- Ellison in Urbana*: Memories and an Interview
In the final stages of my doctoral dissertation on Richard Wright, I arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 1965 as a junior faculty member with an intense interest in what was then still called Negro literature. At that time the racial situation on campus and in the twin cities was not good. Only a few years before a senior colleague, the late Charles H. Shattuck, had been one of the leaders in a campaign against discriminatory hiring practices at the local Woolworth store and the refusal of campus barber shops to serve African Americans. Shortly before my arrival the football coach had publicly reprimanded black players for dating white students. Other than ministers and four lonely faculty members (one of whom was passing), there were no professionals among the nine thousand black residents of Urbana and Champaign, mostly poor migrants or children of migrants from Mississippi. Of the enrollment of some 30,000 at the University, the flagship institution of the state higher educational system, only one percent were African Americans, despite the fact that Chicago was only a short train ride away. Ironically, more black students from Chicago preferred to travel two hundred miles farther south on the Illinois Central to Carbondale, where Southern Illinois University provided a more hospitable environment.
Nevertheless, things were beginning to stir. One of my students had marched from Selma to Montgomery, and the assassination of Malcolm X had radicalized many African American students. As its centennial year drew near, consciousness was rising at the University of Illinois in what automobile license plates proudly proclaimed the Land of Lincoln. Of the many scientists, scholars, artists, and writers who visited the campus in 1967–1968 to celebrate its first hundred years, the first and to me the most memorable was Ralph Ellison, who arrived on 14 September and departed the next day. As the only academic in East Central Illinois conversant with African American literature, I had the good fortune to be delegated the responsibility of handling the details of his visit. I met him at the airport on Thursday and saw him off late Friday afternoon. In between I had meals with him, showed him around the campus, and accompanied him to two receptions, his evening lecture, and a discussion session. [End Page 273]
The lecture, “The Function of the Novel in American Democracy,” is familiar to scholars in the field, for it had been published in the June 1967 issue of Wilson Library Bulletin and was subsequently included in Going to the Territory. Some other details of his visit, generally unknown except to those present, seem worth recording. A reception on Thursday afternoon at the home of Lynn Altenbernd, then Head of the Department of English, was pleasant, but I felt apprehensive that a colleague might ask an indiscreet question about Ellison’s novel-in-progress. One did so, noting pointedly that fifteen years had elapsed since the publication of Invisible Man. The author’s response was patient and disarmingly confessional. After explaining that almost four hundred pages of manuscript had recently been destroyed in the fire in the Berkshires, he added that he sat down at the typewriter every day; some days the writing went well, but on other days it did not go at all: “Sometimes I sit at the typewriter for hours and nothing happens.” The Friday discussion session on campus culminated in a tense moment. I introduced Ellison, and after some innocuous questions from an audience composed mainly of students, the interrogation took a political turn. Why, a militant student asked, was Ellison not more active in the cause of racial liberation? He replied with a calm explanation of the different responsibilities of the activist and the artist, but neither the reply nor his seemingly imperturbable avuncular demeanor satisfied either the questioner or the other black students present. After two or three increasingly hostile questions, the climax came. “What do you think of Malcolm X?” one student demanded. Masking his irritation in an even calmer voice than before, Ellison responded: “I have lived in Harlem a long time and I have known many Harlem...