We’re remembering writer and literary critic Ralph Ellison in this installment of our Black History Month series. Best known for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison remains an incredibly influential and high-achieving figure in American literature.
Named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Ellison’s literary future was perhaps foreshadowed right from his birth on March 1, 1913. He was born in Oklahoma City, but a few years after his father’s death, his mother moved the family to Indiana in 1921 to give her children a better chance at a future.
However, this formative experience mostly served to show Ellison not ‘how much better the North is,’ but rather to expose the covert racism of the Northern US as compared to the more overt racism in the South. The family ended up moving back to Oklahoma shortly after, where Ralph Ellison worked odd jobs as a young man to support his mother and brother.
Ellison graduated from Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and afterward performed as a trumpeter with local musicians before attending the prestigious Tuskegee Institute. There, he continued to play the trumpet and study music and literature.
Career and Works
After attending the Tuskegee Institute (though leaving before earning his degree), Ellison relocated to New York City in 1936. He was encouraged to pursue a career in fiction while in the city. Ellison avidly wrote book reviews, short stories, and contributed to Communist publications.
Ellison became disillusioned with the Communist Party during World War II and felt that it was not oriented strongly enough around Marxist class politics. This disillusionment is reflected in his best-known work, Invisible Man, in which the main character faces the hypocrisy of American political and social systems that refuse to see Black people as human.
Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, and Ellison went on to publish Shadow and Act, a collection of essays, in 1964. He produced over 2,000 pages of a second novel while he was alive, but never finished it. However, Juneteenth was published posthumously after his death from pancreatic cancer in 1999.
Ellison passed away on April 16, 1994, but his writings and teachings still live on today.
During his life, he was also awarded a National Medal of Arts in 1985 alongside dancer Martha Graham, painter Georgia O’Keefe, and other influential creators.
Ralph Ellison’s works remain crucial today for understanding that racism did not end with the Civil Rights movement — it’s present in our systems and institutions, and racial inequity must continue to be combatted on those levels.
For more Black History Month features, read about Frederick Douglass here.