Ralph Ellison

A Biography

By Arnold Rampersad
Knopf. 657. $35
Friday, May 18, 2007

Chapter One

In the Territory: 1913-1931

There is no ancestor so powerful as one's earlier selves. -Lewis Mumford (1929)

Decades after the blazing hot afternoon in June 1933 when Ralph Ellison, in his first and last outing as a hobo, climbed fearfully and yet eagerly aboard a smoky freight train leaving Oklahoma City on a dangerous journey that he hoped would take him to college in Tuskegee, Alabama, his memories of growing up in Oklahoma continued both to haunt and to inspire him. For a long time he had suppressed those memories; then the time came when he began to crave them.

The turning point had been his triumph in 1952 with his novel Invisible Man. That success had led to a cascading flow of honors such as no other African-American writer had ever enjoyed. In 1953, he won the National Book Award, besting The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, one of his idols. Later, the American Academy of Arts and Letters elected him a member, one of the fifty distinguished American men and women who formed its inner core. At the White House, first Lyndon B. Johnson and then Ronald Reagan awarded him presidential medals. At the behest of the novelist and critic André Malraux, another of his idols, France made him a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. The most venerable social club in America connected to the arts, the Century, in New York, elected him as its first black member. Harvard University, awarding him an honorary degree, offered him a professorship. Never out of print and translated into more than twenty languages, Invisible Man maintains its reputation as one of the jewels of twentieth-century American fiction.

Ellison's triumph in 1952 had also led to a tangled mess of fears and doubts about his ability to finish a second novel at least as fine as Invisible Man. By the time of his death in 1994, his failure to produce that second novel had made Ellison, a proud man, the butt of surreptitious jokes and cruel remarks. The snickering and giggling behind his back often left him prickly and tart, if not downright hostile. Clinging fearlessly and stubbornly to the ideal of harmonious racial integration in America, he found it hard to negotiate the treacherous currents of American life in the volatile 1960s and 1970s. Although he always saw himself as above all an artist, and published a dazzling book of cultural commentary in 1964, his later successes were relatively modest. For some of his critics, his life was finally a cautionary tale to be told against the dangers of elitism and alienation, and especially alienation from other blacks. For his admirers, however, no one who had written Invisible Man and so skillfully explicated the matter of race and American culture in his essays could ever be accounted a failure. To some people-younger black writers mainly-who hoped and perhaps even expected him to help them, he frequently seemed cold and stingy. To others-whites especially-he was a man of grace, intelligence, wit, and courage who saw his nation with prophetic optimism and clarity.

Each of these conflicting views had, at the very least, an element of truth-and the roots of these conflicts may be traced, not surprisingly, to his upbringing in Oklahoma. Seeking artistic inspiration as the decades passed, he turned more and more to memories of his youth in what once had been the old Indian and Oklahoma territories. From this virgin land-as both whites and blacks saw it-the state of Oklahoma had been carved in 1907. Certainly he had no interest in living as a mature man in Oklahoma. It was more than enough for him to brood on the past, and to come back every seven years or so to visit the old neighborhoods, talk with old friends, bask in the glow of his celebrity, and revive his creativity at its ancestral source. On these visits, he looked sorrowfully on the banal evidence of "progress" and "urban renewal" that marred the city, and even more sadly on the spectral presence of those old friends now dead and gone. "When I get there I'm like a ghost," he declared once, "or a Rip Van Winkle who has slept for twenty years and awoke to discover that his world has changed-but how! ... An obsessive refrain sounds in my mind: Where have they all gone? Where, oh where?"

Fascinated by the power of myth and legend, and alert to the ways in which geography often means fate, he saw Oklahoma as embodying some of the more mysterious forces in American culture. He believed that the region possessed or had possessed almost every element concerning power, race, and art that is essential to understanding the nation. It had Indians, whites, and blacks; treaties solemnly made and shamelessly broken; despair and hope, failure and shining success. Here was the legacy of the dispossession of the Five Civilized Tribes-Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole-from their homelands in the South and their expulsion in the 1820s and 1830s, by way of the Trail of Tears, to Indian Territory. (Ralph cherished the fact that he was "a wee bit Creek!" on his mother's side, just as he was also proud of the white ancestry on both sides of his family and the black ancestry that was predominant in his physical features.) In 1879, whites had entered Indian Territory for the first time, with the avowed aim of seizing much of the land. Divided and united by history, Oklahoma was culturally the Wild West, the Southwest, and the Old South; it was ancient but also brazenly new. One day, Oklahoma City did not exist. The next day, April 22, 1889, after settlers had raced to stake their claims as part of the official Great Land Run, its population stood at ten thousand. The Oklahoma Territory was born. Ironically, helping to keep in line any indignant Indians were the famous "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 10th Cavalry.

Ralph, born only six years after Oklahoma became a state, could put human faces-black, white, Indian, and mixed-on this past. For the freed slaves and their children and for free blacks in general, Indian Territory had meant at first an almost providential deliverance from Jim Crow. Many blacks rushed to claim the one-hundred-acre parcels of land allotted by the government to new settlers, so that by 1900 almost sixty thousand blacks lived in the Indian and Oklahoma territories. Many of them saw Oklahoma the way Mormons had seen the new territory that became Utah. Twenty-eight all-black towns sprang up. Edward P. McCabe, a passionate spokesman for black migration and the establishment of a black state, implored his fellow African-Americans to make history: "What will you be if you stay in the South? Slaves liable to be killed at any time, and never treated right; but if you come to Oklahoma you have equal chances with the white man, free and independent."

This was the promise that in 1910 lured a young, newly wed couple, Lewis and Ida Ellison, to Oklahoma City. Their first child, Alfred, died as an infant. Their second, Ralph Waldo Ellison, was born at 407 East First Street, in Oklahoma City, on March 1, 1913. For most of his life Ralph would offer 1914 as the correct year. Presented with a chance to do so, around 1940-and despite the fact that he was on the whole fastidiously honest-Ralph decided to shave a year from the record. The U.S. Census taker got it right in January 1920 when he listed Ralph Ellison as being six years old, born in 1913. A note in his mother's hand, written behind a photograph of Ralph as a toddler, sets his time and date of birth as 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 1, 1914. But March 1 fell on a Friday in 1913, not in 1914. Someone had changed 1913 to 1914 after an erasure. Moreover, Ralph always insisted he was three years old when the worst disaster of his life occurred: On July 19, 1916, his father died after an operation in the University Emergency Hospital in Oklahoma City.

Ralph was a healthy baby. A photograph of him at four months in a washtub shows him, as he later put it, as a "fat little blob of blubber." According to family lore, at six months he took his first steps. At thirteen months, he startled his father by seeming to crave steak and onions. At two, he began to talk. Blessed with a sharp memory, he recalled a doting father. "I rem[em]ber toys, toys, and still more toys," he wrote. He recalled his father allowing him one evening to splash in the bathtub while his mother went off with a friend to a concert. He also recalled his father reading incessantly but making time, too, for his young son ("my father had two passions, children and books"). Either his father or mother was responsible for "the first song taught me as a two-year-old" ("Dark Brown, Chocolate to the Bone"), as well as for his command of a wildly popular, risqué dance to go with it, the Eagle Rock. His father took him on his horse-drawn wagon through various neighborhoods as he delivered ice and coal to businesses and homes. Ralph never forgot his father's tenderness. "Mr. Bub," as some customers called Lewis Ellison, explained things "patiently, lovingly," as they ventured into "ice plants, ice cream plants, packing plants, shoe repair and blacksmith shops, bottling works and bakeries." Ralph also never forgot the day in Salter's grocery store when he watched his father climb some steps and attempt to hoist a hundred-pound block of ice into a cabinet. When a shard of ice pierced his stomach, Lewis Ellison staggered and collapsed.

Ralph remembered the lingering illness, the internal wound that would not heal, the decision to operate, and their last visit together in the hospital. As he prepared to leave with his mother, his father slipped a blue cornflower into Ralph's lapel and gave him pink and yellow wildflowers from a vase on a windowsill. Then his father was wheeled away and Ralph saw his father alive for the last time. "I could see his long legs," Ralph would write (the emphasis his own), "his knees propped up and his toes flexing as he rested there with his arms folded over his chest, looking at me quite calmly, like a kindly king in his bath. I had only a glimpse, then we were past." The official death certificate identified the cause of death as "Ulcer of stomach followed by puncture of same." He was thirty-nine years old.

Ralph's life was changed forever. So, too, were the lives of his mother and his brother, Herbert Maurice Ellison, who was then only a few weeks old. The emotional cost was incalculable, and in all matters involving money the change was a disaster. Ahead lay years of shabby rented rooms, hand-me-down clothing, second-rate meals, sneers and slights from people better off, and a pinched, scuffling way of life. For the Ellisons, Oklahoma City took on a radically new character. Almost every aspect of Ralph's life became tougher, sadder. He would take many years to recover fully from the shock of his father's death, if he ever did. He inherited no money but rather a powerful physique; a nimble mind; a worn copy of a book of verse, which would perhaps compel Ralph to write his own book; and the name Ralph Waldo Ellison, in honor of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American poet and essayist of the nineteenth century. He also inherited what his mother had "often warned us against," Ralph noted, "giving in to what she considered the Ellisons' sin of inordinate pride."

Ellison pride, which would both empower and hobble Ralph, could be traced back to the patriarch of the family, Alfred Ellison, and his wife, Harriet Walker Ellison, of the small town of Abbeville Court House, South Carolina. Harriet was long dead by 1916, but Alfred was still vigorous at seventy-one. He was the father of ten children, including Lewis and Lucretia Ellison Brown. Lucretia migrated to Oklahoma City in 1910 with Lewis and Ida, bringing with her Tom, Francis, and May Belle Brown, her three children by her divorced husband. The death of Lewis, Alfred's eldest son, hit him hard. At his request later that year, Tom and May Belle took their three-year-old cousin by train on an extended visit to Abbeville. Ralph found the visit both disturbing and a welcome diversion. Many decades later, he would recall "quite vividly" the train approaching Abbeville across a muddy river and Uncle Jim, one of his father's brothers, waiting in a horse-drawn carriage. He fondly remembered Alfred, who was a huge, muscular man, and other members of the Ellison clan.

The Ellisons lived in a large old house with fireplaces "into which I could walk around and see the light filtering down the chimneys." Ralph recalled an abundance of melons and vegetables heaped on the back porch. He walked in a grove of pecan trees that his father had planted as a boy (for many years afterward, at Christmas, a bag of pecan nuts from this grove reached the Ellisons in Oklahoma City). He slept in an enormous feather bed and was fascinated by a ruined church, its stained-glass windows intact, next door; now it served as a chicken house. He loved the profusion of luna moths and fireflies that glowed in the balmy South Carolina dark. "By way of entertaining a small sorrowful visitor from the west," a kindly local boy, Eddie Hugh Wilson, filled a glass jar with lightning bugs and presented them to the weepy child "as a glowing toy."

Ralph left Abbeville just before one of the more heinous crimes in its history. On October 21, a mob of whites dragged Anthony Crawford, one of the most prosperous black farmers in the region, from a local jail after the sheriff had arrested him for insulting a white man. The mob then lynched him. Ralph would not visit Abbeville again. Less than two years later, on May 23, 1918, Alfred died. Proud to be an Ellison, Ralph would learn about his paternal grandfather later in life. Alfred had been born a slave in South Carolina in 1845, had remained illiterate, but had also shown uncommon intelligence, integrity, and grit during the perilous Reconstruction. After the war he married Harriet, who was virtually white, and settled down with her in Abbeville. At first, they both worked in some form of domestic service. He also entered Republican Party politics during the brief postwar period when black voters outnumbered their white counterparts in the community. He was an important member of the black Union League, which aimed to preserve the advances made after Emancipation. He tried all his life to keep up with the flux of current events, and to recognize the maneuverings of power about him. His reward was first a post as constable, then as town marshal in Abbeville. Charged with preserving order among blacks and whites, he gained a reputation for being fair to all.

When Reconstruction ended with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in April 1877, Alfred's position became tenuous. Whites stepped up their efforts to recapture power and influence in the region. In elections held the previous year, violence had disrupted sleepy Abbeville. The white Abbeville Medium made it clear that "the Democratic party means to carry this state in the next election ... by fair or foul means." Many blacks sank into a kind of neo-slavery, or headed north or west. Alfred Ellison was different. When whites killed one of his closest friends, he was defiant. On one occasion, he strode down the main street in Abbeville, trailed by unfriendly whites. "If you're going to kill me," he challenged them, "you'll have to kill me right here because I'm not leaving. This is where I have my family, my farm and my friends; and I don't plan to leave." Soon, whites stripped him and other blacks of power. In 1877, Lewis was born, after three daughters. Six other children came later. The family was never destitute; Alfred's prestige remained high in the black community, and not without substance in the white. Owning a valuable lot of land in town, he also maintained a horse-drawn dray that earned him money, especially during the cotton season. At times, he and his brothers built trestles for the Southern Railroad. In 1884, he made the local news briefly. "Big Alfred" Ellison, as a white newspaper reporter called him, got into a fistfight with "Beef Sam [Marshall], both tremendous specimens of physical manhood," when tempers flared as they were moving a piano to the train depot. Ellison was thrashing Beef Sam when Sam stuck a knife three inches into his stomach. Ellison recovered. After his wife and one of their children perished in a house fire, the family's standing was such that the white newspaper carried a notice of Harriet's death without reference to her race.


© 2007 Arnold Rampersad