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In some ways, the winning of the National Book Award in 1953

for Invisible Man, and not the mere publication of the novel itself,

transformed Ellison's life for better and for worse. This prominent

award to a young black man . . .set in motion a flood of honors



Books by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man: A Novel  / The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison  / Juneteenth: A Novel  /  Shadow and Act  /

Flying Home and Others Stories  / Going to The Territory / Trading Twelves; The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray

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Arnold Rampersad.  Ralph Ellison: A Biography (2007) 686 pages

Book Review by Kam Williams

 “I know by now that all my little triumphs are in reality defeats.” Ralph Ellison, 1961


When Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, little did he know that he’d never publish another novel during his lifetime. Still, his acerbic examination of racism through the eyes of a black man in search of an identity was a masterpiece which permanently established the author in the pantheon of great African-American writers on the strength of this contribution alone.

Ellison, a World War II veteran and college dropout, would spend the next forty years in a futile quest to replicate the success of that literary feat. According to his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, all the attention and accolades which arrived in the wake of Invisible Man, probably prevented the perfectionist from ever focusing on his work to the degree necessary to attain the same level of excellence again.

Rampersad, professor of English at Stanford University, devotes almost 700 pages to chronicling his subject’s confounding spiral towards irrelevancy, if not obscurity. Fortunately, this encyclopedic examination of the enigmatic Ellison’s life proves to be fascinating, partially because Ralph was so outspoken and given to making controversial, conservative remarks which ultimately left him ostracized by and estranged from the community he had once so eloquently spoken for.

A black beatnik still banging on his bongo, Daddy-o, long past the time when his people had begun marching to the beat of a different drum.

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Other Views

On the strength of just one novel, as well as a series of lasting essays in cultural criticism, Ralph Ellison stands as one of the major literary figures of the last century. The novel, of course, is
Invisible Man, and much of the drama of Ellison's life, as told by Arnold Rampersad in the first major biography of Ellison, is twofold: how Ellison came to write his masterwork, and how he failed to write another. Given complete access to Ellison's papers, Rampersad tells the story of Ellison's long apprenticeship as a musician and writer and his long life, full of honors and frustrations, after the great success of Invisible Man, capturing the complexities, to use of one of Ellison's favorite words, of his elusive subject, at once passionate and patrician, fiercely critical of his country's racial divisions and stubbornly hopeful about its democratic possibilities.

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Books by Arnold Rampersand

Jackie Robinson: A Biography /  Ralph Ellison: A Biography  /  The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

The Life of Langston Hughes (vol. 1), !902-1941 / The Life of Langston Hughes (Vol II), 1914-1967

Richard Wright: A Collection of Critical Essays / The Art and Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois

Slavery and the Literary Imagination

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Questions for Arnold Rampersad

One of the leading scholars of African American literature and the author of major biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson, Arnold Rampersad is an ideal biographer for one of the great figures of 20th-century American writing. We asked him a few questions about Ralph Ellison. Ralph Ellison came from Oklahomathe "Territory," as he liked to call itand in his essays he wrote evocatively of the conditions there that nurtured his creative life (although he rarely returned as an adult). What was Oklahoma like for an ambitious but poor young African American like him?

Rampersad: Ellison, who spent the first 20 years of his life in Oklahoma, was intensely aware of the pioneers, white and black, who had migrated toward the end of the 19th century, from the South especially, into what had been demarcated as "Indian" territory. These pioneers had come first as homesteaders, then as founders of the state of Oklahoma in 1907, six years before Ralph's birth. For the rest of his life he carried with him a keen, precious sense of Oklahoma as an extraordinary American site, one that captured much of the complexity of America as it had been shaped by frontier life. Oklahoma City meant excellent jazz and the bluesblack culture in its artistic exuberanceas in the pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (who played later with Benny Goodman) and the equally famous blues singer Jimmie Rushing. But Ellison also knew Oklahoma as a place where Jim Crow was a disturbing, often ruinous force. Moreover, his father had died there when Ralph was only three, and the result was that his mother was forced to toil in humble jobs that sorely embarrassed a proud boy.

Later overlooking the slights and snubs he experienced as a youth, and dwelling especially on his various friendships with fellow students at the local "colored" schools, Ellison cherished his memory of Oklahoma as a region of almost mythic proportion and magical charm. He took immense pleasure in going back homebut he went home only after he had become famous and could command the respect and attention he had craved in his bittersweet youth. Ellison spent a long and varied creative apprenticeship before writing Invisible Man. What did he learn along the way that allowed him to make such a stunning debut?

