Ralph Ellison: the man who made Black America visible

There is a remarkable shot in the film 12 Years a Slave when the camera pans up from a shackled Solomon Northup and lingers on the white dome of Washington’s Capitol. The symbolism isn’t hard to work out: America’s lawmakers barely noticed the slave pens operating in the Capitol’s shadow – despite the fact that the building itself was raised with slave labour.

The two themes encapsulated in that moment – the failure of white America to see the people they had enslaved, and the vital part African Americans played in building the nation – are central to the work of Ralph Ellison, the great African American novelist born 100 years ago today.

Ellison published only one novel in his lifetime but it a was a revolutionary work. Invisible Man came out in 1952 when the author was 39 years old. It follows the bleak adventures of an unnamed black narrator from the Deep South through to Harlem. Along the way he tries to impress preachers, teachers, radicals and hucksters. At every step, though, his efforts to forge an identity – to become a visible man – are thwarted by his skin colour.

In the tradition of African American memoirists such as Northup, and European writers such as Dostoevsky and Joyce, Invisible Man is both powerfully heartfelt and savagely funny. Instantly recognised as a classic, it won the National Book Award in 1953 – the first time a novel by a black author had done so.

The opening chapter sets the tone – part surreal and part grimly real. Having escaped a race riot in Harlem, our narrator hides in the basement of an apartment block reserved for whites. He has hooked up 1,369 light bulbs, partly to bait the electricity company, and partly to keep himself illuminated – “Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form”, he tells us. He listens to Louis Armstrong sing “What Did I Do To Be So Black And Blue” over and over again.

Ralph Waldo Ellison (named for the 19th-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson) was born in Oklahoma in 1914, the grandson of slaves. When he was three years old his father died, pierced by a shard of ice he was delivering. Ellison attended an all-black college named for Booker T Washington – a similar institution appears in Invisible Man – but did not take a degree. In the late Thirties he went to New York with ambitions of being a trumpeter and worked as a waiter, a janitor and in a factory, as well as getting the occasional writing job. He fell in with the Communist Party. In Invisible Man the Party reappears as the Brotherhood, a group that initially helps the narrator but ultimately turns against him.

In a Paris Review interview from 1954, Ellison made clear that unlike black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey – the basis for the sinister Ras the Destroyer in the novel – he did not believe in racial separatism. “Negroes”, as he called them, were an integral part of American society. “Through the very process of slavery came the building of the United States,” he said. In that interview he also defended the apparently narrow focus of his work: “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn’t that what we’re all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.”

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