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.

Quotes[edit]

  • The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
    • "Richard Wright's Blues" (1945), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 129.
  • Life is as the sea, art a ship in which man conquers life's crushing formlessness, reducing it to a course, a series of swells, tides and wind currents inscribed on a chart.
    • "Richard Wright's Blues" (1945), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 133.
  • Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.[…] For if the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison and destroy.
    • "Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity" (1953), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 81.
  • ...there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientist, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.
    • "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion" (1953), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 153.
  • Our task then is always to challenge the apparent forms of reality—that is, the fixed meaning and values of the few—and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos, its false faces, and on until it surrenders its insight, its truth.
    • "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion" (1953), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 154.
  • All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn't that what we're all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.
    • "The Art of Fiction: An Interview" (The Paris Review, Spring 1955), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 212.
  • The understanding of art depends finally upon one's willingness to extend one's humanity and one's knowledge of human life.
    • "The Art of Fiction: An Interview" (The Paris Review, Spring 1955), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 217.
  • By and large, the critics and readers gave me an affirmed sense of my identity as a writer. You might know this within yourself, but to have it affirmed by others is of utmost importance. Writing is, after all, a form of communication.
    • "The Art of Fiction: An Interview" (The Paris Review, Spring 1955), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 218.
  • Every serious novel is, beyond its immediate thematic preoccupations, a discussion of the craft, a conquest of the form, a conflict with its difficulties and a pursuit of its felicities and beauty.
    • "Society, Morality and the Novel" (1957), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 699.
  • Perhaps the novel evolved in order to deal with man's growing awareness that behind the facade of social organisations, manners, customs, myths, rituals and religions of the post-Christian era lies chaos. Man knows, despite the certainties which it is the psychological function of his social institutions to give him, that he did not create the universe, and that the universe is not at all concerned with human values. Man knows that even in this day of marvelous technology and the tenuous subjugation of the atom, that nature can crush him, and that at the boundaries of human order the arts and the instruments of technology are hardly more than magic objects which serve to aid us in our ceaseless quest for certainty. We cannot live, as someone has said, in the contemplation of chaos, but neither can we live without an awareness of chaos, and the means through which we achieve that awareness, and through which we assert our humanity most significantly against it, is in great art. In our time the most articulate art form for defining ourselves and for asserting our humanity is the novel. Certainly it is our most rational art form for dealing with the irrational.
    • "Society, Morality and the Novel" (1957), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), pp. 699-700.
  • Closed societies are now the flimsiest of illusions, for all the outsiders are demanding in.
    • "Society, Morality and the Novel" (1957), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 726.
  • Deep at the dark bottom of the melting pot, where the private is public and the public private, where black is white and white black, where the immoral becomes moral and the moral is anything that makes one feel good (or that one has the power to sustain), the white man's relish is apt to be the black man's gall.
    • "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke" (1958), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1955), p. 104.
  • When American life is most American it is apt to be most theatrical.
    • "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke" (1958), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 108.
  • The blues is an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing.
    • "Remembering Jimmy" (1958), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 277.
  • Commercial rock ’n’ roll music is a brutalization of the stream of contemporary Negro church music … an obscene looting of a cultural expression.
    • "Some Questions and Some Answers" (1958), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 298.
  • At best Americans give but limited attention to history. Too much happens too rapidly, and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us. Ours is the tempo of the motion picture, not that of the still camera, and we waste experience as we wasted the forest.
    • "The Golden Age, Time Past" (1959), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 239.
  • Let's not play these kids cheap; let's find out what they have that is a strength. What do they have that you can approach and build a bridge upon? Education is all a matter of building bridges, it seems to me.
    • "What These Children Are Like" (1963), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 548.
  • If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.
    • "What These Children Are Like" (1963), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 555.
  • Good fiction is made of that which is real, and reality is difficult to come by.
    • Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), Introduction, p. xix; in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 56.
  • The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.
    • Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964), Introduction, p. xix; in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 56.
  • Injustice wears ever the same harsh face wherever it shows itself.
    • "If the Twain Shall Meet" (1964), inThe Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 569.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • ...remember that the antidote to hubris, to overweening pride, is irony, that capacity to discover and systematize clear ideas. Or as Emerson insisted, the development of consciousness, consciousness, consciousness. And with consciousness a more refined conscientiousness, and most of all, that tolerance which takes the form of humor, for when Americans can no longer laugh at each other, they have to fight one another.
    • "Address to the Harvard College Alumni, Class of 1949" (1974), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 429.
  • The work of art is, after all, an act of faith in our ability to communicate symbolically.
    • "The Little Man at Chehaw Station" (1978), in The Collected Essays, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 503.
  • Eclecticism is the word. Like a jazz musician who creates his own style out of the styles around him, I play by ear.
    • "The Essential Ellison", interview by Ishmael Reed in Y'Bird 1, no. 1 (1978): 130-59.

