Ralph Ellison only published one novel in his lifetime, Invisible Man, but he is considered one of the most important and prolific writers in Black history. Ellison's satirical skills were said to be sharpened at Tuskegee Institute. A bit ironic, since he was only admitted after an initial rejection because the institution needed a trumpet player and Ellison happened to play several musical instruments, including the cornet, piano and trumpet. Ellison studied music, and as much as he loved jazz, he really dreamed of being a classical composer.
His father died when Ellison was young, but had a love of literature that he passed on; he'd hoped his son would grow up to be a poet. Instead, he became a novelist who commiserated with Langston Hughes and Romare Bearden and Richard Wright (with whom he had a complicated romantic relationship) -- the Black arts elite -- in Harlem. Edison read all of the classic authors, but was more than an avid reader; he was a student of literature. It was from reading Hemingway, for example, that he learned how to hunt, a skill that would help him survive and make a living during a rough period in his life. He studied music and sculpting, was a professional photographer, and loved taking things apart. In many ways, he fully embodied the idea of the renaissance that was unfolding in Harlem among his contemporaries -- he was a fierce defender of Black culture moreso than race; “Ellison knew that race was built on surface perceptions that hid deeper human meaning and identities derived from culture,” one writer said of him.
He was admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, awarded two President's Medals (from Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan) and was the first member of the Century Association, a prestigious social club primarily associated with distinction in literature or the arts.
Young Students (K3-2nd Grade)
Ralph Ellison once said he kept looking to others to tell him who he was, because he wanted to fit in, but he eventually realized he could only be himself. What do you like about yourself? Name three things that make you special.
Middle Students (Grades 3-8)
Ralph Ellison felt like he didn't fit in at Tuskegee, because he didn't come from the right kind of background. Has there ever been a time you've felt like you didn't fit in in a place you really wanted to be? How did you navigate that challenge?
High School Students (Grades 9-12)
In Invisible Man, Ellison's protagonist -- who is never given a name -- struggles with being invisible as a Black man in Jim Crow American society, and to himself, as he tries to figure out who he is and what his place is in a world that doesn't want him. In what ways are these themes relevant today? Do any of them resonate with you personally?
If, as Ralph Ellison said, words have the potency to both free us and blind, imprison, and destroy us, what is the impact of the words you speak to and around your students each day? Is your communication edifying and reviving? Or does it leave students imprisoned by low expectations and destroyed by feelings of not-enoughness?
About the Series
A Black Child Can was founded to create a better world for students by empowering the adults around them with the knowledge they need to advocate on their behalf. The 2022 blog series builds on this foundation, encouraging educators to participate in the discussion and reflect on the ways they're showing up for their students.