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Ralph Ellison

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RALPH ELLISON: Genius doesn't come easily.
From the existential writer's desk. January 1, 2008 © Amir Bey, 2008
Much has been written about the late novelist, essayist, critic and lecturer Ralph Ellison, author of the somewhat surrealistic epic and an American classic, Invisible Man, his masterpiece. Because there is reliable birth data on Ellison, we can look at his astrology. He was born on March 1, 1913, 1:30 AM, at Oklahoma City, OK, according to his birth certificate.


Ralph Ellison, in the view of this astrologer was important for what he strove to attain in his life: excellence in writing and clarity of perspective that transcended the limitations of racial and ideological categorizations. His stances about African American culture -or lack of them in some people's view- were controversial, yet his writings on Jazz, Blues, and literature are strong affirmations of black people's formative role in the American cultural persona and history. It has been said that Ellison was an elitist and by nature conservative, and his chart shows there are some celestial reasons for it.


Everyone’s life can be seen as having three periods: 1 The preceding era, -their parents’ and before, or the past; 2 Their own, or the present; 3 The upcoming era, or the future. Ralph Ellison’s three periods were some of the most dynamic of this country’s history: of his past, he knew people born as slaves and sharecroppers, and often gave reference to the folk culture of African Americans; pertaining to his generation, he was born before WW I and came of age during the Depression. During the post WWII period he published Invisible Man; and later in his prime, he heard and wrote about Charlie Parker and other musicians, witnessed the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, black cultural nationalism, and the emergence of a new generation of artists. During this latter period, he saw the breakdown of Jim Crow and northern segregation in the economic, social, and professional areas. Therefore, his life spanned or touched on what could be called the post Civil War revolution and its betrayal; the emergence of a “free” black middle and upper classes, and finally the erosion and exposure of the myths surrounding segregation on both sides of the racial divide.

Ralph’s father, a construction worker died in 1916 when he was 3, leaving him and his remaining family, which consisted of his mother Ida and younger brother Herbert, in bad straits financially. His mother had to do domestic work for well-to-do black and white families. Of the arts, he began with music, which became an important foundation for his artistic growth, as it gave him the discipline for other areas, such as a brief period where he entertained the idea of becoming a sculptor. However, music was his first calling, and he was pursuing a career in music when he left Oklahoma City to attend Tuskegee Institute.

When Ellison first arrived in New York City after leaving Tuskegee Institute (he didn’t graduate), he met such Harlem Renaissance figures as the sculptor Richmond Barthé, and writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. He also became associated with the Communist Party and other political groups and wrote for the party’s paper. Eventually he began to feel that it was more important to be an American artist and not a politico whose work would be stifled by the conventions of the party line. Part of his disillusionment grew from the CP’s dropping their fight against Jim Crow in favor of helping the Russians at the beginning of World War II. The CP decided to make that compromise to influence the U.S. government to aid the U.S.S.R. in their struggle against Nazi Germany’s occupation. Many blacks felt betrayed by the CP for their change of emphasis.

Ellison also had no tolerance for the mediocrity of some black bourgeois, who were less concerned with excellence than with maintaining their material comfort and status. A defining moment was triggered by a black doctor’s incompetence, when his mother’s illness was misdiagnosed with fatal results. Arnold Rampersad, in his extensive biography of Ellison states “For the rest of his life, Ralph would see this man as the embodiment of black bourgeois incompetence. The incident would also underwrite his skepticism about black professionals who were quick to use racism as an excuse for their shortcomings. According to Rampersad, Ellison felt that the physician who wants Negroes to patronize him because he is black, he told a white Daily Oklahoman reporter decades later, “and then has not mastered his craft … then he is immoral and he leads to the destruction of life – like the man who caused my mother’s death.”

For Ellison, the importance of craftsmanship and being free from ideologies allowed him to explore and develop as a writer both technically and conceptually. What he viewed as incompetence and ideological hamstrings could have contributed to his ignoring most young black writers during the 60s and 70s.


Generally, some indications of Ellison being a writer is his Sun conjunct Chiron in the 3rd house, Moon in Sagittarius in the 1st House, Mercury, ruler of the MC, conjoining the 4th House, Trine its ruler, Neptune.


Ellison’s chart has an emphasis in the lower hemisphere, an indication of how his past and family circumstances motivated him and it implies there were lingering ties that he had to resolve. In a paragraph from his book Shadow and Act he writes: “The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.”

