The My-Stery: The Legba Circuit in Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’

“After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, The Prologue,” a 1999 photograph by Jeff Wall

Two of my favorites quotations from Invisible Man: “Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy” and “The old is ever new.”

Today is Ralph Ellison’s Birthday and he would have been his 100th birthday. So, here is a taste (a short summary) of my essay, “’The Electric Impulse:’ The Legba Circuit in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” which I submitted to be in Afrofuturism 2.0, an anthology edited by Reynaldo Anderson and Charles Jones.

Inspired by Nikola Tesla’s quotation, “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration,” I argued that Legba (also associated with Eshu, Exu, etc.) is the guiding force of Ellison’s novel, incarnating himself through several of the characters in the book and under-girding the main themes of the book. 

When it comes to dissecting the novel, many will focus on the intersections of technology and race or even the musical aspects of it, since Ellison was a trained musician before becoming a writer, but rarely do they explore the spiritual, mythological and cosmic framework of the novel in relation to those other elements. Ellison had said himself that he uses myth and ritual as part of the process of his own writing in the Paris Review and he makes several references to those mythic ideas within his work. Thus, the novel intersects the two strands of spirituality and technology, much like the major guiding Legba-like character for the narrator, Rinehart, the spiritual technologist. Ellison uses the surface of technology to explore deeper questions of race, history, humanity, spirituality and understanding of the universe.

Legba is often associated with the crossroads, but since electricity is a main component in the novel, I changed it to circuit and I used the word circuit to form the structure of the essay. Circuits are not only linked with electricity, circulation in general, movement, performance (chitlin circuit), and the mythological hero myth or as I call them “circuit stories” meant to replenish the spiritual energy (think of the prodigal son, Wizard of Oz, Their Eyes Are Watching God). I took Tesla’s quotation and divided my essay based on it into three sections to explore the spiritual mythos of Legba and circuitry:

“Electricity as a Form of Ashe:” I explored the similarities of ashe and electricity, given that Legba and other associated figures govern that essence, distributing it and multiplying it, and used it to discuss power and social relations within the novel.

Percussiveness as Hacking (Re)in(force)ment:” Percussion and percussiveness has been a unifying element in Afro-diasporic culture. I chose that to represent the physicality of the circuit or incarnation of the ashe. But with any creative element or security system, there is also destruction or risk of it. Thus, the cultural elements of the novel, like the percussive music and dance, as well as Legba-associated characters (and Legba himself) in the novel act as “hacking reinforcers.” Their hacking opens up a space to circulate energy and rebuild systems. The characters do this in an effort to keep the narrator “grounded” or have a foundation to rebuild himself.

Bucking on Legba’s Circuit:” This third section reflects on the other meaning of circuit as a performance space where different bodies interact. Legba is a master communicator; heads the networking of individuals. He is also known for his limp but him as his associates are known as master musicians and dancers, too. He is the master negotiator of difference. Ellison’s novel explores the almost carnivalesque performance and negotiation of race and identity. The narrator’s shape-shifting identity, including when he “becomes” Rinehart, shows this negotiation and shifting movements he continuously has to make through different spaces, much like the Limbo game. We see this negotiation of physical/social and psychic space and power through characters like Brother Tarp, who also has a limp like Legba.

The last section I discussed the connections between Legba, Rinehart,  the universe of possibility, and the reconfiguration of self, which is part of the narrator’s ultimate lesson. But I will leave it there and let you read the rest when the essay is published. Happy Birthday Ralph Ellison!

Gordon Parks’ “Invisible Man”

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