Study Guide

Ralph Ellison Childhood

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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 N**** world, really; because if you worked and you fought for your rights, and so on, you could finally achieve it." blank" rel="nofollow">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 instead he found his true calling in New York.

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