Because we share a birthdate – March 1st – I chose Ralph Ellison as my first Black author spotlight. Ellison was born in 1913 (or 1914 – the year is disputed) in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was named after journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison’s doting father, Lewis, who loved children and read books voraciously, worked as an ice and coal deliverer. He died from a work-related accident when Ellison was only three years old.
Exploring the theme of man’s search for his identity and place in society, as seen from the perspective of the first-person narrator, Ellison’s Invisible Man, was an unnamed African American man 1930s New York City. In contrast to his contemporaries such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Ellison’s character was dispassionate, educated, articulate, and self-aware. Through the protagonist, Ellison explores the contrasts between the Northern and Southern varieties of racism and their alienating effect. The narrator is “invisible” in a figurative sense, in that “people refuse to see” him, and also experiences a kind of dissociation. The novel, with its treatment of taboo issues such as incest and the controversial subject of communism, won the 1953 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction (awarded for outstanding literary achievements by U.S. citizens).
Ellison used his new fame to speak out for literature as a moral instrument. In 1955 he traveled to Europe, (where Blacks were better received and not hindered nearly as much by the racial discrimination prevalent in the U.S.) visiting and lecturing, settling for a time in Rome. In 1958, Ellison returned to the United States to take a position teaching American and Russian literature at Bard College and to begin a second novel, Juneteenth.
Ellison published Shadow and Act, a collection of essays, in 1964 and began to teach at Rutgers University and Yale University while continuing to work on his novel. The following year, a survey of 200 prominent literary figures was released that proclaimed Invisible Man the most important novel since World War II.
Writing essays about both the black experience and his love for jazz music, Ellison continued to receive major awards for his work. In 1969, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the following year, he was made a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France and became a permanent member of the faculty at New York University as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, serving from 1970 to 1980.
In 1975, Ellison was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his hometown of Oklahoma City honored him with the dedication of the Ralph Waldo Ellison Library. Continuing to teach, Ellison published mostly essays, and in 1984, he received the New York City College Langston Hughes Medal. The following year, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. In 1986, his Going to the Territory was published; this is a collection of seventeen essays that included insight into southern novelist William Faulkner and Ellison’s friend Richard Wright, as well as the music of Duke Ellington and the contributions of African Americans to America’s national identity.
Ellison died on April 16, 1994, of pancreatic cancer and was interred in a crypt at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan.
On February 18, 2014, the USPS issued a 91¢ stamp honoring Ralph Ellison in its Literary Arts series.
A park, residing on 150th Street and Riverside Drive in Harlem, was dedicated to Ralph Ellison on May 1, 2003. In the park, stands a 15×8-foot bronze slab, with a “cut-out man figure” inspired by his book, “Invisible Man.”
Invisible Man continues to be held up as one of the most highly regarded works in the American literary canon.