Ralph Ellison

Academic, Author, Educator & Literary Critic

“I am an invisible man. 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.”

Ralph Ellison was a 20th century African-American writer and scholar best known for his renowned, award-winning novel Invisible Man.

Early Life

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and named after journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison's doting father, Lewis, who loved children and read books voraciously, worked as an ice and coal deliverer.

Ralph Ellison

He died from a work-related accident when Ellison was only three years old. His mother Ida then raised Ralph and younger brother Herbert by herself, working a variety of jobs to make ends meet.

In his future book of essays Shadow and Act, Ellison described himself and several of his friends growing up as young Renaissance Men, people who looked to culture and intellectualism as a source of identity. A budding instrumentalist, Ellison took up the cornet at the age of 8 and years later, as a trumpeter, attended Tuskegee Institute, a prestigious all-black university in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington, where he studied music with his eye on becoming a symphony composer. Ellison hopped freight trains to get to Alabama, and was soon to find out that the institution was no less class-conscious than white institutions generally were.

In 1936, Ellison went to New York over the summer with the intent of earning enough money to pay for his college expenses, but ended up relocating. He started to work as a researcher and writer for the New York Federal Writers’ Program, and was befriended by writers Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, who all mentored the fledgling scribe. During this period, Ellison began to publish some of his essays and short stories, and worked as managing editor for The Negro Quarterly.

Ellison later enlisted as a Merchant Marine cook during World War II.

Ralph Ellison

Final years

In 1992, Ellison was awarded a special achievement award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards; his artistic achievements included work as a sculptor, musician, photographer and college professor as well as his writing output. He taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and New York University. Ellison was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994 of pancreatic cancer and was interred in a crypt at Trinity Church Cemetery in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. He was survived by his wife, Fanny Ellison (1911–2005), who died on November 19, 2005, eight days shy of her 94th birthday.

Legacy and Posthumous Publications

After Ellison's death, more manuscripts were discovered in his home, resulting in the publication of Flying Home and Other Stories in 1996. In 1999 his second novel, Juneteenth, was published under the editorship of John F. Callahan, a professor at Lewis & Clark College and Ellison's literary executor. It was a 368-page condensation of more than 2000 pages written by Ellison over a period of 40 years. All the manuscripts of this incomplete novel were published collectively on January 26, 2010, by Modern Library, under the title Three Days Before the Shooting…

On February 18, 2014, the USPS issued a 91¢ stamp honoring Ralph Ellison in its Literary Arts series.

A park, residing on 150th Street and Riverside Drive in Harlem, was dedicated to Ralph Ellison on May 1, 2003. In the park, stands a 15 by 8 foot bronze slab, with a “cut-out man figure” inspired by his book, “Invisible Man.”

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
March 1, 1914

Death Date:
April 16, 1994

  • In 1986, Going to the Territory was published in the market. A collection of political, social and critical essays of Ellison is Shadow and Act published in 1964.
  • Juneteenth is the posthumous novel of Ellison. The content of this novel was gathered from the notes that Ellison left after he died.
  • His father hoped that his son would become a poet due to his interest to literature. The family moved to Gary, Indiana in 1921 for her mother believed that it would be better to grow the kids in the north. However, they decided to come back again to Oklahoma.
  • In 1931, Ellison graduated from Douglass High School. He gained money from playing music for a year after his graduation.
  • Ellison was accepted at Tuskegee Institute in 1933 when the university’s orchestra had lack of a trumpet player.
  • Morteza Drezel Sprague was the English teacher of Ellison who inspired and influenced him. Shadow and Act was later dedicated to Sprague.
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Ralph Ellison
  • Ralph Ellison


BIO: Biography.com + Wikipedia.com
PHOTO: goodreads + TheCultureTrip + BKHOnline + AARome + AVClub

Last Updated

March 2019

Original Published Date

January 2017

Similar Entries

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Arts

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer whose works range from novels to short stories to nonfiction. Adichie, who was born in the city of Enugu in Nigeria, grew up as the fifth of six children in an Igbo family in the university town of Nsukka in Enugu State.

Read More
Frederick Douglass Literature

Frederick Douglass

Muhammad Ali was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist. Nicknamed “The Greatest,” he is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century and as one of the greatest boxers of all time.

Read More
Lorraine Hansberry Literature

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright and writer. Hansberry was the first black female author to have a play performed on Broadway. Her best known work, the play A Raisin in the Sun, highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago.

Read More
Zora Hurston Literature

Zora Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was an influential author of African-American literature, anthropologist, and filmmaker, who portrayed racial struggles in the early-20th-century American South, and published research on Haitian Vodou.

Read More
Augusta Savage Arts

Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage was an African-American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a teacher whose studio was important to the careers of a generation of artists who would become nationally known. She worked for equal rights for African Americans in the arts.

Read More
Alice Walker Literature

Alice Walker

Alice Walker is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist. In 1982, she wrote the novel The Color Purple, for which she won the National Book Award for hardcover fiction, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Read More