I was 17 when I first encountered Invisible Man. I inhaled it over the summer before my senior year, passing impossibly hot July afternoons in the family den, facedown on the floor for hours on end, raptured from the sweltering heat by its cool, lyrical largesse and penetrating social wisdom. Not only did it spur me to think about race and history in dynamic and troubling new ways, but it also moved me deeply as a piece of art. That strange, hypnotizing and herculean novel reached across the chasm of a half-century and fundamentally rearranged my inner life forever.
It didn’t matter that I had never personally experienced the sort of discrimination that forces its unnamed protagonist underground. Ellison writes with such moral urgency and aesthetic power that it’s impossible not to be changed by it afterward, and the novel’s parting shot (“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”) is a powerful reminder that this is a story about all of us.
Imagine my surprise, then—my disbelief—upon learning that the person responsible for this electrifying document was born and raised 100 miles north of my rural farming and manufacturing community in south-central Oklahoma. Now imagine another sort of disbelief: sitting after class in my too-small plastic desk and hearing from a twofer Oklahoma history teacher and varsity defensive coordinator that Ralph Ellison, and my experience with him, was insignificant.
“It’s gotta be somebody famous,” Coach Landgraff insisted. “It’s gotta be somebody where people at least know who he is. If I never heard of this guy, how important can he be?” The assignment was to write an essay on the contributions of an influential Oklahoman, and apparently my Ralph Ellison proposal wasn’t going to fly.
After numerous protestations, and another failed proposal on Wayne Coyne, I—like approximately 90 percent of the class—wrote about Will Rogers. The rest wrote about Toby Keith.
When Ralph Ellison claimed that “geography is fate” during a 1979 speech at Brown University, he did so with a sense of possibility. He was speaking on the profound impact of Dr. Inman Page, Brown’s first African-American graduate, who became principal of the all-black Douglass High School in Oklahoma City, which Ellison had attended from 1927 to 1932. Ellison used Page’s story to reflect on Oklahoma’s historical significance in the African-American struggle for selfhood:
Long before it became the State of Oklahoma, the Territory had been a sanctuary for runaway slaves who sought the protection of the Five Great Indian Nations… [by the 1920s] the State of Oklahoma had attracted many of the descendants of the freed slaves, who considered it a territory of hope, and a place where they could create their own opportunities.
Lewis Alfred Ellison and Ida Millsap were among those descendants who sought refuge in the territory. For them, moving to Oklahoma from the Deep South meant if not evading the hammer of institutionalized racism, then at least dulling its impact. Their second son, Ralph Waldo Ellison, was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914, and was raised in the vibrant Deep Deuce neighborhood that would forever mark his extraordinary work as a fiction writer and cultural critic.
Ellison writes that, as a border state with no history of institutionalized slavery, Oklahoma was once a place where “relationships between the races were more fluid and thus more human than the old slave states.” But, Oklahoma would do more than provide his family a respite from the strictures of the segregated South. It would remain for Ellison, despite his departure in 1933, an idyllic and culturally potent space where passions could be exercised and dreams could be launched. He would go on to electrify the literary world with his Invisible Man and challenge popular conceptions of race, art, and musicology in numerous nonfiction essays—and it all started here, in the territory.
Ellison scholars have noted the significant role this “fluidity” played in informing his literary ambitions. If you weren’t looking for the information, though, you might not know that Oklahoma had produced one of the century’s most significant voices in American letters. Despite the state’s impact on Ellison’s ideas and career, there hasn’t been much in the way of commemoration before this year’s centennial celebration. There’s the Ralph Ellison Library on NE 23rd Street in Oklahoma City, but otherwise the writer’s relationship to the Sooner State has largely been reduced to scholarly ephemera. Last year, State Senator David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, set out to change this by moving to honor Ellison with a long overdue portrait at the state Capitol.
Oklahoma would do more than provide his family a respite from the strictures of the segregated South. It would remain for Ellison, despite his departure in 1933, an idyllic and culturally potent space where passions could be exercised and dreams could be launched.
“If you look around our floor, there are other portraits of obviously famous Oklahomans, including famous African Americans,” he told NewsOK last October. “So, it’s just kind of a mystery to me why Ralph Ellison got sort of overlooked.”
Holt found that he shared a special connection with Ellison during a single-author course at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Through that class, I really discovered things about my own hometown, you know, a long way from home… through Ellison. So I’ve always had this great fondness for him.” Like many Oklahomans, Holt had to leave the state in order to get a sense of Ellison’s invaluable contribution to American culture.
My senior-year brush with the “lower frequencies” of state cultural education left me more than ever with the sense that I had to get out of Oklahoma. Once I did, though, I found myself—like Ellison—indelibly marked by it. “Whatever its blemishes,” says his literary executor John F. Callahan, “Oklahoma was possibility. His dreams were filled with scenes from Oklahoma.” So are mine, even if they’re not always scenes everyone will recognize.
Hear Ralph Ellison discuss his unfinished novel:
Oklahoma’s image in the national consciousness is incomplete at best, but those of us who were born and raised here see life in the state for the dynamic and rewarding experience that it is. Folks in other parts of the country tend to think of Oklahoma, when they think of it at all, through an extremely narrow set of cultural mythologies that fail to represent our contributions to national culture.
And if you were to walk the halls of a public school during Oklahoma History Week, you might wrongly assume that we’ve given the world nothing but cowboys, evangelists, and football stars. Ellison’s portrait at the state Capitol is a huge step in this regard, not just for rectifying a glaring omission, but also as a reminder to Oklahoma residents that we possess a cultural force by virtue of our unique experience as Oklahomans. For better or worse, we’re the land of church and football—but why can’t we also be the land of Ralph Ellison?
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5 Issue 5. March 1, 2014.