VOICES: Ellison’s letters resonate today

My introduction to Ralph Ellison’s work was exactly how he describes being introduced to his literary heroes. Ellison stated that your “imagination takes off like a jazz musician on a flight of improvisation.” The realism I experience reading Invisible Man turned life into an indelible contradiction that must be reckoned with. All at once, I was face-to-face with a level of unconscious but familiar inner and external struggle surrounding freedom, Black identity and the truth of the human condition in America.

Recently, I learned about The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison. My initial interest was focused on the letter he wrote to an old Tuskegee classmate about living in Dayton, Ohio after his mother passed away. Facing adversity for Ellison was not new, but during this particular time, the challenges of parenting a little brother, housing, and gainful employment required a level of responsibility that he admits that he was not ready for. I also discovered that Ellison corresponded with Richard Wright, and he acknowledges that life after his mother’s death marked his maturation into manhood.

Although my journey with Ellison’s letters is new, I connected with them in several ways. As I am reading the letters he wrote to his mother while away at college, I resonate deeply with those letters because there is something very powerful about the energetic exchange between a parent and child. This unbroken correspondence becomes a gift that allowed him to sustain the relationships with his mother and also share his achievements, pressing needs, desires, and even occasional dalliances without judgment or loss of connection.

As I read Ellison’s letters from the ‘30s, I could not help but think about the current pandemic, and social and racial reckoning throughout the world. He grappled with many of the same issues that confront us today. His letters helped him manage the magnitude of being in an unfamiliar time, of having a large amount of responsibility while experiencing the deepest kind of loss. The letters were a place of refuge, detailing the vulnerability and honest acceptance of his trauma and shared journeys.

Sierra Leone is the president, artistic director, and co-founder of The Home of Urban Creative Arts (OFP Theatre and Production Company).

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