Ellison: A Visible Man in a Chapel Classroom

April 24, 1994|By SAMUEL A. ZERVITZ

Ralph Ellison, the writer, died at 80 last weekend.

I remember Ralph Ellison, the teacher. He taught an American literature course at Bard College, in Annandale-on-the-Hudson, New York, in 1958.

That year, several times a week, he strolled the path from the nearby town of Tivoli to the campus where he held his class. The class met in the chapel of a country church at the edge of the school grounds. Ralph Ellison would magically appear from out of the woods that formed a barrier on the hillside and separated the old church from the banks of the Hudson River down below. He would enter the church through a side door and begin to talk. His commentary was the class.

When Ralph Ellison arrived in the chapel, he was usually dressed in boots and baggy clothing. At first it seemed he might have wandered in by mistake. He wasn't a very large man, but he appeared rugged. And he had a dominating voice and the presence of a no-nonsense fellow who knew exactly what he was doing in that chapel and hoped you did also.

This was because when he began his discourse, you knew he was not going to lecture. There were no notes to be taken because what he had to say was not something you'd be tested on later. He spoke casually, as if he were conversing with a single soul. He related personal stories anecdotally. He spoke reflectively, introspectively, as if his thoughts were not yet formed and were taking shape as part of the program.

In retrospect, I realized years later, the class may well have been a sounding board for his notions on the state of American fiction and reality, past and present.

Suddenly, as mysteriously and majestically as he had appeared, he vanished out the side door he'd entered a short while before. Like life, his classes didn't end neatly. They stopped like movie serials, left us hanging.

He entered, he spoke, he departed, as if the woods outside was his stage set, and when the performance had concluded, he headed backstage to regroup.

When he spoke to us, he laughed a lot at his own remarks, as if he'd just invented a new kind of humor, saw something no one had seen yet quite that way. Sometimes the joke was on him. Sometimes it was about others. Always it was an insight on the human condition. Ralph Ellison was nothing if not good natured about mankind's clumsiness and insensitivity -- if not mankind's inhumanity.

There were perhaps 500 or so students enrolled at the college then. It seemed most of them packed the chapel to hear Ralph Ellison. By and large, they seemed in awe of him. I had never heard of the man. I signed up for his course because I saw him sitting in a corner at registration looking rather lonely and forlorn. He was, to my knowledge, the only black on the faculty. I figured that hardly anyone would sign up for his class, so I did, thinking that if only a few students were present, he might take pity on me and give me a good grade.

There were no stars on the faculty but Ralph Ellison. His book had come out a few years before, and students spoke about it in hushed tones. I asked someone what he had written and received an incredulous stare. I tried to read his book, "Invisible Man," and it made no sense at the time. Students who knew something about Ralph Ellison said he didn't like to talk about the novel it had taken him years to complete.

Most impressive was his view of a society I assumed had rejected him. What did I know? The game was being played out on his terms.

He was the winner. He knew who he was. He was an American writer who happened to be black. He was the synthesis of everything he had experienced and everything that had come before him.

And that was good. He was solid, substantial, a well-defined black fellow, 45 years old, balding, who came to us twice a week and told us what America was really like through fiction and real experience.

What Ralph Ellison gave those students in 1958 was the notion that this was his America as much as it belonged to anyone else. He'd carved this niche, written this book, taught this class, belonged. As we all did then and as we all do now. It is simply a matter of finding the way.

Ralph Ellison, from Oklahoma, found it by taking possession of what was rightfully his.

His course was nothing if not a lesson in an American rite of passage. Through his art he saw more of what this country was and what it wasn't than perhaps anyone of his generation.

Samuel Zervitz is a community relations specialist for the Baltimore public schools.

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