In contrast to that need to delve into the past, he had three planets whose characters were distinct from each other, and since they were essentially unaspected, had a lot of power: Saturn, and his Uranus/Mars conjunction, all of which gave him a pronounced individuality and a rebel with a dogged determination. His Saturn in the 6th House gives a meticulous and at times inflexible character; he had a persevering and dedicated sense of duty to his work, even stubbornly laborious; he often remarked that he “wrote slowly”.

Ellison’s Mars/Uranus conjunction which blended the drive of Mars with the dynamism of Uranus, can be an aspect of great confidence, intensity, uniqueness, and usually does not denote ties with the past. Instead it is forward thinking, initiating, potentially reckless, and courageous with a disdain for having one’s passions held in check. An example of two individuals who had this aspect are Manning Clark, who also had the pair in Aquarius, wrote an authoritative history of Australia, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara also had his Mars and Uranus in Aries, which manifested in his physical daring. With that combination, the urge is to be both highly individualistic and a leader; his novel Invisible Man challenged many notions of the Negro experience (he preferred the appellation “Negro” over “black”), and disturbed black critics with his portrayal of corrupt black educators. It also irked white and black leftists that he had associated with earlier because of his portrayal of the hypocrisy of the left. The combination blends Mars’s individuality with Uranus’s fellowships and clubs -while he was a member of select groups like The Century Association, he did not identify with or join mass groups or organizations. Combining those planets with his Sun and Mercury in Pisces in the lower hemisphere, Ellison swam upstream against the current, yet his Piscean sensitivity making him vulnerable to attacks brought on by the directions he might or might not take. The Mars/Uranus combination characterizes Ellison’s evolution as the honing of a razor-sharp view and the articulation of a unique perspective as a writer and individual.


An individual's chart has many planetary structures and one aspect alone will not describe the whole person. However, a comparison of the differences in the manifestation of Mar/Uranus between Ellison and Che will give us some insight into both individuals and the nature of that aspect. Che's (June 14, 1928, Rosario, Argentina, no birth time known by the writer) Mars/Uranus was not conjunct like Ellison's, but both were in the same sign, Aries. Their being in Aries makes Mars the ruler of them and Aries translates into action, for which Che was known. The fiery, flamboyance of Che, and the way that he was courageous and took great risks in combat describe how those planets might behave when in Aries. Ellison's Mars/Uranus was in airy Aquarius, thus making Uranus the ruler, which translates into the communication of new ideas. Aquarius is more detached than Aries; Aries is bold and ready to plunge where Aquarius will be more inclined to assume a cerebral distance. What is similar for them is that both were elite, that is, individualistic, and highly capable: Che was elitist by the uniqueness of his actions; he was an exemplary fighter for the cause of Cuban and later, for international liberation from what he felt were oppressive imperialist forces.

Ellison was elitist in an intellectual and social sense, which is how an Air sign like Aquarius would manifest its abilities. His writings, which can be viewed as progressive because they advance concepts that stimulate and present an unorthodox point of view that challenged notions that are often uncritically accepted. Some may not view Che as being elitist, given his dedication to working and fighting for the social and material liberation of people; and some may not see Ellison as progressive, given what appeared to be his essentially conservative nature. However, the Mars/Uranus combination is elitist in its unique, rare qualities, impetuous daring, and its inventiveness. Che was certainly the member of the elite in revolutionary Cuba and amongst socialists throughout the world. Perhaps singular is a word that describes Mars/Uranus. For Ellison, he was certainly singular, not just in terms of his achievements, but also in terms of his obstinately undemocratic, aristocratic assumptions. When he was invited to join elite societies, he never recommended nor helped other African Americans in their attempts to become members. In those two individuals, we have two possible expressions of those planets.

Since we are examining a combination of two planets that are by nature rebellious and restless, we should briefly look at Ellison's and Che's Saturns for an idea of how they related to the “Status Quo”, which is one of the areas that Saturn is associated with. Ellison's, as was mentioned earlier was unaspected and in the 6th House. That suggests a capacity for steadfastness, and that politically he was a pragmatist. While he may have upset some people, Ellison was also firmly aware of or concerned with class and might not indulge in activities that upset existing social structures beyond legal codes like Jim Crow. Che on the other hand had his Saturn opposing his Sun by sign, and in a close opposition to his Venus. An opposition to his Sun would imply conflicts with authority, the status quo, and it would denote the need to redefine structures; by analogy he could have been an architect whose designs were meant to transform the skyline. His Venus in opposition would show that he was uncomfortable with authority. He would have to wrestle with his feelings in opposition to practical necessities. His assumption of certain positions and activities were based on his emotional connection to executing them.


