-Museum, Text analysis,
Webmaster Kofi Martin
This project is in partial
substantiation of the coursework for Honors African-American Literature
guided by Dr. Doveanna Fulton of the University of Memphis due on
Friday, December 3, 2004.
In what ways did Ralph Ellison use
the Prologue of the Invisible
Man to portray stark realism of African-American life during the
are my thoughts.
"I am invisible, understand, simply
because people refuse
to see me."
(Note: The following is not provided with attempts to be the definitive
biography of Ralph. This is simply a "collage" of importance
experiences in Ellison's life.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born March
1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His father, Lewis A. Ellison, was a
construction foreman and owned a small ice and coal business. He
suffered an untimely death when Ellison was at the age of 3. Ida
Millsap, his mother, was a well known political figure and provided
janitorial services in white family’s homes. She brought samples of the
“good life” and Ellison and his brother Herbert were intrigued by these
artifacts. The life these immaculate glossy covered Vanity and Literary
Digest magazines portrayed led Ellison’s eyes towards something that
wasn’t easily attainable for African Americans at that time.
In 1920, he attended the
Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City. There he studied music and
learned to play the trumpet and many other brass instruments.
“Despite those who complained
and cried to heaven for Gabriel to blow a chorus so heavenly sweet and
so hellishly hot that I’d forever put down my horn, there
were more tolerant ones who were willing to pay in present for future
Ellison grew an affinity to
the music in his environment. Oklahoma had just declared its’ statehood
20 years earlier so this new frontier’s music was very experimental and
included resident artists such as King Oliver, Old Blue Devils Band,
Hot Lips Page, and Jimmy Rushing.
Ellison later attended the
Tuskegee Institute in 1933. His primary mentor was William L. Dawson,
professor of classical composition and choral music. Ellison
was intrigued with Dawson enthusiasm, knowledge and teaching styles in
music. He was there at Tuskegee to continue his music
studies, and found no other place as heavily ingrained with the
impeccable tutelage of musical study.
“When Mr. Dawson stood before a
choir or the band or the orchestra, you had the sense that you were
dealing with realities beyond yourself—that you were being asked to
give of yourself to meanings which were [i]ndefinable except in terms
of music and musical style. But you also had the sense that with his
elegance and severity, with his grasp of the meaning of the verse, the
value that he could draw out of a word and make you draw out of it, the
way he could make you phrase, could teach you to grasp the meaning of a
line of verse which sometimes he had set to music—sometimes Handel—all
this gave you a sense that through this activity and dedication to the
arts, you were going beyond and were getting insight into your other
activities” (Callahan 440).
Financial restraints and
unsettling social circumstances at Tuskegee led Ellison to go to New
York. This “renaissance” man acquired an interest in sculpture and
wanted to support himself for his senior year in school. Had he gone
back to Tuskegee, the Invisible Man may never been created.
New York; July 5, 1936.
Ellison arrived to New York City with intent to be a sculpture. He saw Langston
Hughes and Alain Locke, standing outside of a YMCA, and introduced
himself. Alain Locke, a department head of Philosophy at
Howard University, had previously lectured at Tuskegee and to Ellison’s
surprise he remembered their acquaintance. Locke was the department
head of Philosophy at Howard University. Locke introduced Ellison to
Hughes, who was acclaimed African American poet because Ellison too was
interested in poetry.
Langston Hughes happened to
have with him a copy of Malraux’s Days of Wrath and Man’s Fate. Hughes loaned him
the books and also emphasized the importance of meeting Richard Wright,
who was going to be in New York later in the year. Ellison
didn’t know that Hughes actually wrote Wright about him. Wright did
respond and wrote Ellison a postcard stating when we would be in New
York. Ellison had a significant amount of time to wait and could have
gone back to Tuskegee, but remembered the poor race relations and the
accommodationist environment that evolved. Ellison never went back.
Wright’s plans to be in New
York were due to a racial ostracizing from the Communist group he
originally worked with in Chicago. Someone recommended New York under
the circumstances that he would still be involved with Communists;
editor of the Marxist literary magazine, the New Challenge and reporter
for The Daily Worker.
After being in New York for a
mother passed and caused a few months of depression for Ellison.
He would only read, hunt and write. A real economic depression set in
and led Ellison to really continue and pursue writing. While working
for the Federal Writer’s Project-WPA, his work began to appear
frequently in publications like New Masses, Tomorrow, Negro Quarterly,
New Republic, Saturday Review, the Antioch Review and Reporter. His
biggest critic was his new friend, Richard Wright. Ellison was his
apprentice and between 1938-1944 he had written about 60 articles, and
8 short stories.
With roaring international
problems and the onslaught of World War II, Ellison’s writing career
had a new inspiration—the perils of man’s insolence toward world peace,
the blues, jazz, and the tragicomedy of everyday life. Then his writing
was involuntarily put on hold. From 1943-1945, Ellison joined the
Merchant Marine as a cook. The armed forces were segregated and
Ellison did not want any involvement. In 1946 he met his
second wife after short lived previous one—Fanny McConnell.
In 1952 the Invisible Man
debuted. Richard Wright was a catalyst for Ellison’s literary
vision because at the time Ellison was also a freelance photographer,
and worked various installation and construction projects. Invisible
Man was certainly widely accepted and widely criticized. To critics, it
was bad for communism because of the negative description of the
Brotherhood; and it was bad because it was not radical enough for
African Americans. Then others thought that he “single-handedly
rewrote the American novel” or thought “it was a
vicious distortion of Negro life. Negro people needed Ellison’s
Invisible Man like [they] need [ed] a hole in the head or a stab in the
back” (Gates 1515-1517).
Ellison went on to complete
essay collections such as Noble Savage (1960), Shadow and Act (1964)
and Going to Territory (1986). Posthumously, editors have compiled
other stories that had not previously been published in The Collected
Essays (1995), Flying and Other Stories (1996), and Juneteenth (1998).
Throughout his lifetime, music
was of primary influence. His musicianship and penmanship were his ways
of expressing something deep within.
“Perhaps in the swift change of
American society in which the meanings of one’s origin are so quickly
lost, one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to
give us an orientation in time. In doing so, it gives significance to
all those indefinable aspects of experience which nevertheless help to
make us what we are. In the swift whirl of time music is constant,
reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire”