Ralph Ellison

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I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1913April 16, 1994) was an American scholar and writer, most famous for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.


  • The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.
    • As quoted in Writers at Work (1963) edited by George Plimpton.
  • Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.
    • Time Magazine (27 March 1964).
  • Commercial rock ’n’ roll music is a brutalization of the stream of contemporary Negro church music … an obscene looting of a cultural expression.
    • Shadow and Act (1964).
  • I am a novelist, not an activist... But I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap.

Invisible Man (1952)[edit]

  • I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
    • Prologue.
  • It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful.
    • Prologue.
  • The truth is the light and light is the truth.
    • Prologue.
  • I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?
    • Prologue.
  • "I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open..."
    • Chapter 1.
  • I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.
    • Chapter 1.
  • Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked.
    • Chapter 1.
  • ...you both fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see — and you, looking for destiny! It’s classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less — a black, amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force...
    • Chapter 3.
  • "Power doesn't have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it."
    • Chapter 6.
  • What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?
    • Chapter 12.
  • ...the world is just as concrete, ornery, vile, and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me.
    • Chapter 26.
  • Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
    • Chapter 26.
  • When I discover who I am, I'll be free.

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