Site hosted by Build your free website today!
EllisonattableLa vie, La Musique, et
les écritures de Ralph Ellison

(The Life, Music, and Writings of Ralph Ellison)

.....began living invisible in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914 and died a literary legend in Harlem, New York on April 16, 1994

-Museum, Text analysis, and Webmaster Kofi Martin
This project is in partial fulfillment for 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 post-Harlem Renaissance?
Herein 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 pride (Callahan 231-232).

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 year, Ellison’s 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” (Callahan 236).