Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” which transformed thinking about being black in America 60 years ago, was celebrated with a free reading and discussion by award-winning authors Jabari Asim and Danielle Evans at the Library of Congress on March 1.
The noon event honored what would have been Ellison’s 98th birthday.
“Invisible Man”, about an African American struggling to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in deeply segregated society, was Ellison’s first novel. His 1952 work won the National Book Award, and is considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ellison wrote in the prologue. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
Authors Asim and Evans read selections from Ellison’s works, and discussed his influence on their own writing at the event.
· Evans’ short-story collection, “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self”, won the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book, and was listed among the best books of 2010 by “Kirkus Reviews” and “O” Magazine. Her work has appeared also in “The Best American Short Stories” of 2008 and 2010, and in “The Paris Review”. She is a professor of literature and creative writing at Washington’s American University.
· Asim’s books include “What Obama Means: … For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future”, “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why”, a short-story collection, and several children’s books. He is editor-in-chief of “The Crisis”, NAACP’s journal of politics, ideas and culture, which W.E.B. Du Bois founded in 1910. Asim, a former editor at the “Washington Post”, is an associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Boston’s Emerson College.
Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. He studied music at Tuskegee Institute before moving to New York City, where novelist Richard Wright (“Native Son”) encouraged him to turn to fiction. Ellison distinguished himself also as an essayist and scholar, teaching at Yale University, the University of Chicago, among others. Several of his works have been published posthumously, including the novel “Juneteenth.”
For more info: Library of Congress, www.loc.gov, Whittall Pavilion, ground floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, SE, Washington, DC. The birthday celebration is sponsored by both the Library’s Manuscript Division, www.loc.gov/rr/mss/, and the Poetry and Literature Center, www.loc.gov/poetry/, which have extensive Ellison holdings.