With an 8 degree Sagittarius Ascendant and a 26 degree Sagittarius Moon, Jupiter and the Moon are principal planets, a planetary combination associated with publications, travel, popularity, sociability, optimism, and at times, a degree of pomposity, and self importance. With his Jupiter in Capricorn in the 2nd House, he was status conscious, at times desiring to attain heights of exaggerated importance, aims that could potentially absorb valuable resources and often at the expense of his personal integrity. His second wife, Fanny McConnell Buford Ellison, was born on November 27, 1910, which gave her a tight conjunction between her Sun and Venus, with Mercury, all in Sagittarius and near his Ascendant. A beautiful, charming woman, they fell in love at first sight and they remained together for the rest of his life. Her Sun/Venus, in the 4th degree of Sagittarius, is within 4 degrees of his Ascendant, and she was certainly a charming and when young, glamorous partner whose grace worked well for him. She also contributed much to his aspirations, both technically by helping to type his manuscripts and organizing his papers and being the main bread winner during the years before he received recognition as a writer and garnered lucrative speaking and teaching contracts.


An important configuration for Ellison is the Grand Mutable Cross. His involves his Moon, Pluto, Mercury and his Midheaven, are a combination of planets that can uproot one from their past. The combination of the three planets suggest a fluidity that wasn’t always a gentle, flowing stream; changes in his life that could be called Journeying, which engaged him in re-evaluation, and regurgitation, that led to the examination and stirring up of early notions and memories. As much as he felt the connection and the pull of the past, he was also elementally uncomfortable with it. He needed distance from the routine, the recognizable, from “mother’s milk”; as much as he depended on and loved his mother, he also felt shame about the work that she did as a domestic to support him throughout his life until she passed away. To some degree this carried over to his relationship with his wife, who, without her help much of his work would have been immensely difficult, yet he gave more credit to others’ contributions in the dedications in his books.

His physical journeying began with his trip to Tuskegee Institute, which, due to lack of funds had to be made via hitching rides on the trains. This was during the Depression, and there was a community of hobos that traveled and lived along this network. An uncle who was familiar with riding the trains escorted the young Ellison, cautioning him on the dangers of that form of travel. It’s interesting that Invisible Man is the story of the main character’s journey from home to a university, to arrive in the big city, where his journey took on the perilous coursing and currents of the social world of leftists, black nationalists, as well as the character’s mental and emotional development.

Grand Crosses by themselves are aspects that carry tension that can give power through their combination of divergent and at times conflicting orientations. It’s remarkable that two planets that ease those tensions with “easy” aspects are his 5th House Venus in Aries, which Trines his Sagittarius Moon, and his Neptune in Cancer which Trines his Mercury in Pisces. Both of those planets and their associations with the configuration are symbolic of artistic gifts, the poetic intuition of the tight Mercury/Neptune Trine, and the fruitful sociability of his close Moon/Venus Trine. Having Venus Square Neptune suggests that those tensions are not entirely eased by the arts-loving planetary pair. It’s possible the intensity of this square was behind the power of Ellison’s critique. He was not passive in his view of the arts; his stances or what was perceived by others as the lack of them would confound and anger people. Because of this and at times his propensity for “exaggerated importance”, writers such as Amiri Baraka called him a snob, and others to call him an “Uncle Tom”. Ellison’s Grand Cross is not a “essential” one, in that it is made up of three planets in a T-Square, the Moon, Mercury, and Pluto, with his Midheaven completing the Grand Cross. Thus, his Midheaven, representative of his career, shows that the resolution of the challenges posed by his “Journeying” can be found in activities that are connected with his career, his aspirations, and with his Midheaven in Virgo, aiming for perfection was part of that process.


Finally, Ellison's chart is a complex of cross purposes with courageous power and far-reaching vision. It's fascinating that one of his concerns, chaos, and order, is addressed in terms that are similar to ancient Egyptian philosophical notions of the balance between disorder and order. In an interview with Richard G. Stern that appears in his Shadow and Act a compilation of critiques and interviews, he responds to Stern's question about the “marvelous” and the “terrible”; Ellison says,”...I think that the mixture of the marvelous with the terrible is a basic condition of human life and that the persistence of human ideals represents the marvelous pulling itself up from the chaos of the universe...the terrible represents all that hinders, all that opposes human aspiration, and the marvelous represents the triumph of the human spirit over chaos.” For the ancient Egyptians, that eternal struggle between those opposites was the rhythm of life and gave birth to incarnations that were eternal. The metamorphosis of his character in Invisible Man has its parallels in those ancient Egyptian struggles between chaos and order, and in that struggle, like the ancient Egyptian concept, Ralph Ellison was able to reach a level of attainment that ensured him an immortality through the durability of his dynamic works.
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