“If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance–but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write–that’s what the antiprotest critics believe–but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically.”
― Ralph Ellison in a 1955 Paris Review interview
Named after philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison was born the second of three sons on March 1, 1913 in Oklahoma City. His father, who died when Ralph was three, loved literature and wanted Ralph to be a poet. In 1933, Ellison hopped freight trains with his uncle to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where he played trumpet in the school’s orchestra and read avidly while working as a desk clerk at the university library.
After leaving Tuskegee in 1936, Ralph went to Harlem where he met Langston Hughes, who introduced him to Communist-leaning black literary circles where he then met would-be longtime friend Native Son author Richard Wright. The Party’s betrayal of black people, in adopting a social reformist stance over Marxist class politics, would heavily influence his first and the only novel of his published before his death, 1952’s National Book Award-winning Invisible Man. The novel follows an unnamed, dissociative black man feeling “invisible” in society. Social critique and themes of racism, nationalism, and identity remained the focal point of his many essays and teachings over his extensive intellectual career.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Ralph continued to publish essays in various outlets following the success of Invisible Man, including a December 1955 High Fidelity article detailing his lifelong passion for audio technology. Many of these essays were published in essay collections such as 1964’s Shadow and Act, covering the author’s political activism, writing career and his now famous essay “The World and the Jug” as well as 1986’s Going to the Territory, encompassing meditations on writers William Faulkner and Richard Wright, the music of Duke Ellington and black contributions to America’s national identity.
Among other manuscripts located in Ralph’s possessions following his later death was Juneteeth which was edited to 368 pages from over 2,000 pages by longtime friend, biographer and critic John F. Callahan, and published in 1999. A fuller manuscript was published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting.
“As every snob knows, snobbery has nothing to do with having money. Being broke and obscure at Tuskegee served a purpose for Ellison: it sharpened his satirical lens. Standing apart from the university’s air of sanctimonious Negritude enabled him to write about it.”
― Hilton Als on Ralph Ellison in The New Yorker, May 2007
Invisible Man established Ellison as one of the most preeminent writers of the 20th century, garnering such accolades as membership to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Medals from France and two U.S. Presidents and being named a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. He taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, and Yale University, and was a New York University permanent faculty member as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities.
Find all of Ralph Ellison’s titles comprising his brilliant work below.