Ralph Ellison, photographed in 1960 by a United States Information Agency staff photographer. NARA reference number 306-PSA-61-8989.
African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature
Ralph Waldo Ellison worked as an interviewer and researcher in New York City’s Federal Writers’ Project, documenting African American urban history and folklore on his way to becoming an acclaimed author and literary critic.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City to Ida Millsap and Lewis Alfred Ellison in 1913 and raised in a working-class environment. Through his adolescence in Oklahoma City, Ellison developed serious interests in music and recording technologies. He learned to play classical compositions at Frederick Douglass High School and immersed himself in the local jazz scene’s burgeoning vernacular styles. He graduated from Douglass in 1931 and remained influenced by his hometown’s vibrant oral cultures and frontier ethos throughout his life. He was admitted to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he continued to study music and modern literature until 1936, but did not complete his degree.
Instead, Ellison headed to Harlem and chose to make the city his home. He built long-term friendships with the writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who helped him land a job with the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) in New York City. From 1938 to 1942, Ellison’s employment on the FWP’s Living Lore and Negro History units midwifed his metamorphosis into a writer. Much of Ellison’s fieldwork occurred in Harlem’s outdoors, where he recorded children’s rhymes and playground games and interviewed African American migrants from the South. In writing up their narratives as oral performances, he sought to convey the sound and flavor of Black speech by closely transcribing idiomatic detail, rather than to reflect dialect through misspelling words. Later in life, Ellison recalled that these assignments broadened his own understanding of African American culture and set a folkloric foundation for his fiction, including the masterpiece Invisible Man (1952).
As an internationally acclaimed cultural critic and public intellectual in the post-World War II period, Ellison made valuable contributions to literary theory’s recognition of folklore. Many of his essays reflect on the interlocking functions of folklore, literature, music, myth, ritual, identity, and imagined community in a democratic society. Ellison asserted fundamental connections between African American folklore and the American mainstream. He articulated an understanding of the vernacular as a dynamic process that constantly reinvents established forms through creative iteration, synthesis, and transformation. These views guided Ellison’s pivotal contributions to a variety of cultural institutions.
Ellison taught at Bard College, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago, and was the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at New York University from 1970 to 1980. He was a member of the Carnegie Commission on Public Television, a charter member of the National Council on the Arts and Humanities. The Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969) and the National Medal of Arts (1985) were among his many honors.
Examples of relevance to folklorists in his prolific writings include:
Collected Essays (1995)
Selected Letters (2019)