“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” — Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison. Photo Credits: Athena LeTrelle

In April of 1952, Ralph Ellison, an African American writer, highlighted numerous social and intellectual issues regarding black identities, black nationalism and racial policies that have been existing in the American society with the publishing of his iconic book Invisible Man. In April 2017, 65 years later, we are going to reflect on these issues again by re evaluating the book onto the unsolved problems proposed there.

Ralph Ellison was a novelist, literary critic and scholar. Born in Oklahoma City in 1913, Ellison was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson by his father, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, with his father’s intention of “raising this boy up to be a poet.” Desiring to study sculpture and photography, Ellison moved to New York City during his 20s, where he spent most of his life. Later, he decided to change his path when he was offered to join Federal Writers’ Project by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, two American poets and novelists. Thanks to their encouragement, Ellison started to write essays, stories and reviews, and became an editor of the Negro Quarterly. After the Second World War, he continued his career and gradually shifted his focus onto Invisible Man. In 1946 he married Fanny McConnell Buford, who was a a secretary at the Astoria Press, the Parish Press and the Liberal Press during 1940s. His wife significantly contributed to Ellison’s creation of Invisible Man from 1947 to 1951 by editing his writing and supporting him financially. In 1952, the book was published, and won the 1953 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. Following this book he later also published other collections of essays and novels, including Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), through which he profoundly analyzed and developed his critics on the underlying “universal dilemmas of identity and self-discovery”(https://greencardamom.github.io/BooksAndWriters/rellison.htm) through the racial issues of the 20th century. Ellison also lectured widely at various American colleges and universities. From 1971 to 1979, he served as the New York University Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities. The multicultural and identity-recognition considerations covered in his work mirrors “the global network university mission of NYU.” (http://www.lapietradialogues.org/dialogues_sch.php?cat=8&id=330)

Invisible Man tells a story of an unnamed African American man as a narrator, who was rendered invisible because of his color. The book was included by Time Magazine as a novel in its TIME 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005. According to the book, the narrator, in a world of prejudice and hostility, lost his sense of identity and individuality. Having experienced hardship regarding identity including racism, exclusion and segregation, the narrator was eventually made to be invisible and exiled into an underground room where he solves his relationship with the rest of the society. At the end of this book, the narrator stated that he has told the story to people, through which he encourages people to face the plight by asking “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” The book is developed with the perspective of the first-person narrator in the context of New York City in 1930, and focuses on the theme of man’s search for his identity and place in society, which still remains of great significance today. Ellison, through this book, also reveals the severeness of the contrasts “between the Northern and Southern varieties of racism and their alienating effect.”(https://greencardamom.github.io/BooksAndWriters/rellison.htm) The “invisible” acts as both a rhetorical and figurative sense, expressing the challenges of personal dissociation and purposeful social ignorance. As the narrator says in the book, “that invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”

On April 6, La Pietra Dialogues will have the honor of hosting the first of a two Salon event, taking place in NYU Florence and NYU New York, revisiting, reapplying and repurposing Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” This event commemorates the 65th anniversary of this iconic novel published on April 1952. In the dialogue, students will have the opportunity to learn more about the social and identity issues proposed by Ellison with some of world’s foremost scholars, including Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Harvard University; Grace Ali, Of Note Magazine/NYU Tisch School of the Arts; Jonathan Capehart, The Washington Post; Kimberly Bowes, American Academy in Rome; Allen McFarlane, NYU Student Affairs; Dr. Lisa Cesarani, NYU Florence. All students are highly encouraged to join us!

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