"Shadow and Act" is a collection of essays, reviews and interviews written by Ralph Ellison, covering subjects such as sports, music, theatre and photography. Read.gov quotes Ellison's own description of the work as an attempt "to relate myself to America through literature." It traces his personal, emotional and artistic growth as a black American and human being, showing his sometimes contentious exploration of then-contemporary culture, all-too-common misconceptions and his own literary criticism.
Ellison was originally drawn to music, rather than the written word, and was drawn into the literary world of New York after studying music at Tuskegee. Many of the pieces in "Shadow and Act" draw on these passions, exploring the jazz world, the blues and other musical themes. While he maintained his love of music, he became a writer of essays and short stories for a number of publications after finding work with the Federal Writers Program.
After serving in the Merchant Marine Service during World War II, he achieved critical acclaim with "Invisible Man," and it is the struggle towards this groundbreaking work of fiction that is explored in more detail in "Shadow and Act." Ellison was frustrated with the limits of African-American literature, both what the community itself produced and how African-Americans were caricatured by others outside the community. His attempt to break with these stereotypes is outlined in the interviews and literary criticism of "Shadow and Act," making the collection very autobiographical in tone.