August 24th, 2005
Ralph Ellison
An American Journey

by Anne Seidlitz

In writing INVISIBLE MAN in the late 1940s, Ralph Ellison brought onto the scene a new kind of black protagonist, one at odds with the characters of the leading black novelist at the time, Richard Wright. If Wright’s characters were angry, uneducated, and inarticulate — the consequences of a society that oppressed them — Ellison’s Invisible Man was educated, articulate, and self-aware. Ellison’s view was that the African-American culture and sensibility was far from the downtrodden, unsophisticated picture presented by writers, sociologists and politicians, both black and white. He posited instead that blacks had created their own traditions, rituals, and a history that formed a cohesive and complex culture that was the source of a full sense of identity. When the protagonist in INVISIBLE MAN comes upon a yam seller (named Petie Wheatstraw, after the black folklore figure) on the streets of Harlem and remembers his childhood in a flood of emotion, his proclamation “I yam what I yam!” is Ellison’s expression of embracing one’s culture as the way to freedom.

If Wright’s protest literature was a natural outcome of a brutal childhood spent in the deep South, Ellison’s more affirming approach came out of a very different background in Oklahoma. A “frontier” state with no legacy of slavery, Oklahoma in the 1910s created the possibility of exploring a fluidity between the races not possible even in the North. Although a contemporary recalled that the Ellisons were “among the poorest” in Oklahoma City, Ralph still had the mobility to go to a good school, and the motivation to find mentors, both black and white, from among the most accomplished people in the city. Ellison would later say that as a child he observed that there were two kinds of people, those “who wore their everyday clothes on Sunday, and those who wore their Sunday clothes every day. I wanted to wear Sunday clothes every day.”

Ellison’s life-long receptivity to the variegated culture that surrounded him, beginning in Oklahoma City, served him well in creating a new take on literary modernism in INVISIBLE MAN. The novel references African-American folktales, songs, the blues, jazz, and black traditions like playing the dozens — much as T.S. Eliot and James Joyce had referenced classical Western and Eastern civilization in THE WASTELAND and ULYSSES. An added difference for Ellison was that his modernist narrative was also a vehicle for inscribing his own and the black identity — as well as a roadmap for anyone experiencing themselves as “invisible,” unseen. “Time” magazine essayist Roger Rosenblatt would say: “Ralph Ellison taught me what it is to be an American.”

For Ellison, unlike the protest writers and later black separatists, America did offer a context for discovering authentic personal identity; it also created a space for African-Americans to invent their own culture. And in Ellison’s view, black and white culture were inextricably linked, with almost every facet of American life influenced and impacted by the African-American presence — including music, language, folk mythology, clothing styles and sports. Moreover, he felt that the task of the writer is to “tell us about the unity of American experience beyond all considerations of class, of race, of religion.” In this Ellison was ahead of his time and out of step with the literary and political climates of both black and white America; his views would not gain full currency until the 1980s.

In his own life, Ellison’s interests were as far ranging as his “integrative” imagination. He was expert at fishing, hunting, repairing car engines, and assembling radios and stereo systems. His haberdasher in New York said that he “knew more about textiles than anyone I’ve ever met,” and his friend Saul Bellow called him a “thoroughgoing expert on the raising of African violets.” He was also an accomplished sculptor, musician, and photographer. The scope of Ellison’s mind and vision may have contributed to the growing unwieldiness of his much-awaited second novel, which he toiled over for forty years. He planned it as three books, a saga that would encompass the entire American experience. The book was still unfinished when Ellison died in New York in 1994 at the age of eighty.

INVISIBLE MAN and the essays in SHADOW AND ACT and GOING TO THE TERRITORY were transformative in our thinking about race, identity, and what it means to be American. On the power of three books, Ellison both accelerated America’s literary project and helped define and clarify arguments about race in this country. Ellison’s outlook was universal: he saw the predicament of blacks in America as a metaphor for the universal human challenge of finding a viable identity in a chaotic and sometimes indifferent world. The universality and accomplishment of Ellison’s writing can be seen in the breadth of his continuing influence on other writers, from Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson to Kurt Vonnegut and the late Joseph Heller. Fifty years after the publishing of INVISIBLE MAN, Ralph Ellison’s voice continues to speak to all of us.

