Banned Books Week: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison, photographed in 1960 by a United States Information Agency staff photographer. NARA reference number 306-PSA-61-8989.

“One afternoon I wrote some words . . . and these words were ‘I am an invisible man.’ I didn’t know quite what they meant, and I didn’t know where the idea came from, but the moment I started to abandon them I thought: ‘Well maybe I should try to discover exactly what lay behind the statement.'”Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction, the first for an African American writer. The book, which explored a Black man’s experiences of race and identity on a journey from the South to Harlem, was Ellison’s only work published in his lifetime, but its impact was significant; Ellison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 and National Medal for the Arts in 1985. He also served as the Library’s Honorary Consultant in American Letters from 1966 to 1972.

However, Invisible Man remains on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged classic books. Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read, and in that spirit, for anyone reading Invisible Man, the Library has many resources to better understand Ellison and his work. The Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division holds Ellison’s papers and personal library. Through these materials as well as sound and video recordings in the Library’s collections, kids and teens can:

  • hear Ellison’s voice as he reads excerpts of a novel in progress, recorded at the Library in 1983.
  • read about his work in the 1930s with the Federal Writers Project, during which he recorded oral histories and folklore throughout the East Coast, including this story from South Carolina about “Sweet-the-monkey,” an “invisible man” who was also a trickster.
  • see photos of his life from his personal collection (note: small photos and thumbnails are available here. Full access, including large scale downloadable files, are available only onsite at the Library).
  • consider his writing process and craft through this later draft of the opening pages of Invisible Man. Look closely at the second paragraph. How does he represent the time of day? In the opening paragraph, what difference does the choice to say others don’t “see” the main character, rather than “recognize” him, make? How does Ellison’s choice of word affect the feel of the story and the meaning of invisibility within it?

Draft pages of Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison Papers, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. These pages appeared in the exhibit The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.

To continue the discussion of Ellison’s work and influence, this video recording celebrates his life and influence on later writers and this blog post offers an examination of his unfinished work, Juneteenth, which was published posthumously and whose draft resides in the Manuscript Division. Or, have a conversation about what books or authors are important to your family. What books or authors make you feel seen?

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