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Ralph Ellison: Childhood

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City on 1 March 1913 (or maybe 1914—scholars are still debating the exact year of his birth). He was the second of three sons born to Lewis Alfred and Ida Millsap Ellison (only two of their sons lived past infancy, though). The couple earned a modest middle-class living from Lewis's income as an ice and coal vendor, and they believed strongly in the value of education for their children. They named their second son after the Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lewis proudly told people that his son would grow up to be a poet as well.

Unfortunately, Lewis Alfred Ellison did not live to see his prophecy come true. In 1917, when Ralph was a toddler, Lewis was stabbed in the stomach by a shard of ice during an accident at work. He later died of his injuries, leaving Ida to raise two young boys on her own. Ellison's mother took an assortment of domestic jobs to keep her family afloat. Ellison was keenly aware of all that his family did not have, and the knowledge of their poverty became a motivating force for him. He wrote about this aspect of his childhood later in his book Shadow and Act:

"As a kid I remember working it out this way: there was a world in which you wore your everyday clothes on Sunday, and there was a world in which you wore your Sunday clothes every day—I wanted the world in which you wore your Sunday clothes every day. I wanted it because it represented something better, a more exciting and civilized and human way of living… I someTimes [glimpsed this world] through the windows of great houses on Sunday afternoons when my mother took my brother and me for walks through the wealthy white sections of the city… And for me none of this was hopelessly beyond the reach of my Negro world, really; because if you worked and you fought for your rights, and so on, you could finally achieve it." 5

Ellison excelled in school and had even taken up the trumpet by the age of eight, sparking a lifelong passion for the instrument and for jazz music. By the time he graduated in 1931 from all-black Douglas High School in Oklahoma City, Ellison was the first chair trumpeter in the school band as well as its conductor.6 A year later, he left Oklahoma City on a boxcar with a music scholarship at the Tuskegee Institute, founded by the famed African-American educator Booker T. Washington. It was a year after the infamous Scottsboro Boys Trial, in which nine young black men in Alabama were sentenced to death after two white women falsely accused them of rape on a boxcar. (The convictions were later overturned and the boys were released.) Ellison was thrown off the boxcar at least once on his journey.

Ellison spent three years at Tuskegee, where he became interested in modern literature. In the summer of 1936, when he was about to begin his senior year, he ran out of cash and traveled to New York City in the hopes of earning the money to pay for his final year of school. But it was the Great Depression, and jobs—especially jobs for African-Americans—were hard to come by. It soon became clear to Ellison that he wasn't going to earn what he needed. He never returned to Tuskegee, but he found his true calling in New York.

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