Ralph Ellison almost always has something useful to say. In "The World and the Jug," his celebrated rebuke of Irving Howe, Ellison offers an eloquent and passionate discussion of the moment in cultural politics when social criticism enacts a relationship between representation as depiction and representation as delegation. For Ellison, Howe's "Black Boys and Native Sons" exemplified the dangers involved if there is too much distance between ideas and images that are crafted at lofty social altitudes and life as it is lived on the cluttered terrain of political and personal struggle. When these ideas and images serve to underwrite structures of legal, political or cultural representation, then culture has become emphatically political, and the Shadow has subsumed the Act.

Ellison's confident insistence on the texture, richness and sheer human opacity of African American life has allowed him to navigate provocatively between the devil of ethnic chauvinism and the deep, blue-eyed sea of American nationalism. His social and cultural criticism consistently reminds us of the political imperative to pay close attention to the powerful complexity that characterizes the lives and experiences of African Americans.