Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) is not as well-known as he should be, despite winning the National Book Award in 1953 for his ground-breaking novel Invisible Man.
Invisible Man is a literary great, consistently ranked as one of the best books of the 20th century. Apart from being incredible in style, the novel addresses issues faced by African-Americans in an extremely racist society. Modelled somewhat on Ellison's own life, it is the story of a young man now living underground, retelling his experiences from the late 1920s/early 1930s. After winning a college scholarship and moving from the South to New York, the narrator becomes involved with an extremist political organisation and is forced to face yet more problems.
In Ellison's own mid-twentieth century society, the vast majority of novels included black characters written without depth or personality. In literature, these characters were treated as subordinate, mirroring the actual treatment of African-Americans in real life. Ellison's fierce intelligence and skill as a writer enabled him to challenge such stereotypes and contribute to triggering change: his novel was articulate and intelligent, presenting black characters from a position of rightful equality. This attitude was extremely progressive for a 1950s audience; yet the novel has been subject to controversy as recently as 2013, when a North Carolina school ruled for the book to be removed from their library. This ban was later reversed.
Ellison is inspirational not only for his achievements, but for battling a prejudiced society in his literature and outside of it. In his introduction to the novel, written 30 years after its publication, Ellison writes at length about racism, the importance of fighting white supremacy and stereotyping of blacks. He also stresses the powerful capabilities of fiction and its role in changing perceptions and influencing change, describing the novel as “a raft of hope” that can help keep us afloat as we navigate life.
It is important to remember and honour Ellison for his work, his wits and undeniable spirit. Fiction that challenges common opinion with honest intentions (rather than aiming solely for shock factor) has a lot to teach society, especially our current one.