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Ralph Ellison

April 28, 2020

by Sarah A. Morgan Smith

United States Information Agency staff photographer. Photo of Ralph Ellison.Public domain under the terms of 17 U.S.C. § 105.

The theme of this year’s Teaching American History Saturday webinars is American Minds. Prominent scholars will discuss individuals who made significant social, cultural, or political contributions to the American identity. On 2 May 2020, join panelists Chris Burkett (Ashland University), Lucas Morel (Washington and Lee University), and Kathleen Pfeiffer (Oakland University) to explore the life, ideas, letters, and impact of Ralph Ellison.

Below, you’ll find selected passages from each of the readings to be discussed — we hope these will inspire you to read more in each text in order to better understand Ellison’s work.

In a Strange Country, Ralph Ellison, 1944

The well-blended voices caught him unprepared. He heard the music’s warm richness with pleasurable surprise, and heard, beneath the strange Welsh words, echoes of plain song, like that of Russian folk songs sounding.

“It’s wonderful,” he whispered, seeing Mr. Catti smile knowingly.

He looked about him. He saw the faces of the listeners caught in a single spell of communication while they sipped their drinks or puffed their pipes or cigarettes. Slowly the hall was filling with friendly swirls of smoke. They were singing another of their songs now, and though he could not understand the words he felt himself drawn closer to its web of meaning. Then the familiar and hateful emotion of alienation gripped his throat.

“It was a song about Wales?” he asked, soothing his eye.

“Exactly!” exclaimed Mr. Catti. “And the other was about a battle in which we defeated the English. Nothing like music to reveal what’s in the heart. You don’t need lyrics, really.”

A warm flush dyed Mr. Catti’s face. He’s pleased that I un­derstood, he thought. And as the men sang in hushed tones he felt a growing poverty of spirit. He should have known more of the Welsh, of their history and art. If we only had some of what they have, he thought. They are a much smaller nation than ours would be, yet I can remember no song of ours that’s of love of the soil or of country. Nor any song of battle other than those of biblical times. And in his mind’s eye he saw a Russian peasant kneeling to kiss the earth and rising wet-eyed to enter into battle with cries of fierce exultation. And he felt now, among these men, hearing their voices, a surge of deep longing to know the an­guish and exultation of such love.

Prologue to Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognized you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

 “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” Ralph Ellison, 1970

If we can resist for a moment the temptation to view everything having to do with Negro Americans in terms of their racially imposed status, we become aware of the fact that for all the harsh reality of the social and economic injustices visited upon them, these injustices have failed to keep Negroes clear of the cultural main-stream; Negro Americans are, in fact, one of its major tributaries. If we can cease approaching American social reality in terms of such false concepts as white and nonwhite, black culture and white culture, and think of these apparently unthinkable matters in the realistic manner of Western pioneers confronting the unknown prairie, perhaps we can begin to imagine what the United States would have been, or not been, had there been no blacks to give it – if I maybe so bold as to say – color.


To learn more about Ralph Ellison’s life and legacy, please join us for the American Minds Webinar

11am, Saturday, 2 May 2020.

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