Ralph Ellison: The Black American Novel as Cultural Commentary

James Madison Program Black History Month Event

February 9, 2021
Poster for 2021 Black History Month - photo of Ralph Ellison in front of bookshelf

Lucas Morel, John K. Boardman, Jr. Professor of Politics; Head of the Politics Department, Washington and Lee University, and Antonin Scalia, Communications Coordinator, James Madison Program, Princeton University

Ralph Ellison is one of the great names in American literature, and perhaps the greatest of African American novelists. His most famous work, Invisible Man, occupies a central place in the American literary canon. But he was also a shrewd essayist on a wide variety of topics, from music and literature to American history and politics. Born in Oklahoma, he studied at the celebrated Tuskegee Institute, and then in the 1930s moved to Harlem, where he became a protégé of Richard Wright, and was caught up in the allure of the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” movement. Yet Ellison soon rebelled at the conformity the Popular Front demanded of him and other African American writers. He understood the challenging cross-currents of race and class -- “the broad complexities of American life” – in a way that defied simplistic categorizations. Ellison’s more capacious view of man’s place in the world, and especially in America, took flight in Invisible Man in 1952, winning the National Book Award and an enduring place in our national thinking. 

The characters in Ellison’s fiction are memorable in their vividness. The topics of his essays on American culture range wide across the American landscape. Above all, Ellison sings the song of democracy: “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain.” This is a voice not just for some, but for us all. Join us at the James Madison Program with Professor Lucas Morel for this illuminating and provocative discussion of a great American writer and commentator.

Lucas Morel is the John K. Boardman, Jr. Professor of Politics and Head of the Politics Department at Washington and Lee University. Professor Morel also teaches in the Master’s Program in American History and Government at Ashland University in Ohio and in summer programs for the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the Twenty-First Century (2016), Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to “Invisible Man” (2004), Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government (2000), and editor of the essay collection, Lincoln and Liberty: Wisdom for the Ages (2014). His most recent book is Lincoln and the American Founding (2020), published in the Concise Lincoln Library Series of Southern Illinois University Press. Professor Morel is a trustee of the Supreme Court Historical Society, former president of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, and a consultant on the Library of Congress exhibits on Lincoln and the Civil War. He was a member of the scholarly board of advisors for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and currently serves on the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, which will plan activities to commemorate the founding of the United States of America. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University.

Antonin Scalia is the Communications Coordinator of Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and host of the Program’s podcast, Madison’s Notes. Previously, he served as an advisor to the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control and the acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and as a Speechwriter to the U.S. Secretary of Education. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Maria Grazia Panaro Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of mentally disabled men and women. He is a graduate of Rhodes College and a former Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo, Director of the James Madison Program's Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, was initially slated to host the event. Due to unforseen circumstances, he was unable to participate. 


Ralph Ellison: The Black American Novel as Cultural Commentary


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