I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
— Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
ATTRACTED to Oklahoma by its promise of equality for people of color, the parents of Ralph Ellison soon discovered what other blacks did in the first two decades after statehood: This place, like its Southern neighbors, was not exactly their promised land.
It was the same lure that had drawn blacks to Tulsa's flourishing Greenwood business district until it was virtually destroyed in the race riot of 1921. The early Democratic legislatures were quick to enact Jim Crow laws; rigid racial segregation followed. Still, to the end of his life Ralph Ellison saw Oklahoma as a place with more opportunity for blacks and less intolerance of them than was true in the adjoining Southern states.
Lewis and Ida Ellison's second child was born March 1, 1914, near downtown Oklahoma City. He was given the name Ralph Waldo Ellison in hopes that he would one day write poetry. He drifted toward prose instead. This native son who left Oklahoma City after high school died on April 16, 1994 — nearly one year to the day before the horrific event that will forever define this city.
Ellison's formative years in Oklahoma City helped define him; “Invisible Man” defines his literary genius. The novel was published in April 1952 and remains in print 60 years later, a remarkable accomplishment in itself. As one reviewer put it, the novel is the story of an anonymous black youth growing up in the aggressively racist milieu of early 20th-century America.
The book was on the best-seller list for months — Ellison was the first black author to achieve that status — and won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction. Those who loved “Invisible Man” when it first appeared were eager to read a second Ellison novel. He had begun one in the early 1950s, but Ellison died without having finished it. He did, however, write many essays and short stories as well as teach college courses.
Ellison fought a lifelong battle against black separatism. Unfortunately, support for separatism grew in the years after he died. Ellison's stand on the subject made him the object of criticism among the more militant black leaders.
Had he lived, Ellison would now be 98 and probably remain a celebrated author and controversial figure. Although not entirely invisible here, the author remains largely unknown or at least unread in his own hometown. A local library branch was named after him, but Ellison — an Oklahoman by birth and upbringing — wasn't inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame until six years after he died.
Ellison set out to be a musician and trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama during the Great Depression. He had earlier played trumpet — and football — at Douglass High School. The last time he set foot in the city was 37 years ago, when the Ralph Ellison Library was opened at 2000 NE 23.
In a 1993 telephone interview with The Oklahoman, Ellison told why he still identified with his Oklahoma childhood. “In writing,” he said, “underneath, there's a great emotional continuum, and my early emotions found existence in Oklahoma ...” Asked what advice he had for young black men and women, Ellison said, “Remember that you are an American, and probably more American than many others who might oppose you; that you have a tradition here which is far more real than anything that we ever had from Africa.”
His seminal work, he said, was “an attempt to get at the Americanness of all Americans and how the races fit together or don't fit together; how the ideals of democracy were sometimes attained and very often ignored.”
Too many have ignored Ralph Ellison for too long. Your local library branch has his novel. In this 60th anniversary year of “Invisible Man,” we urge you to check it out.