Ralph Ellison March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994
Background • Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – frontier state with no history of slavery, modern view • Named after Ralph Waldo Emerson • Father wanted him to be a poet • Attended the Tuskegee Institute to study music on scholarship • Left school after three years and moved to New York City to study the visual arts • Parallels to Invisible Man
Writing Career • Began in NYC when Ellison met Richard Wright • Wright was a black author who wrote protest literature against racism • He encouraged Ellison to begin writing fiction • Wrote book reviews and short stories about “the black experience” while working on Invisible Man, which he published in 1952 • A perfectionist in writing, he spent his life attempting to write “a major novel” • Wrote over 2000 pages of manuscripts for his second novel, but never finished. Parts of this writing were published in the novel Juneteenth after his death.
Ellison’s Ideas and Influences • Growing up in Oklahoma in the 1910s gave Ellison very modern ideas on race interactions compared to those in the Northern and Southern states • “The task of the writer is to tell us about the unity of American experience beyond all considerations of class, of race, of religion.” • Wanted to show the influences of African-American culture in American life through highly developed, educated black characters – different from the image of the time period
Beyond Race • Ellison wrote about American culture in the 1930’s – the search for individual identity and place in society – not about racism. Race relations just happened to be the leading issue in 1930’s America. • “There are two types of people: those who wear their everyday clothes on Sunday, and those who wear their Sunday clothes every day. I want to wear Sunday clothes every day.” • Ellison’s modern views allowed him to explore his own black identity and his values through his characters • “Ralph Ellison taught me what it is to be an American.”