“ … literature is an affirmative act, but, being specifically concerned with moral values and reality, it has to deal with the possibility of defeat. Underlying it most profoundly is the sense that man dies but his values continue. The mediating role of literature is to leave the successors with the sense of what is dangerous in the human predicament and what is glorious.” —Ralph Ellison, 1972
On March 1, 2014, Ralph Ellison would have turned 100. On that day, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem devoted a day to readings from Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man. In February the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor. Earlier this month, in Ellison’s birthplace of Oklahoma City, an academic conference celebrating his centennial was held featuring The Root’s own editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., as keynote speaker. Also this month, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem launched an exhibit centering on Ellison’s record collection.
Yet considering Ellison’s central place in 20th-century American literature and his sterling achievement as a black American thinker, more attention should be given far and wide. To address this lack of due attention, here are three reasons that Ralph Ellison still matters.
1. The Achievement of Invisible Man
Never out of print since it became a best-seller in 1952, and winner of the National Book Award in 1953, Ellison’s fictional masterpiece is generally recognized as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. This is the tale of the often slapstick (mis)adventures of a nameless Negro American protagonist whose blues-drenched, pinball-like journey from the South to the North and from rural to city not only mirrored the historical trajectory of black folk, but whose search for identity resonates, even today, with all.
The historical and psychological depth, the capturing of the range of polyglot American speech patterns, the intersection of individual desire for leadership and the ideological and political realities of the time, and the range of literary allusions—from Negro folktales and fictional predecessors ranging from Melville, Dostoevsky, Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner to James Weldon Johnson and Richard Wright—all combined in Ellison’s imagination and were conveyed in eloquent prose. The power of Invisible Man to still reach readers in their guts, hearts and minds—to relate to their sense of life, whether male or female, or from whatever ethnic or cultural background or nationality—is well-stated in the novel’s closing line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
2. Ellison’s Definition and Defense of Black American Culture Over Race
Ellison once wrote that the American “writer has a triple responsibility: to himself, to his immediate group, and to his region.” African Americans (whom Ellison’s generation called Negro Americans) were his immediate group, and following predecessors such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, Ellison embraced affirming what he called the “Negro idiom,” an attitude and way of life that manifests the way we move, make music and dance, play in speech and sport, style in cuisine and fashion.
Ellison knew that race was built on surface perceptions that hid deeper human meaning and identities derived from culture. In fact, the Negro idiom, as he defined it, is integral to American culture overall. Comprehending culture and not confusing it with race was a key to his artistic liberation and is still instructive for us now.
In an essay defending black youth, titled “What These Children Are Like,” Ellison defined culture as “how people deal with their environment, about what they make of what is abiding in it, about what helps them find their way, and about that which helps them be at home in the world.”