The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Chronology
1914 Ralph Waldo Ellison born 1 March in Oklahoma City. His father, Lewis
Ellison, was an independent businessman selling coal and ice and his
mother, Ida Milsap Ellison, a church steward and a social activist, was a
strong supporter of Eugene Debs's Socialist Party. Ellisons' parents had
left Georgia in search of a freer life for themselves and their family in the
West. Unlike African American writers such as Richard Wright and Zora
Neale Hurston, who grew up in rigidly segregated parts of the Deep South
which confronted them with harsh social environments and extreme
economic hardship, Ellison was raised in a southwestern state which was
only seven years removed from its status as a territory. Such a world,
although far from being a model of democratic fairness and racial justice,
was in Ellison's view, a world of "possibility" encouraging him to pursue
many options which would have been denied to him had he grown up in the
South.
1917 Ellison's father dies, plunging the family into poverty. His mother works as
a maid to support the family. Although Ellison faced economic hardship
for much of his childhood, his mother provided him and his brother Herbert
with books and magazines from the white houses in which she worked and
strongly encouraged both sons to excel in school and pursue higher
education. Ellison remembered his childhood as deeply influenced by his
mothers' social activism and her respect for education.
1920-1929 Growing up in Oklahoma City, Ellison reads widely in books borrowed at
the Paul Laurence Dunbar Library, works many odd jobs as a waiter,
elevator operator, newspaper boy, shoeshine boy, and drug store clerk. He
develops what would become a life-long fascination with oral story-telling,
listening with keen ears to the yarns and tall tales told by people he
encountered at work and in his neighborhood.
1929-1933 Attends Frederick Douglass High School, whose principal Inman Page was
the first black person to receive a doctorate from Brown University. He
plays varsity football and becomes an accomplished trumpeter in the school
band. (By the time he was eighteen, Ellison had spent twelve years

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