Brain Pickings

Ralph Ellison on Race and the Power of the Writer in Society: A Rare 1966 Interview

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“Power, for the writer….lies in his ability to reveal if only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity.”

In 1953, celebrated novelist Ralph Ellison gave a remarkable National Book Award acceptance speech, arguing for fiction as a soapbox for injustice and a chariot of hope. Thirteen years later, in 1966, he gave a rare interview for the National Education Television, in which he discusses a number of timeless, timely topics — national identity, race, the purpose of literature — with extraordinary eloquence and grace, complementing E.B. White’s insights on the role and responsibility of the writer and George Orwell’s thoughts on the writer’s motives and political purpose.

Power, for the writer, it seems to me lies in his ability to reveal if only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity. And, in this country, I think it’s very, very important for the writer to, no matter what the agony of his experience….he should stick to what he’s doing, because the slightest thing that is new, or the slightest thing that has been overlooked, which would tell us about the unity of American experience — beyond all considerations of class, of race, or religion — are very, very important. I think that the nation is still in the process of becoming, of drawing itself together, of discovering itself. And when a writer fails to contribute to this, then he’s played his art false, and he probably does violence to our political vision of ourselves.

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