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.