PBS 'American Masters' honors author Ralph Ellison

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

NEW YORK -- Ralph Ellison, the subject of PBS' latest "American Masters" program, would have appreciated being called an "American" master. Ellison was proud to be black, but just as proud to be American. This apparent conflict brought him both grief and glory.

"American Masters" airs 8 p.m. Tuesday and helps mark the 50th anniversary of "Invisible Man," Ellison's great novel about an unnamed black's quest for identity. Relying on interviews, jazz, archival footage and dramatizations of "Invisible Man," the 90-minute documentary honors the complicated spirit of the book and its creator.

Ellison was born in Oklahoma in 1914, where his parents had moved from the Deep South, betting on a new state relatively untainted by segregation. The Ellisons were dreamers. His father was a self-taught man who wanted his son to be a poet and named him Ralph Waldo Ellison, after Ralph Waldo Emerson. His mother was an activist who campaigned against racism.

Childhood forced upon him the gift of seeing life from different angles. Ellison was 3 when his father died (he fell while delivering ice) and the world turned hard and mean. The family was forced to move all over town as their mother worked as a housekeeper. Young Ralph developed a stammer.

By the 1920s, segregation had spread to Oklahoma, although not in time to stop Ellison from seeing life without it. "We pretended segregation did not exist, because we did not want it to limit our horizons," he later explained.

Ambitious from the start, Ellison didn't simply read books, he internalized them. He studied T.S. Eliot line by line, likening "The Waste Land" to the improvisations of jazz, and wrote out pages of Hemingway and Dostoyevsky in longhand.

Ellison was literature's great integrationist and "Invisible Man" was a grand ceremony. Partaking of the popular and the particular, from Louis Armstrong to Thomas Mann to "Negro" folklore, Ellison rejected the protest tradition of Richard Wright in favor of a multisided exploration of race and recognition.

Ellison suspected the white world, but didn't reject it. Defying both black nationalists and white segregationists, Ellison believed blacks were true Americans, not transplanted Africans.

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