Blacking Out: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and the Historicity of Antiblackness

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Triangulating black unemployment, antiblack police violence and the spread of riots in moments of financial crisis, this essay read Ralph Ellison’s visionary 1952 novel Invisible Man in relation to what Giovanni Arrighi identifies as the US systemic cycle of accumulation. In his structuralist account of developments in the capitalist world-system, Arrighi adopts Fernand Braudel’s model of the longue durée, with its seasonal logic of hegemonic transition whereby autumn for one declining global hegemon means spring for the next. For Ellison’s unnamed narrator, whose struggle for visibility is presciently tied to the rise and fall of American growth, spring too carries its “stenches of death.” When the US faces its own crisis of accumulation in the late 1960s and the long American century enters its autumnal downturn in the early 1970s, the expulsion of labour from the site of production will sound the death knell for African American Bildung. Anticipating the coming of autumn in terms of exhaustion and abjection, Invisible Man envisions the end of American economic expansion as a crushing experience of social death. Tracing the relationship between precarity and the African American novel across this transitional period, this essay revisits Ellison’s literary milestone to chart the decline of the American century from within its zenith.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)80-105
JournalCultural Critique
Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2019


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