- Ralph Ellison*
I met Ralph in 1957. He came out to Chicago for a week to talk to my class about his work and theirs. We spent thirty or forty hours together, jocular ones, serious ones, and became friends. I was the junior by fifteen years and scarcely any publication. Ralph didn’t lean on me with years or accomplishment; he had the gift of equality.
Millions of literate people around the world know Ralph’s face, the powerful brow, the fine full lips, the mustache of two opposed crescents, the deep cheek lines. Fewer, but still many, know his rich baritone and terrific all-out laugh.
He was an elegant man. I see him in a double-breasted blue blazer, charcoal slacks and fine shoes. Shoes, he taught me, were exceptionally important for blacks. I introduced him to the marvelous black economist, Abe Harris, who, within sixty seconds, asked Ralph where he’d bought his fine shoes.
The elegance was not superficial but part of a profound self-esteem and construction. It involved Ralph’s being simultaneously worldly and parochial, a citizen of world literature and of streets and corners only he knew and wrote about. Ralph was conscious of being—and wanting to be—a complete man, flower to root. (He may have paid too high a price for the wish, or for realizing it.)
Ralph knew many things, what they were, how to do them. He knew music, symphonic and jazz. He’d studied composition, he played the trumpet. He knew electronics. When, that first week, we recorded an interview in the apartment of the composer Easley Blackwood, Ralph helped Easley adjust the equipment. He knew guns, dogs, mechanics, cities and of course he knew books and writers. His sophistication was as much a part of him as his color, his humor, his good teeth.
That first week, Ralph showed me a Chicago hidden from me in the two years since I’d come. It was a discovery for him too, an incidental gift of his wife, Fanny, who’d come from Chicago, indeed had been famous here as a great belle. Ralph took me to imposing wood-paneled mansions owned by worldly and Chicago-knowing black men. One fine-looking youngish man, wearing not coat and tie but a confident cashmere sweater, had taken over championship boxing from New York’s Mike Jacobs (and run it till that slick wheel of fortune made its inevitable turn).
Closer to home, Ralph found out more about our cleaning woman in ten minutes than I’d known in two years. I hadn’t even gauged her age correctly. When he spoke to a couple of hundred students in the Ida Noyes lounge, he alerted me that he was [End Page 284] going to say three or four things to which only black students would respond. He told me to watch the eight or ten in the audience when he winked at me. I watched, he winked, they lit up and laughed when no one else did.
One evening, my wife’s New England parents showed up in Chicago. There was a wine-tasting and dance at the Quadrangle Club, and I remember my father-in-law’s proud delight as he danced with Fanny, perhaps the only time in his life he’d danced with a black woman (and, I suspect, so charmingly intelligent a beauty). An intelligent if parochial man—who’d been turned upside-down by this Jewish son-in-law—he soon gauged the intelligence and grace of the Ellisons. It was a great moment for him, and I thanked Ralph for giving him this second post-graduate course in life and manners.
There were easier, richer meetings. One day I brought Ralph over to Nathan and Charlotte Scott’s house. Nathan had written a marvelous piece about Richard Wright which I showed Ralph. It was the bridge to their wonderful lifelong friendship. (Nathan, an Episcopal priest, as well as a theologian and literary critic, would preside, thirty-five years later, at Ralph’s funeral service.)
Ralph showed me a lot that I’d missed in books I prided myself on knowing as...