The following essay appeared in the April, 2003 issue
of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National
Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil
Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book
Ralph Ellison (1913-1994)
Winner of the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction
Ida Millsap and Lewis Alfred Ellison of Oklahoma City
- the children of slaves -- named their new-born son
Ralph Waldo, after the great 19th century American transcendentalist
philosopher and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).
Little did they know how completely that optimistic,
prescient gesture would be fulfilled. The elder Ellison
died when Ralph was only three years old. Mother Ida
worked as a domestic in the Avery Chapel Afro-Methodist
Episcopal Church. To save money, the family moved into
the parson's home, where Ralph spent hours perusing
the books in the minister's library. Taking note of
her boy's intellectual inclinations, Ida brought home
old books and magazines for him from the houses she
At Frederick Douglass High School in Oklahoma City,
Ralph took trumpet lessons; jazz became the second big
force in his life. Weekends, he played background music
at receptions and parties in the homes of wealthy blacks.
In 1933, Ralph left Oklahoma City armed with a music
scholarship for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where
he also performed in several plays, and was introduced
to the vibrant literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
Restless, he dropped out after the junior year, and
headed for New York City, where he would live for the
rest of his life. Ellison soon met Alain Locke, Richard
Wright, Langston Hughes - and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
He honed his writing skills over the coming decade,
publishing dozens of freelance book reviews, and his
first short stories, then editing The Negro Quarterly
in the late '30's.
Turning to Invisible Man with an awareness of
these and other details of Ralph Ellison's life, we
are tempted to extrapolate into his fiction - James
Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
springs easily to mind. This approach is viable only
up to a point, as we follow the nameless protagonist,
a black boy from the South breaking the constraints
of his conservative education and upbringing to find
a job and make a name for himself in the Big Apple.
The similarities are reassuring insofar as they keep
us tuned to the narrative structure while our hero,
an introspective fellow who has been raised to respect
his elders, navigates his path with uncertainty in the
world. Providing the truer aesthetic structure, however,
is a virtuosic, chiaroscuro pattern of black and white,
permeating every single page of this American masterpiece.
Black and white - or, perhaps preferably, black in white,
is Ellison's obsessive motif.
An inexhaustible succession of metaphors play upon
this theme, so that before too long we are sucked into
Ellison's ambitious agenda. He wants nothing less than
to get under the skin of a black man in a white world,
to convey the inescapable ties that bind him with us;
the symbiotic relationship which can turn from ennobling
to pernicious with the turn of a page; the subservient
undercurrent, simmering with anger, bursting forth into
acts of shocking violence. The violence of the book
is redemptive, at least for this white reader. I did
not feel threatened by the essential violence of black
against white; rather, I felt chastened, as if the author
were trying to teach me an overdue history lesson. I
felt that the author was a subversive force of the most
sophisticated kind, knowing the collective psyche of
his audience in the larger (dominant) culture all too
well, knowing the pressure points, and skillfully playing
upon them, page after page.
Invisible Man on the surface of the text, is
about one man's power struggle to achieve equilibrium
- albeit unrealistic - in a world 'owned' by others.
This man is motivated by a desire to be heard, in his
own voice, with his own words. These words emanate from
a terrain of language invented by Ralph Ellison and
rarely equalled since. The voice of the book is beyond
the labels of 'black man,' or 'brother,' or "Negro.'
In the incendiary denouement, the protagonist falls
in with a radical community organization. He is anointed
as the next spokesman, as a reluctant and ultimately
tragic messiah, perplexed about the nature of his so-called
This inherent perplexity came through on the night
of January 27, 1953, when Ralph Ellison stepped to the
podium in the ballroom of the Commodore Hotel in New
York City to accept the National Book Award for Fiction.
He conceded to the audience that Invisible Man
was a "not quite fully achieved attempt at a major
he concluded, "There must be possible a fiction
which, leaving sociology to the scientists, can arrive
at the truth about the human condition, here and now,
with all the bright magic of a fairy tale."
I will never forget a chilly November night thirty-seven
years later, in the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel
in New York, when Charles Johnson stepped to the podium
to accept the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction for
his novel, Middle Passage. Johnson paused in
his acceptance remarks to say that there was one man
in the audience that night without whom this National
Book Award would not have become possible.
He pointed to the center of the room. And slowly, Ralph
Ellison stood up, and waved gently, and the assembled
multitudes broke into prolonged applause.
-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick