- Reminiscin’ in C Remembering Ralph Waldo Ellison
It must have been the winter of 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The air was filled with dirges, Te Deums, war requiems and voices mournin’ and groanin’. A whole nation was in pain on the radio, and on television, with editorials up the wazoo about Violence in America, when a group of young writers I was involved with at the time made contact with Ralph Ellison to grant us an interview on the current state of American letters.
Somewhere back in the 1950s, like many young Afro-Americans growing up in the South, later migrating north, I read Invisible Man, Ellison’s roman à clef. Around the same time I was reading Richard Wright, Chester Himes and Langston Hughes, among others. Ellison’s work made a lasting impression on me.
I was a young writer among other young artists, writers, musicians community organizers and political activists, living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the revolutionary fervor of that time. We were in search of literary fathers and mothers, older writers whose concerns addressed our needs. Sure we were admirers of Ferdinand Celine for his cynical posture, of Richard Wright and “The God That Failed,” of Henry Miller and his ways of freein’ up the language, speaking to us in the vernacular, of Dashiell Hammett and his great silences and others who dominated the discourse of War, Race, and sexual politics such as Norman Mailer, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin. We knew where they were coming from, knew that they had grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak, and we were more than aware that they held the brass ring in their hands.
But with Ellison, not unlike those interesting debates among the Mandarins in Paris (Sartre, Simone De Beauvois, Andre Malraux and Albert Camus) and that Partisan Review crowd here in New York, we were not sure as to where Ralph Ellison stood. But we were sure that he was the man who cried, “No,” while saying “Yes.” Aside from that one novel, Invisible Man, and that one book of essays, Shadow and Act—a title which came directly out of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (or was it not The Wasteland?), we knew “nothing” about him.
Who was this man, this Ralph Waldo Ellison, with his nameless hero (or anti-hero)—really a buffoon at the core of his only novel—the man behind the mask? And what did he stand for, apart from individual liberty? What values did he find in this culture which are worth preserving? Jazz, movies, comics? Ellison, with his familiarity with ambiguity: is that the only key to human existence, la condition humaine?
One gray winter’s day, lugging a portable reel to reel tape recorder, Lennox [End Page 288] Raphael, James Thompson and myself, found ourselves lost up on Riverside Drive at 145th Street, in search of Ralph Ellison’s apartment building. Of course, we were late, runnin’ on CP time. Jamie was cussin’ out Lennox because we couldn’t find the address. Finally, we were forced to phone Mr. Ellison to get the directions to his home.
Back in those days, during that time of civil rights and student protest movements, with crowds joined in the struggle of a nation busily searching its soul, with a Babel so loud all you could hear was the rabble, we had big dreams for our little underground literary magazine, Umbra. Our plans were to publish interviews with Chester Himes, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry once we had Ellison under our belt.
Calming our nerves, we entered the foyer of Ellison’s apartment building with its plants and mirrors, quietly looking askance at one another. Pulling ourselves together, we took the elevator up to Mr. and Mrs. Ellison’s apartment, and excused ourselves for being forty-five minutes late. We shook hands all around. He introduced us to his wife, Fanny, and led us to chairs near the window, overlooking the George Washington Bridge in the background.
Wearing slacks and a white tee shirt, Mr. Ellison made us comfortable, offered us iced water. Lennox set the tape recorder on...