Resources

Novels and Essays by Ralph Ellison

INVISIBLE MAN, 1952 (novel)
SHADOW AND ACT, 1964 (essays)
GOING TO THE TERRITORY, 1985 (anthology of interviews, essays, and more)
THE COLLECTED ESSAYS OF RALPH ELLISON, 1995 (John Callahan, ed.)
JUNETEENTH (1999) (novel)

Selected Essays and Reviews

Albert Murray, THE OMNI-AMERICANS (1970)
Robert G. O’Meally, THE CRAFT OF ELLISON (1980)
Benston, ed., SPEAKING FOR YOU: RALPH ELLISON’S CULTURAL VISION
Jerry Watts, HEROISM AND THE BLACK INTELLECTUAL: RALPH ELLISON, POLITICS, AND AFRO-AMERICAN INTELLECTUAL LIFE (1994)

A DVD of “Ralph Ellison: An American Journey”, containing an additional hour of video commentary and analysis can be purchased from California Newsreel.

  • Carver Waters

    This isn’t a picture of Ralph Ellison. I don’t know who this man is, but it ain’t Ellison.

  • cherise

    that guy on top is sooooo right that is not ralph ellison maybe somebody should change it

  • Fred

    I don’t know about Carver Walters or Cherise, but this article is spot on. Very well written and discusses many good topic relating to race and Ellison.

  • Byron

    The picture is of James Baldwin.

  • Miller

    The pictures up top are not supposed ot be pictures of the person that the biography is covering. They are jkust pictures of people in this collection.

  • Raul

    your history is cool but I liked your acomplishments

  • Nick

    I love Ralph Waldo Ellison

  • Anthony

    I had to read Ellison’s Invisible Man for a school project. It was an awesome book.

  • Robert

    Uh, folks—the man in the picture when I pull up this article is Ernest Hemingway. My guess is that the pictures rotate and are all of famous writers from this series.

  • Jim

    Robert is correct,

    The picture at the top banner of the page chages on a regular basis. The title of the page is American Masters. The rotating photos are of american masters. Currently the photo at the top of the page I am looking at is of Bob Dylan. The article though is on Ralph Ellison. The picture that you are looking at now at the top of the page is probably of someone else, besides Bob Dylan.

  • Jamillahzi

    The man at the top is Ernest Hemingway.

  • Tom Orzo

    I am a NYC tour guide. I conduct tours in Harlem, and all over NYC and The Metro area. I always take Harlem tours to a remarkable, but little known and seldom visited, memorial to the author of The Invisible Man. It is hiding in plain sight, on Riverside Drive & 149/150 St, Manhattan, directly out the door of his Harlem apartment. It is a striking and most beautiful and fitting tribute to the man…every person who sees it is impressed. I have recently added a new and amazing detail to this part of the tour. Ralph Ellison is “buried” (above ground vault to be precise) just a few blocks from this memorial. His name, carved in granite, b.1914 d.1994, is CLEARLY VISIBLE from the sidewalk just outside the cemetery…I point it out to students from the bus, without getting off, its that easy to see. Again, Riverside Drive & corner of 153 St. Look up at the second from top row of names and you will see Ellison’s final resting place. btw, the Trinity Church Cemetery & Mausoleum is open to the public and a great place to visit an old, but active, burial ground in NYC. (LOT of history – memento mori!)

  • Kwabena Boadu Anafo

    I read lnvisible Man at age 14 through the influence of brothers who attended and taught at Tuskegee Institute. As a young Ghanaian boy who had taken interest in African-American history it was a leap in accuring knowledge. Much more was unlocked to me in my subsequent contacts with other brothers and sisters in the diaspora, but Uncle Ralph as l call him had been my first teacher through his writings. His help me in unearthing the insight of my own in America. Long Live Ralph Ellison, may his soul rest in perfect peace. Ayekoo da yie

  • Philip Nguerengbolo

    Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and William Faulkner told the truth to both Blacks and Whites.

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