His existential novel Invisible Man is about race, identity and alienation. It was published in 1952 to critical acclaim and won the National Book Award the following year.
In cooperation with Oklahoma City University, the Oklahoma History Center, The Oklahoma Arts Council and the Ralph Ellison Library, the Centennial Committee will host a series of events in February and March to observe Ellison’s life and celebrate his contribution to the 20th-century canon.
In 2012, the Ralph Ellison Centennial Committee was formed to help coordinate citywide events to commemorate the 100th birthday of one of Oklahoma’s most famous and culturally significant citizens.
“It’s been a lot of work, but very rewarding,” said Michael Owens, manager of operations at Ralph Ellison Library.
That year, a steering committee also was formed to spearhead the effort of commemorating the life of Ralph Ellison and with the goal of setting up a foundation in his name. Owens sits on the committee.
“One of the aspirations for the committee was to establish this foundation. We wanted to really emphasize his contribution and take ownership of his legacy,” he said.
A legacy worth learning
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1913. His father died soon after, leaving his mother, Ida Millsap, to raise him and his brother.
Though working odd jobs to make ends meet, she also made certain her sons were exposed to art and literature from a young age.
As a boy, Ellison sparked a lifelong passion for music after learning trumpet and eventually earned a music scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
As a youth, he was an active member of OKC’s thriving jazz com- munity, centered in Deep Deuce, formerly an African-American business district and neighborhood. In 1932, he graduated from Frederick A. Douglass High School with honors. His early experiences influenced his perceptions, especially in contrast to New York City’s larger community of urban African- Americans he met after college. According to Arnold Rampersad in his book, Ralph Ellison: A Biography, “He believed that the region [of Oklahoma] possessed almost every element concerning power, race, and art that is essential to understanding the nation.”
In the ’30s, Ellison hopped trains to get to college in Alabama. Literary critics believe it was this experience that inspired his first published story, Hymie’s Bull.
After three years at Tuskegee, he moved to New York to further study sculpture and photography. There, he also was encouraged to write.
Ellison chose to volunteer with the Merchant Marine in World War II rather than be drafted into the then-segregated U.S. Army. According to the book Shadowing Ralph Ellison by John Wright, Ellison notably explained that he wanted to “contribute to the war, but [not] be in a Jim Crow army.” He was a cook until the end of the war.
In the early ’40s, a grant gave him the money, and therefore the time, to start writing Invisible Man, which was published in 1952.
The book was credited with bringing a new voice and style to American literature. Ellison’s novel was compared to free-form improvisational jazz, and its subject is important today as a vital part of cultural conversation. Ellison went on to teach literature at Bard College, Rutgers University and New York University.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969.
Celebrating Ralph Ellison
Feb. 8: The Oklahoma History Center hosts A Night with Ralph Ellison Gala with a dinner, live entertainment and a presentation from Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, to help raise funds for the state’s new Ralph Ellison Foundation.
Feb. 18: The official Ralph Ellison stamp is unveiled at Ralph Ellison library.
March 1: A banquet at Langston University in Ellison’s honor and celebrating his birthday.
March 6: Official portrait of Ralph Ellison is unveiled in the secondfloor rotunda of the State Capitol.
March 6-9: MELUS (The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) hosts its annual conference in downtown Oklahoma City, sponsored by Oklahoma City University.
March 8: Public symposium at Skirvin Hilton Hotel, 1 Park Ave., to explore Ellison’s legacy in the 21st century. Free. Public welcome.
For more information about these and other events, please contact the Ralph Ellison Library at 424-1437.
Learn more about the Ralph Ellison Centennial and related events at ralphellisoncentennial.com.