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Spotlight: Ralph Waldo Ellison

Ralph Waldo Ellison was an African American scholar whose work critically explored race, black nationalism, and activism. He is best known for his award-winning novel Invisible Man.

Born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, OK, Ellison was named after the journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. A self-described renaissance man and musician, Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He studied music with the intent of becoming a composer. After three years of study, Ellison went to New York City over the summer to earn money for his college expenses. Initially attracted by the cultural legacies of the Harlem Renaissance, Ellison’s introduction to the Black literary community engendered a determination to pursue a literary career. He worked as a researcher and writer for the New York Federal Writers Program, a government initiative aimed at providing jobs for disenfranchised writers during the Great Depression. Ellison befriended, and was mentored by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke, forefathers of the Black literary movement.

In 1937, Ellison submitted some of his short stories, reviews, and essays to various publications. He also began working as the managing editor of The Negro Quarterly, a periodical that focused on African American life and culture.

Ellison served as a Merchant Marine cook during World War II. Upon his return, in 1952, he published his bestselling, acclaimed first novel Invisible Man, which won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction. Regarded as a pioneering work on marginalization, especially from an African American protagonist's perspective, Invisible Man manifests Ellison’s lifelong engagement with autonomy, self-reliance, and disconnections between African American consciousness and identity. Ellison introduced a novel Black protagonist: one that was educated, self-aware, and with insatiable intellectual curiosity. His acclaim was accompanied by criticism. Some Black activists criticized his novel as lacking in radical political perspectives regarding race issues. His commitment to social change was also challenged due to his insistence on treating his novel primarily a work of art rather than a polemical work.

Despite the criticisms, Invisible Man continues to be considered the first novel by an African American writer that satisfies and transcends its racial theme, making it a beacon achievement in American literary tradition, and in the modernist movement. Today, Ellison's legacy remains influential, albeit controversial.

After the publication of his novel, Ellison published two collections of essays: Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986). He also lectured at various universities on Black culture, folklore, and creative writing. Following his death in 1994, his unpublished works Flying Home, and Other Stories were published posthumously in 1996.

Ellison’s stylistic treatment of autonomy, and his nuanced approach to race and social change edifies him as an important figure in American scholarship.

Source: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Ralph Ellison.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Accessed January 2021.

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