Ralph Waldo… Ellison

Grad — that’s who I think of when I listen to Mr. Ellison speak. He has the swagger and confidence of the best public speakers, and the insightful commentary that I grew used to from my grandfather, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. I cannot get over the charisma Ellison exudes when he speaks. He just draws you in, as if you and he were having an intimate discussion. Though a writer by trade, the time he spent working on his prose with a tape recorder is obvious in the eloquence with which he expresses his thoughts. Succinctly highlighting the fractured nature of the country, both then and now, he epitomizes the sentiments of millions in declaring, “there is no United States”. Interestingly, his remarks also reminded me somewhat of bits and pieces of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, though they preceded it by several years. It would be an understatement to call Mr. Ellison a visionary; he was practically clairvoyant.

Yet, the most interesting aspects of the interview, to me, were the segments about the writing of Invisible Man. Though I understood that the narrator’s college was the Tuskegee Institute, I was unaware of the extent to which Ellison drew from his time there; I didn’t even know he attended it. Knowing this, however, so much more makes sense: beyond the narrator’s representation of the black experience in the United States, the narrator, to an extent, is Ellison. What’s more, the truths he sought to reveal about society (a task he believed to be the main goal of any writer) were based on personal experiences in his own life. Additionally, the veteran character in the novel was inspired by an acquaintance of Mr. Ellison from college. A talented man, Ellison’s friend had gone insane by the time the two met again in New York many years later. The truth he spoke, however, echoes with parallels to the veteran (rather, the other way around), in that Ellison’s friend refused to give in to the status quo, and sought to live life on his own terms.

I also enjoyed learning about Mr. Ellison’s personal life, as the interview was interspersed with commentary on his thoughts. Ellison noted that, like many other black writers, his works were often judged by his race than their quality. Also, Ellison noted that many black leaders, like those in the novel, rarely lead other blacks, but rather whites. This, Ellison hints, is an expression of the white hierarchy that ironically penetrated into black civil rights movements. The influence of his familiarity with black speakers, especially preachers, is evident in his speech-writing, as the nuances of the speaking style of the time permeate many aspects of the speeches given by black characters in the novel, including dialect, phrasing, and sentence structure.

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