Rampersad: Ellison's many years of training as a musician (on the trumpet) as a youth served him in good stead when he committed himself (influenced first by his friends Langston Hughes and Richard Wright) around 1937 to become a writer. He was then 24 years old--pretty late as a start for most important fiction writers, but not too late for a man of enormous drive, wide reading, and restless intelligence. As Ellison served his apprenticeship, he kept his major literary masters close at hand. They were Dostoyevsky for his distillation of the turbulence, vitality, and tragic gloom of Russia in the 19th century; Hemingway for his terse, virile elegance; Richard Wright (although the competitive Ellison would play down his influence) for the gritty American realism that sought to expose and redress American social injustice; Andre Malraux, for combining in an often breathtaking way the life of radical action and the life of the mind; and in some ways above all, T.S. Eliot, whose landmark poem of 1922 The Waste Land encouraged Ellison in his mature commitment to modernism, a pervasive if mild surrealism, jazzy improvisation, and cosmopolitan learning.

Ellison was a sometimes crudely Marxist writer until about 1942, when he began a zealous conversion away from the literary and political left. Three years later, he started Invisible Man. By that time, after years of hard work as a reader and a consciously apprentice writer, he was fully committed to an esthetic based in liberal humanism, with a particular passion for explorations of American literature and culture. The great question with Ellison is, of course, what happened after Invisible Man? Why do you think he struggled so with his second novel?

Rampersad: In some ways, the winning of the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man , and not the mere publication of the novel itself, transformed Ellison's life for better and for worse. This prominent award to a young black man (who beat out Hemingway for the prize) set in motion a flood of honors, big responsibilities, and financial rewards. These tokens of professional success steadily combined with Ellison's proud perfectionism to make it increasingly hard for him to offer the world anything less than a work conceived and executed on a scale that reached grandperhaps impossibly grand--heights of excellence. Committed to a literature of myth, symbol, and surrealism, instead of the literature of everyday life, he found himself often entangled in fiction writing that drew on techniques borrowed from James Joyce and on Faulknerian myths and fables about race, miscegenation, social injustice, and American culture.

He also prized improvisation, which called for powers of organization and discipline that proved finally to be beyond him as a novelist. And he was not helped by his principled refusal to allow himself to be comfortable with the many African Americans who were attracted, starting in the 1960s, by black cultural nationalism and black power. Although he believed in African American culture, he became increasingly and painfully isolated in ways that led him away from the completion of vivid fiction set largely in that culture. He liked to blame his writing problems on the fire in 1967 that destroyed his country home in Massachusetts, but the facts about the fire do not support this claim. You've written major biographies of Langston Hughes and Jackie Robinson as well. How did Ellison's public path through the mid-century compare to theirs?

Rampersad: Langston Hughes was the polar opposite of Ralph Ellison in many ways. Hughes loved the masses of black Americans unconditionally; he believed in world travel and in varieties of friendship that covered almost the entire social spectrum; he was almost compulsive in his desire to help younger artists, especially younger black artists; he wrote consistently in a variety of forms of which poetry, drama, and fiction were only the most conspicuous; he also cared little for esoteric art and Olympian esthetic standards.

Ellison was a different man. He traveled little; guarded his resources zealously and believed that young writers should make their way by their individual efforts as he believed he had done for himself; he didn't hesitate to criticize black leaders when he thought they were abusing their authority, which was often, as far as he was concerned; and he set the highest esthetic standards for himself and others. He stuck to writing fiction and essays, and his total output is dwarfed by that of Langston Hughesexcept, Ellison would say proudly, in terms of quality. Hughes paid, in the 1930s and through the 40s and early 50s, for his once deep attachment to radical socialism; Ellison quietly shed similar attachments in the name of a complex patriotism. In doing so, he escaped the rough treatment meted out to Hughes and others.

Jackie Robinson was by far the most famous of the three, and no doubt had the greatest impact, as a force for desegregation, on American culture. While he was not an artist or intellectual, he was drawn to politics especially after the end of his baseball career. He was a moderate Republican; the others were Democrats, although Hughes was more critical of party politics than was Ellison, who was befriended and advanced by President Johnson. Both Johnson and, later, Ronald Reagan awarded Ellison the prestigious Presidential Medal of the Arts. Invisible Man is one of only a few novels from its era that has kept its power and popularity for readers in later generations. Has it had a similar influence on younger writers? Ellison's prickly relations with his successors may have discouraged immediate followers, but can you see his influence today?

Rampersad: Young writers today, black as well as white, have many sources to draw on and many beacons of inspiration to guide them. And yet Invisible Man is in many ways as admirable, fascinating, and complex today as when it was first published. Among novels by black Americans, its only true rival in terms of quality of craft might be Morrison's Beloved, and the wide range of effects in Ellison's novel is probably unmatched by any other black novelist. Ellison, we should remember, set out consciously to write a novel that was simultaneously about a black man and about an Everyman who transcended race, and to a surprising extent he succeeded in doing so. His novel continues to appeal to blacks and whites alike, and especially to men. Moreover, in writing so brilliantly about race, which remains and probably will remain the most challenging topic in American culture, he practically guaranteed the continuing resonance of Invisible Man.

The superiority of Shadow and Act, his 1964 collection of essays and interviews, to virtually every other book on the subject of black art and culture is evident. Its only serious rival in this respect is probably Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903). But Shadow and Act lives while much, although not all, of Du Bois's classic book is dated. Shadow and Act continues to serve as a primer for younger black writers who are seriously interested in questions of literary craft and race in America.

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Ralph Ellison

A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress

Prepared by Donna Ellis
with the assistance of Patricia Craig, Julie Hunsaker, Sherralyn McCoy, John Monagle, Angela Moore, and Andrew Passett

Biographical Note



1914, Mar. 1

Born, Oklahoma City, Okla.


Attended Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Ala.


Researcher, Federal Writers' Project, Works Progress Administration
Married Rose Poindexter (divorced 1945)


Published short story "Slick Gonna Learn" in Direction


Published short story "The Birthmark" in New Masses
Published short story "Afternoon" in American Writing, ed. Hans Otto Storm and others (Prairie City, Ill.: J.A. Decker)


Published short story "Mister Toussan" in New Masses


Managing editor, Negro Quarterly


Seaman, merchant marine


Published short story "Flying Home" in Cross Section, ed. Edwin Seaver (New York: L. B. Fischer)
Published short story "King of the Bingo Game" in Tomorrow


Received Rosenwald Fellowship


Married Fanny McConnell Buford


Published short story "Battle Royal" in '48, The Magazine of the Year


Published Invisible Man (New York: Random House. 429 pp.)


Received National Book Award for Invisible Man


Received American Academy of Arts and Letters Fellowship for study in Rome


Instructor, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.


Published short story "And Hickman Arrives" in The Noble Savage


Alexander White Visiting Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, Ill.


Visiting Professor of Writing, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.


Published Shadow and Act (New York: Random House. 317 pp.)


Visiting Fellow in American Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.


Honorary consultant in American letters, Library of Congress


Trustee, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.


Board of Directors, Educational Broadcasting Corp.


Decorated chevalier Ordre des Arts et Lettres, France
Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom


Trustee, New School for Social Research, New York, N.Y.


Trustee, Bennington College, Bennington, Vt.


Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, New York University, New York, N.Y.


Board of Directors, Museum of the City of New York, New York, N.Y.


Trustee, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Board of Visitors, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.


Opening of Ralph Ellison Branch, Metropolitan Library System, Oklahoma City, Okla.


Awarded National Medal of Arts


Published Going to the Territory (New York: Random House. 338 pp.)

1994, Apr. 16

Died, New York, N.Y.


Posthumous publication, Juneteenth (New York: Random House. 368 pp.)

Source: Library of Congress

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Ralph Ellison: A Biography

Video with Arnold Rampersad Reviewing the life of Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison—Work in Progress

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

By Walter Rodney

The late Guyanese writer, Walter Rodney had left us his great insights regarding the reasons for the underdevelopment of the African continent. His work finds equal footing with those of Frantz Fanon and to an extent that of the late Brazilian author and social activist, Paulo Freire in attempting to provide a critical insight, and a gainful analysis to the situation and reasons for the poverty on the African continent. This analysis, whether one agrees with its conclusions or not provides a means towards looking at the stalk realities of African underdevelopment. Rodney thesis that the trans-atlantic slave trade diminished the African manpower to attain development cannot be easily pushed under the carpet. Development is how a people within the means available to them, within their eco-context utilize their knowledge for the good of the totality. When their people is afflicted with disease or mass uprooting there is bound to be both biological and social ripple effects that would affect both the pace and nature of development. It is here that we realize that Rodney's proposition underlines a crucial factor in explaining the reasons for the African state.

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Natives of My Person

By George Lamming

Natives of My Person focuses on slave traders of the sixteenth century. The novel reconstructs the voyage of the ship Reconnaissance, which is led by a character known as the Commandant. To atone for his past cruelties and barbarism, the Commandant plans to establish a Utopian society on the island of San Cristobal. The enterprise fails for many reasons: fighting amongst the crew, loss of interest, greed, and an inability to erase the past. The novel argues that an ideal society cannot be built by those who have committed moral atrocities and unnecessary bloodshed in their past. . . . Although Natives of My Person has a historical setting and deals with the voyage of the Reconnaissance, a vessel ostensibly engaged in the slave trade, a specific historical phenomenon, it is only partly accurate to describe it as a work of historical realism. Its realist component is not to be found in its fidelity to period costume, living conditions, or similar revealing detail. Instead of the veneer of verisimilitude that such usages provide, the novel locates its realism in the way in which it elaborately recapitulates an outlook.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "

Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest.

Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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Karma’s Footsteps

By Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

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Her Voice   / Mother Nature: Thoughts on Nourishing Your Body, Mind, and Spirit During Pregnancy and Beyond  

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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