Race in the South
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, and during his childhood he encountered opposition from the city’s white establishment. His mother was persecuted for her political activities on behalf of the Socialist Party. Oklahoma’s governor during Ellison’s early years was the white supremacist “Alfalfa Bill” Murray. Murray established a very unfriendly atmosphere for blacks in Oklahoma, and the state saw at least one serious race riot during that period. Although Oklahoma is not a part of the South proper and was still Indian territory during the Civil War, the state has absorbed a Southern cultural heritage from its neighbors Texas and Arkansas. Part of this heritage included Jim Crow laws, the system of de jure and de facto (meaning unwritten but enforced) racial segregation laws that persisted until the 1960s.
Ellison believed an effort was made by the state to ensure that black students would not attend Oklahoma state universities by offering scholarships to promising students for study out of state. Ellison received such an offer and accepted it. He attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, the most renowned black school in the country. While travelling by freight train to Alabama, Ellison was forced off the train in Decatur, Alabama. Decatur was the town in which the Scottsboro Boys were being prosecuted for the alleged rape of two white women aboard a freight train. Fearing the worst, Ellison fled and managed to escape.
As a result of the brutal conditions in the South, millions of blacks moved to the cities of the North in the period 1910-1950. This “Great Migration” was opposed by the white power structure in agricultural states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Needing the labor that black sharecroppers provided, the states and localities attempted to stop blacks from leaving. However, cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York each absorbed hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Though these immigrants were not treated well in the North either, they provided a labor pool from which the cities of the North became industrial powerhouses. Ellison’s character, the Bingo King, is one such Southern immigrant.
Race in New York City
In 1936 Ellison moved to New York City and therefore avoided much of the brutal racial oppression that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s in the South. Ellison’s early neighborhood, Harlem, had by the 1920s become a haven for blacks coming north from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. However, although the North did not have the Jim Crow laws that characterized the South, it was by no means a land of equality. Blacks in the North suffered from limited educational and economic opportunities. They were the “last hired and the first fired” for most jobs. Harlem was often a rude shock to poor blacks fleeing the South. Expecting a friendly reception in a proudly black city, they were greeted by crime, poverty, and the New York attitude that disdains newcomers and country people.
However difficult life was in Harlem, it was regarded as better than life in the South, and for this reason many of the leaders of African-American culture flocked to the city. In the 1920s the neighborhood enjoyed a cultural high point called the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as Langston Hughes (one of Ellison’s first friends in New York) and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and many other artistic and intellectual figures made Harlem and New York a haven for African-American culture.
Although New York was often difficult and daunting, Ellison remained there for most of his life and taught for a decade at New York University. Ellison became a fixture in the city’s intellectual and cultural life and cultivated long-term friendships with many of its most important writers. The city of New York is a dominant image in his novel Invisible Man. The conclusion of the novel finds the protagonist living in Harlem, a situation that mirrors the choice of many artists and writers to move to this cultural center during the Harlem Renaissance.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Ralph Ellison, Published by Gale, 1997.