Occupy Wall Street and Ralph Ellison: African American Novels and Organized Resistance

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Although many commentators have noted that protests related to Occupy Wall Street have not included large numbers of black people, it is worth noting that historically speaking social protests do have a strong presence in African American literature. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), not unlike the sentiments of OWS, seems to capture the growing frustration and discontent of American citizens with the great disparities between the rich and the poor.

In chapter 13 of Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator happens upon a growing crowd that is witnessing an eviction of an elderly couple from their Harlem apartment. After becoming so disgusted with the treatment of the couple and beginning to question how the affluent property owners could treat tenants as such, the Invisible Man delivers a very powerful impromptu speech that rouses the crowd and leads them to carry the couple’s belongings back into their apartment. This scene begins Invisible Man’s association with the Brotherhood and other acts of organized resistance.

Surveying a wide range of African American novels can reveal commonalities between social protests and the literary imaginations of black writers. Long before the actualization of the Poor People’s Campaign led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and SCLC and Occupy Wall Street protests, Invisible Man seizes upon and explores the challenges and opportunities of organized resistance tactics. For more than a century now, black writers have produced narratives highlighting organized resistance to a range of disparities.

Related: Five African American novels that contain organized protests.