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RALPH ELLISON


"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen 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. I, 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, The Invisible Man


LITERARY LANDMARK DEDICATION 2002


In 2002, Friends of Libraries in Oklahoma announced that the second national Literary Landmark in Oklahoma would be in honor of the American novelist. The actual site chosen was the Ralph Ellison Library at 2000 N.E. 23 Street in Oklahoma City in Ellison’s old neighborhood. (The public unveiling of the landmark was held on October 2, 2002 ) The library was a fitting choice. By his death in 1994, Ellison had been honored the world over, yet he always said he most valued having a library in his hometown carry his name. “That library,” said close friend and literary executor John F. Callahan, “meant a great deal to him. He remembered growing up when blacks didn’t have a library, when a few blacks had to get together and put a library together with a few books in a basement of a local church. He remembered when they built their own library, and when libraries were segregated. And for there to be an integrated library named after him in Oklahoma City meant a great deal to him.”  

The Year of Ralph Ellison also saw a long denied honor bestowed: in the summer of 2002, it was announced that Ralph Ellison — after 14 long years of nominations --would be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame on November 21, 2002 . His story had come full circle. The invisible man was invisible no longer

 

Author of one of the most important novels of the past century, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's idea of social invisibility - a condition in which an individual is judged on the basis of superficial characteristics by a society that leaves his actual qualities unexamined and unseen - influenced an array of notable authors, including Joseph Heller, John Irving, Kul Vonnegut, and Saul Bellow.    


Ellison was born Ralph Waldo Ellison in Oklahoma City in 1914. His father had dreams of his being a poet, but the boy was said to be so intimidated by his famous moniker that he refused to use his middle name his entire life. His father worked in construction and as a tradesman but died when the boy was three. His mother then moved the family into the local parsonage at Avery Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church; she worked there and elsewhere as a domestic to support them. She often brought home magazines and phonograph records from the homes in which she worked, and the exposure to music and literature had a great effect on the child. He took up the trumpet and played in the Douglass High School band. By his late teens, he had become enamored of jazz, an influence that would later inform his writing. After high school, he entered the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on scholarship to study music and music theory. A mix-up concerning his tuition for his last year landed him in New York for the summer, and the rest, as they say, is history.


AN OKLAHOMA TREASURE


In New York City, Ellison encountered Alain Locke and Langston Hughes, two of America's leading African-American figures. They, in turn, introduced him to the African-American author Richard Wright, who not only encouraged the young musician to write but published his first story and found him a four-year job with the New Deal's Federal Writer’s Project.


Ellison's initial output included short stories, reviews, and reports for newspapers. Once he began Invisible Man, it took him seven years to complete the book (his second wife, Fanny, supported him during this period). The novel tells the story of a young, naive Southern black man, eager to take his proper place in society, but stymied by others who continually interpret his role and place. The book appealed not only to people of color but across racial lines: to young white men, poor working women, disenfranchised people in America and the world over. Critics were impressed not only by its originality and universal theme but also its jazzlike structure.


Random House published Invisible Man in 1952. In 1953, it won the National Book Award.

Ellison then began work on a second novel, but a fire at his summer home in New York's Berkshires destroyed more than 300 pages of his manuscript in 1967. Though two collections of his essays, Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory, were published as well as excerpts from his novel in progress; he died before Juneteenth was completed.


Invisible to most Oklahomans for many years, in 2002, Ralph Ellison and his work were highlighted by Oklahoma County’s Metropolitan Library System in a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work. In the course of “The Year of Ralph Ellison: 50 Years of the Invisible Man,” the library commissioned an original one-man play, Indivisible Man, from Bartlesville poet and actor Morris McCorvey as well as an interactive CD on his life and works by Ron Keys of Guthrie. It also presented thousands of copies of Invisible Man to local schools. (In February 2002, Avon Kirkland’s documentary on Ellison also aired on PBS.)