Ralph Ellison’s Brain…Could It Be Improved by AI?

American novelist, literary critic, and scholar Ralph Ellison (1914 – 1994), January 1963. (Photo by Ben Martin/Getty Images)

Ralph Ellison’s Brain… Could It Be Improved by AI?

©2021 by Alice Walker


I met Ralph Ellison only once. He was invited to speak at Tougaloo College in Mississippi where I, in the late Sixties, was teaching writing to a class whose members, some of them, were beaten up for protesting Jim Crow. They never failed to show up later with their poems and stories regardless of bruises, which made me love them all the more.   I attended the talk by Ellison with my husband, aka “Mister Civil Rights” Leventhal, and we held hands, as we often did out of habit and resistance to bigotry, as he delivered his speech.  I don’t recall a word of it, but it seemed to us Ellison was slightly tipsy, and in any event quite removed from the actual body he was standing in. The students, militant on that campus and reflecting the changing times – from Civil Rights to Black Power – lit into him for being a sell out of one kind or another, claiming that, though he was lionized in America his success had failed to make the country (and world) safe for them.

Afterwards, we stood near Ellison who had seemed not to give a damn; an attitude -when encountering the misperceptions of others – I’ve always admired.   Like much of the literate world I read Invisible Man in college and was stirred, sometimes to the point of feeling wounded, by every chapter. “Wounded” because reading the novel required absorbing truths that sometimes felt covered in switch blades. I now recognize this fidelity to one’s own experience, and imagination, as an offering of the strictest love.  And know, now, as well, what writing at this depth must have cost Ellison. However, at the time of our meeting I was deep in the enchantment of finding and loving Jean Toomer’s Cane, and African American women writers: Frances Harper, Jessie Faucet, Nella Larsen, Ann Petry and so on. (The biggest “so on” was of course Zora Neale Hurston and I wish I had asked Ellison what he thought of her, since many black men of his generation did not read her or answered the question with a sneer.)

So now, fifty or more years later (!) I am immersed again in Invisible Man, and, reader, I must say, it remains extraordinary.  If I were Ellison I’d have been drinking something too, as I faced ignorant inquisitors, and giving a damn what they thought would be the furthest thing from my mind.

As I listen to the incomparable Joe Morton’s masterful, frequently astonishing, delivery of Ellison’s novel as an Audible recording, I find myself thinking, with gratitude, about the breathtaking fecundity, depth, and flexibility of Ellison’s mind and wondering what might have become of it if he lived in the near future when it will be – so the planners think – ordinary to have the human brain hooked up to a computer.  You disappear as you, but your body goes through the motions it is programmed to do. Though what’s left of you might assume you’re the one doing the programming.

Artificial intelligence as progress!

I won’t be around then, thank my good luck.  But really, isn’t this a ridiculous idea?

Who would even think of doing this, except someone(s) to whom Invisible Man as a superior human intellectual tour de force, and an exemplary manifestation of vision and spiritual labor, does not, even now, exist.