Being a respected artist, writer and scholar didn’t keep Ralph Ellison from struggling with the issues of race and identity that plague other black men and women in our culture.
His 1952 novel “Invisible Man,” which won the National Book Award and is widely viewed as one of the great American novels of the 20th Century, deals with a narrator rendered invisible because others can’t or won’t see him for who he is. Ellison’s work explores the conflict between our American society’s division of people by race, class and identity and our ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” as presented in a curriculum developed by the Ralph Ellison Foundation.
The Ralph Ellison Foundation, an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit, says it is devoted to highlighting the accomplishments of Ellison, who was born in Oklahoma City in 1913, and empowering the lives other others through his legacy in the areas of literacy, music and the arts.
As part of that effort, the foundation brought one of its “In the Light Bulb Room” forums to Oklahoma State University Tuesday. The forum is named for a fictional room with 1,369 light bulbs hot wired into it where Ellison’s “Invisible Man” narrator retreats in search of literal illumination.
The community discussion and forum asked the question, “Is diversity enough?” and challenged people to think about strategies for inclusion and beyond.
It’s part of a series designed to bring people together to talk about sensitive issues.
“In Ellison’s spirit, and through engaging with his work and legacy, we strive to create a similar zone of free exploration, multicultural good will, and open conversation with an emphasis on positivity and fostering community as we tackle some of the pressing concerns of our own time,” the foundation says on its website.
Ralph Ellison Foundation Director Michael Owens told Oklahoma Gazette during a February interview that “labels and stratifications – markers of difference – persist on the large-scale level but become more human on a smaller scale.”
Stillwater’s participants were invited to engage in open, respectful dialogue with organizers urging them to “Speak our minds. Our best minds.”
Panelists OSU Professor Emeritus Earl Mitchell, PhD, history lecturer Amy Carreiro Ph.D. and Director of OSU’s Center of Africana Studies Shaila Mehra, Ph.D. discussed what individuals and institutions like universities must do for African-Americans to truly be seen.
Carreiro said American society labors under a delusion that this country is a monoracial, white nation when in fact, it never has been. Ellison compared that delusion to a disease in the blood that cyclically comes up like a boil.
The problem isn’t that minority groups have failed to assimilate themselves, it’s that white America has refused to assimilate itself into a vision of a multicultural society, she said.
She contends that people have to insist on change in the institutions that form how we view the world so individuals can see things differently.
“If you want different eyes, you must demand a different institution,” Carreiro said.
Mitchell, who in the 1970s became Oklahoma State University’s first African American faculty member with tenure and went on to teach biochemistry at the university for 40 years, said he has had many of the same struggles as Ellison.
Although he feels fortunate to have had colleagues who appreciated him for his work and his contributions, he still wonders “What is it about this skin that draws so much from others in a negative sense?”
Mitchell says most people, even people he spends time with often like his morning coffee group, are reluctant to talk about race.
But avoiding the discussion doesn’t make the issues go away.
“We (Americans) focus more on competition and differences than things we have in common,” Mitchell said.
The Ralph Ellison Foundation will host at least one more In the Light Bulb Room forum this year in Norman. It also sponsors creative writing workshops, reading clinics and school poster contests.
Its “Flying Home” curriculum based on the writings of Ellison is available to download at ralphellisonfoundation.org.
Originally published in Stillwater News Press