Ralph Ellison's long‐neglected essay “Tell It Like It Is, Baby” (1965) has lately received increased critical attention as a revealing paratext for Ellison's unfinished second novel. Yet little has been said about that essay's conspicuous psychosexual themes or its confoundingly ambivalent rhetoric of avowal and disavowal. Nor have scholars yet charted the essay's unique evolution over a full decade's worth of drafts and revisions. Drawing on original archival research, this article reads “Tell It” as responding to two contexts that for Ellison were both achingly personal and pressingly political: first, the often hostile criticism he endured from the ideological left during the 1960s, and second, his deep‐seated antipathy to the sociology of race. Both of these contexts carried psychological implications concerning Black masculinity and the fates of fatherless Black families such as the one in which Ellison was raised. (His essay largely narrates “a personal dream” that symbolically equates Lincoln's assassination with the untimely death of Ellison's own father.) In obliquely writing back to his critics and to then‐regnant theories about Black lives, Ellison mingles quasi‐confessional feints with strident denials and abrupt volte‐faces in ways that elude any straightforward interpretation. Yet this very tangle of contradiction may itself be his way of “telling it like it is”: of exploring the massive contradictions of US history and American identity that, for Ellison, must inform any individual or collective effort to make sense of “our orphan's loneliness.”

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