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. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
    • Prologue (opening paragraph of novel).
  • It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.
    • 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.
  • ...there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.
    • Prologue.
  • ...the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.
    • Prologue.
  • The truth is the light and light is the truth.
    • Prologue.
  • A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.
    • 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? And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am. Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement.
    • Prologue.
  • All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.
    • Chapter 1.
  • I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.
    • Chapter 1.
  • "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.
  • 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.
  • I recall the sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass — gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snuffed swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells.
    • Chapter 5.
  • Man's hope can paint a purple picture, can transform a soaring vulture into a noble eagle or a moaning dove.
    • Chapter 5.
  • "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.
  • Play the game, but don't believe in it.
    • Chapter 7.
  • ...there's always an element of crime in freedom.
    • Chapter 7.
  • ...the world is possibility if only you'll discover it.
    • Chapter 7.
  • Perhaps everyone loved someone; I didn't know, I couldn't give much thought to love; in order to travel far you had to be detached, and I had a long road back to the campus before me.
    • Chapter 9
  • But we are all human, I thought, wondering what I meant.
    • Chapter 11.
  • When I discover who I am, I'll be free.
    • Chapter 11.
  • If only all the contradictory voices shouting inside my head would calm down and sing a song in unison, whatever it was I wouldn't care so long as they sang without dissonance.
    • Chapter 12.
  • And while the ice was melting to form a flood in which I threatened to drown I awoke one afternoon to find that my first northern winter had set.
    • Chapter 12.
  • ...to hell with being ashamed of what you liked.
    • Chapter 13.
  • 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 13.
  • The clock ticked with empty urgency, as though trying to catch up with the time. In the street a siren howled.
    • Chapter 14.
  • And yet I am what they think I am.
    • Chapter 17.
  • For now I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words.
    • Chapter 17.
  • I do not know if all cops are poets, but I know that all cops carry guns with triggers.
    • Chapter 21.
  • Everywhere I've turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my good—only they were the ones who benefited. And now we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop?
    • Chapter 23.
  • They were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon me and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to me.
    • Chapter 23.
  • And I knew that it was better to live out one's own absurdity than to die for that of others.
    • Chapter 25.
  • ...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.
    • Epilogue.
  • Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word.
    • Epilogue.
  • America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's "winner take nothing" that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many— This is not prophecy, but description.
    • Epilogue.
  • Sometimes I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it, for all of it is part of me.
    • Epilogue.
  • Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled "File and forget."
    • Epilogue.
  • I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness, I'm a desperate man—but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.
    • Epilogue.
  • And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.
    • Epilogue.
  • Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
    • Epilogue (last line of the novel).

Three Days Before the Shooting... (2010)[edit]

Three Days Before the Shooting...: The Unfinished Second Novel. New York: Modern Library, 2010.

  • Words are everything and don't you forget it, ever.
    • p. 251.
  • Meaning grows in the mind, but the shape and form of the act remains.
    • p. 311.
  • But what a feeling can come over a man just from seeing the things he believes in and hopes for symbolized in the concrete form of a man. In something that gives a focus to all the other things he knows to be real. Something that makes unseen things manifest and allows him to come to his hopes and dreams through his outer eye and through the touch and feel of his natural hand.
    • p. 418.
  • ...the way we talk...you know that our people like to talk around a subject even when there's no danger. They enjoy it, and if they know you well enough they're apt to leave their true subject unstated so you'll have to supply the missing meaning.
    • pp. 680-1.
  • God is love, I said, but art's the possibility of forms, and shadows are the source of identity.
    • p. 987.

External links[edit]

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