One of the most memorable characters in the novel, Ras the Exhorter (later called Ras the Destroyer) is a powerful figure who seems to embody Ellison’s fears for the future of the civil rights battle in America. Ras’s name, which literally means “Prince” in one of the languages of Ethiopia, sounds simultaneously like “race” and “Ra,” the Egyptian sun god. These allusions capture the essence of the character: as a passionate black nationalist, Ras is obsessed with the idea of race; as a magnificently charismatic leader, he has a kind of godlike power in the novel, even if he doesn’t show a deity’s wisdom. Ras’s guiding philosophy, radical at the time the novel was published, states that blacks should cast off oppression and prejudice by destroying the ability of white men to control them. This philosophy leads inevitably to violence, and, as a result, both Ellison and the narrator fear and oppose such notions. Yet, although Ellison objects to the ideology that Ras embodies, he never portrays him as a clear-cut villain. Throughout the novel, the reader witnesses Ras exert a magnetic pull on crowds of black Americans in Harlem. He offers hope and courage to many. By the late 1960s, many black leaders, including Malcolm X, were advocating ideas very similar to those of Ras.
Ras, who is depicted as a West Indian, has reminded many critics of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born black nationalist who was influential in the early 1920s. Like Ras, Garvey was a charismatic racial separatist with a love of flamboyant costumes who advocated black pride and argued against integration with whites. (Garvey even endorsed the Ku Klux Klan for working to keep whites and blacks separate.) However, Ellison consistently denied patterning Ras specifically on Garvey. If any link does exist, it is probably only that Garvey inspired the idea of Ras, not that Ellison attempted to recreate Garvey in Ras.