Ralph Ellison’s Letters Reveal a Complex Philosopher of Black Expression


Ellison’s goal as a writer was “not that of pleading Negro humanity, but of examining and depicting the forms and rituals of that humanity.” Many of the letters from the ’30s were sent from Tuskegee Institute, where Ellison, then a trumpet player, was enrolled in the school of music. These years were filled with challenges. The most pressing was the financial struggle to meet his tuition, to purchase books, supplies and his uniform for the band, and to dress decently. While his intelligence and good looks allowed him entry into the smart set, it proved impossible to secure a place in the fashionable crowd in his poor circumstances. Letter after letter sent home to his mother, Ida, pleads for money: “Try to send the pants. I need them badly. You know I travel with the richer gang here and this clothes problem is a pain.”

Ellison detested the hypocrisy, provincialism and crass materialism of Tuskegee. He complained that his classmates were “a bunch of small-minded niggers who won’t be satisfied until they show how important they are.” To make matters worse, Captain Neely, the dean of students, sexually harassed him. Neely “is the biggest man here so far as the student is concerned and if I kick up a racket now I would never get a job when I graduated, this dump is too powerful,” he wrote. “You must understand that the reputation that this place has and what it really is, are two different things. … The person trying to study should not be worried and nagged at because he does not prostitute himself.” Decades later he shared with a friend that he was “hounded out of college by a homosexual dean of men.” Behind the mask of sexual Victorianism, racial striving, up-by-the-bootstrap faith, hard work and service, Tuskegee was, in his eyes, a den of corruption. Much of this experience would be immortalized in “Invisible Man.” Ellison soon decided to escape to New York City.

On his first day there, he had the good fortune to meet Langston Hughes in the lobby of the Harlem Y.M.C.A. The poet nurtured the would-be artist, guided the newcomer through the city, educated him about the cultural scene and introduced him to the sculptor Richmond Barthé, with whom he lived for three months. The friendship with Hughes provided an anchor and radicalized Ellison, shifting his political allegiances to the left. His first letter posted from New York was to the traveling Hughes. In it, Ellison joked, “Don’t be surprised if you see me on a soapbox next time you’re here.” Within a year of his arrival in the city, he had given up the trumpet and decided to pursue writing.

The letters chronicle his intellectual friendships with Stanley Edgar Hyman, Richard Wright, Kenneth Burke, Saul Bellow, Albert Murray and Michael Harper. Ellison acquired and developed his language as a writer through these relationships. Being a Negro writer, he explained to the critic Kenneth Burke, was not a racial ascription but a cultural legacy. He wanted to “write simply as an American, or even better, a citizen of the world, but that is impossible just now because it is to dangle in the air of abstractions, while the fire which alone illuminates those abstractions lies precisely in my being a Negro and in all the ‘felt experience’ which being a Negro American entails.” Burke introduced him to the philosophy of literary form. Over the course of his career he affirmed that being a Negro helped his work because it gave “some form, some specific shape to the chaos of life and it presents me with a specific set of circumstances, experiences, characters, dilemmas … that I must confront in order to discover who and what I am, what life is and what art is.” In a disagreement with Hyman about the use and meaning of the terms “Negro artist” and “Negro American experience,” Ellison tried to explicate the fine line between dispossession and inheritance: “I try to make the terms convey something of the complexity of Negro American life and expression along with their intricate connections with the broader culture of the United States. Because far too often they are used in a manner reductive of that complexity and slighting of those interconnections.”


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