Ras the Exhorter
The character of Ras is reminiscent of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright's Native Son, often referred to as the ultimate protest novel. (See "Introduction to the Novel" for more on the relationship between Wright and Ralph Ellison.) Like Bigger, Ras is eventually "propelled into violence by overwhelming conditions and forces." But unlike Bigger, Ras is not a rash young man who acts out of panic and fear; he is a rational, thinking man, whom the narrator compares to a king and a general. Subjected to constant pressure with no release, he finally explodes much like the overloaded boiler in the Liberty Paint Factory.
But Ras is also a visionary and a prophet. Ras's message, like that of essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, is "Self-Reliance." But because Ras is black, he is perceived not as a visionary and leader, but as a dangerous militant and rabble-rouser whose voice must be silenced. He is the only black man in the novel who chooses and then changes his own name. But because he has "stepped outside of history," Ras is perceived as a crazy, ridiculous figure. Instead of seeing him as a general and leader, the inclination is to dismiss him as a black Don Quixote, fighting windmills. Ras does, however, have powerful oratory skills — he nearly convinces Brother Clifton that he has joined the wrong "Brotherhood" and is "selling his people," which eventually leads to tragic consequences for the charismatic young man he acknowledges as his "black prince."
Ras is modeled after Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a renowned Black Nationalist and founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a forerunner of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant, believed that blacks would never achieve social, political, and economic equality in the United States. He launched the "Back to Africa" movement popular during the 1940s aimed towards helping blacks return to Mother Africa. Aided by whites, who agreed with his vision of a separate black nation, Garvey founded the Black Star shipping line and prepared to transport blacks back to Africa. Before he was able to carry out his plan, he was indicted for mail fraud and imprisoned for two years, and then deported to Jamaica. Although Garvey continued his racial advocacy, he was unable to recapture the momentum of his project, which ultimately failed. Ironically, few Americans recognize Garvey's philosophy echoed Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance.