and Maybe We Will Understand Baltimore

Ralph Ellison is not loved by the African American elites and is very often kept out of the public school literature canon for that very reason.

Ralph Ellison was the first black man in America to present in black and white on the printed page the full color of the African American Experience.  No Communist meat puppet, like Richard Wright, nor a bee bop poser like James Baldwin, talented men both, Ellison remains an original American voice.

Invisible Man is a prose epic of the first order. In appeared in 1952, just like the white man writing these notes.

That novel placed Ralph Ellison very near the peak of the American Literary Olympus: National Book Award for 1953 and lionized by the New York publishing and culture mouthpieces universal.

Read it.

The African American elites hate the book and the man who wrote it, as do the white power brokers of culture who call the tune they seem to dance to at every turn.  Ellison is no Toni Morrison and certainly no flabby thinker like Michael Eric Dyson.  He is an artist and man comfortable in his own black skin.

As such, he has no problem revealing the hopes and dreams deferred that boil in rage and frustration beneath than darker American pelt; more so, Ellison understands their sources and they can not be linked solely to societal misdeeds and slaps in the face. Ellison's short story, "King of the Bingo Game" is an easy path* to understanding not only Ralph Ellison, but also the frustrations of African Americans broiling in Baltimore.

To summarize, the story is set in New York, most likely in the 1940's.  At the end of each movie shown in theater the house conducts a bingo game.  Young man from North Carolina with a sick wife at home and no prospects for employment, because he does not have a birth certificate, buys five bingo cards.

The black man has not eaten and the smell of peanuts being eaten by a person near him gnaws at his stomach, as does the smell of whiskey being enjoyed by two men near him. He anguishes over his new life in the big city and recalls that people in the impoverished south shared whatever they had with one another.

His hunger and boredom awaiting the chance at a spin of the bingo wheel for the prize of $ 36.95 puts him to sleep.  He dreams and in his dream shouts out to the annoyance of the movie fans. The two guys drinking the booze offer him the bottle, not out of a sense of a neighbors needs, but to shut him up.

One of the five bingo cards is a winner and the young man is called to the stage. He is a winner and has the chance to win the money.  He will be able to buy his wife some medicine and buy some food.

Being called to the center stage with the bright lights and everyone shouting at and about him, he freezes.  The world of attention overwhelms him.  He cannot spin the big wheel - the device is a button that controls the screen sized spinning wheel.

Two men and eventually cops are called in because he has stopped the entertainment. The audience sings, hoots and hollers at man frozen by opportunity:

He was standing in an attitude of intense listening when he saw
that they were watching something on the stage behind him. He felt
weak. But when he turned he saw no one. If only his thumb did not
ache so. Now they were applauding. And for a moment he thought
that the wheel had stopped. But that was impossible, his thumb still ,
pressed the button. Then he saw them. Two men in uniform beckoned
from the end of the stage. They were coming toward him, walking in
step, slowly, like a tap-dance team returning for a third encore. But
their shoulders shot forward, and he backed away, looking wildly about.
There was nothing to fight them with. He had only the long black cord
which led to a plug somewhere back stage, and he couldn't use that
because it operated the bingo wheel. He backed slowly, fixing the men
with his eyes as his lips stretched over his teeth in a tight, fixed grin;
moved toward the end of the stage and realizing that he couldn't go
much further, for suddenly the cord became taut and he couldn't afford
to break the cord. But he had to do something. The audience was
howling. Suddenly he stopped dead, seeing the men halt, their legs
lifted as in an interrupted step of a slow-motion dance. There was nothing
to do but run in the other direction and he dashed forward, slipping
and sliding. The men fell back, surprised. He struck out Violently going
"Grab him!"
He ran, but all too quickly the cord tightened, resistingly, and
 he turned and ran back again. This time he slipped them, and discovered
by running in a circle before the wheel he could keep the cord
from tightening. But this way he had to flail his arms to keep the men
away. Why couldn't they leave a man alone? He ran, circling.
"Ring down the curtain," someone yelled. But they couldn't do
that. If they did the wheel flashing from the projection room would be
cut off. But they had him before he could tell them so, trying to pry
open his fist, and he was wrestling and trying to bring his knees into
the fight and holding on to the button, for it was his life. And now he
was down, seeing a foot coming down, crushing his wrist cruelly, down
, (emphasis my own)
The Wheel landed at the required Double Zero - he won.  He did not get what fortune, luck, investment and opportunity had provided.  His overwhelmed condition and the roar of the crowd denies him the prize offered to any man.

He is a good man, a Black Hamlet.  He is a faithful man, and African American Tom Joad.  He is a lucky man, a Negro Leopold Bloom. Opportunity and circumstances deny him the prize.  Racism?  Not in Ellison's story. The King of the Bingo Game could be a Swede, a Mexican, a Latvian Jew, a Russian or a cracker from Georgia.  He happens to be a black man, a Negro, as Ellison demanded to define himself.

His name could be Freddie Gray.  He is about the same age.  Ellison draws no conclusions; he presents a human being in uncomfortable conditions, where a opportunity slips from the hands of a good man.

Human beings behave no differently in Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Joyce, or Ellison. I'll be damned, if I'll say else wise, much less teach literature counter to that.

* for the reading challenged, or just plain lazy.

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