When Ralph Ellison died this spring, he was primarily remembered and honored as the African-American writer who in 1952 had gifted the nation and the world with that magnificent novel, Invisible Man, a work widely and justly acclaimed as one of the extraordinary literary achievements of our time. But Ellison was much more than a great novelist, and perhaps it was only in the course of his gentle, graceful departure at the age of 80 that we could fully begin to realize that we had lost one of our nation’s wisest and more compassionate griots.*
This deeply learned native of Oklahoma was indeed a faithful keeper of our tangled stories, one who understood the healing possibilities that are released among us when the people of this fiercely complicated nation honestly acknowledge both the terror and the beauty we have created in our strange pilgrimage together—and apart.
In a sense, Invisible Man was a demonstration of the way in which an artist of disciplined, audacious imagination and unswervingly humane vision could address our common life. Firmly, confidently grasping (and being grasped by) the vivid particularities of one essential American community—the children of Africa—Ellison wove their/our laughter, tragedy, irony, eloquence, music, and sprawling absurdities into a powerful and unforgettable story, one that opened revelatory windows into all our personal and collective human lives, suggesting pathways toward our necessary healing, especially in America.