In 1939, three years after leaving the Tuskegee Institute, Ralph Ellison regained contact with his close friend Joe Lazenberry, a Tuskegee classmate whom Ellison had presumed deceased. The following, a reply to a letter from Lazenberry, is the fullest account Ellison wrote of his time spent in New York; Dayton, Ohio; and again in New York after leaving school. It is a factual and meditative version of both his life and the development of his mind in his midtwenties.
To Joe Lazenberry
April 18, 1939
You have no idea how glad I was to hear from you again. I mailed the card in spite of having been informed that you were deceased, like Mark Twain, and I assure you that more than mentally my heart was in my mouth. It was like this: I happen to know a girl from St. Paul, Zelma Jackson, who gave me this information with a very positive assurance that it was true. I didn’t know what to think; she was positive and I couldn’t accept. I started to write your mother but decided that it would be too painful; after all the damn gal might have known what she was talking about. Well, I thought, that guy couldn’t leave without giving me a chance to cuss him out for failing to answer my letters, he’s bad, but not that bad. Then last month I wrote Rabb asking him about you and he answered that if you were dead it was only from the neck up. So with that hope I sent out the feeler. I am glad we are no longer out of contact. I suppose it takes some such incident as this to make one realize you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. I’ve known a slew of people since the Tuskegee days Joe but none I would rather have as a friend—and alive.
In broad outline it is surprising how similar the patterns of our lives have been. The following brief list of events will explain what I mean.
As you will remember, 1936 found me working for the psychoanalyst about whom I wrote you. Incidentally you might get an idea of the type of research they wished to have you do by reading After Freedom, the new book by Hortense Pondermaker who is an associate of Sullivan and much affected by his school of thought. Anyway, the job ended in Jan. ’37 and I went to work in a paint laboratory, testing paint for the father of one of the patients whose friendship I had made while at Sullivan’s. Only Negro in lab. incurring much wrath. Saved little money and stuck it out until July when bad tonsils and the desire to take part in the Spanish conflict made it necessary for me to leave. Bad tonsils out and by Aug had applied for passport. So many fellows going without much money that State Department had become suspicious. Department agents examined me, trying to crack my story, but lied out of it, making it necessary that they use technicality of my limited funds to keep me this side the Atlantic. Somewhat set back by this; the bastards waited until the morning I was to have sailed to investigate. Decided to try a tramp steamer to Mexico and thence to Spain. Took part in strike, picketing with union at a time when scabs had to be carried to and from the boats under the protection of a squad of New York’s Finest, and there were goons.
I kept this up, my funds growing short and my pride long, sleeping in the Harlem office of the Daily Worker, eating at the home of friends who paid my transportation to meals and away, until October when I received word that my mother was very ill in Cinn. Went there. Lost her the day after I arrived. After funeral went to Dayton where she and my brother had made home about time I left South. Had to wait there for insurance to pay off. Funds faded, that General Motor’s town without work, plants having closed down. Hunted with a friend all season shooting quail and rabbits, the quail illegally, which got old for food. This was all well and good as long as the season lasted. But then Dec. came and with it ice and hunger. Friend’s wife, already the mother of three, became pregnant with child she could not bear lost her mental balance. Thought brothers were receiving charity from husband when it was really the other way around since we had given him our last funds to pay her physician. She insisted that we move—perhaps we were absorbing too much heat. We did. Snow on ground. Wind. Ice. Slept in his old Ford sedan in garage, slipping in after 12 in the darkness up to which time we loafed in pool halls, lobby of Y.M.C.A. Lived on doughnuts, milk which brother was able to charge at store where Mother had traded. Finally he got keys to tailor shop where he had once worked. Warm there, steam all night. Slept on coats piled on floor. About this time I helped fellow in cafe with his social security reports and on strength of this and the insurance money it seemed we would never receive, he allowed us to run up a bill. This lasted till latter part of Feb. when money did arrive. Left there, and my brother, who likes the dam place, on Mar 2 for NYC. Lived with white friends off Central Park, regaining faith in human nature. Looked for work. No work. Met wife at friend’s house. Led with my chin. No jobs. Relief and W.P.A. Lived in sin for seven months, then civil ceremony. Still on W.P.A. and despite of what the bastards in Congress say, there are still no jobs. Not even at this horses ass of a Worlds Fair!
Hope you can find your way through all this Joe. It is important only because it is a sort of rough blueprint of my maturing. I had lost my friendship with W. B. W. [Walter B. Williams, a librarian at Tuskegee who befriended Ralph and is mentioned in Ralph’s 1930s letters to his mother] because of my political views—of all things—in the winter of ’36 but the Dayton experience tested these views and made for strength to survive through it without bitterness. I came back to the city with a sort of strength, a feeling of lyrical self-confidence. Not a feeling that this was the best of all possible worlds, but I could survive no matter what the circumstances.
I suppose the very fact that I got married proves something unusual happened. It took nerve for a broke guy to go after my wife in the manner in which I did. She is a former member of Black Birds, the 1929 version, which she joined at fifteen and went to Europe. She left show in Berlin and toured the continent for six years, leading a band and singing, returning here in ’35. Has broadcasted and worked nightclubs and Broadway shows, etc. Is not an intellectual, but possesses a sensitive intelligence, looks well, cooks well, and is skillful at all those things a man is interested in finding in the woman he marries—and this statement is no mere compensation. Most of all Joe, she’s politically alive, thanks to having been present when Hitler entered Vienna; is no respecter of bourgeois conventions, being both politically alive and an actress, and possesses a good supply of what is called, “guts,” a quality very necessary these days. Damn! It sounds like bragging to me; don’t it? Forgive me the heat of my blood, the mist of mine eyes, the lyricism of my groom-hood.
But you Joe! How the hell did you bring yourself to marry after the disillusionment of Tuskegee? I respected your moods and opinions more mature than mine, and thus more preeminent than mine in those days, and as a result I believed you would never have the confidence to marry. I’m dam glad to know it wasn’t true. I’m glad you weren’t so certain of things, for now I’ve come to suspect people whose grasp of the world is such that they solve all contradictions, all problems so soon. I hope some day that we’ll meet the girl. Was there anyone who saw things in their correct perspective in the twisted environment of Tuskegee—unless it was you Parker, and myself, who were aided and sustained by lemon juice and the liquor of the moment? I think not. Where is that guy? I’ll never forget the time he purchased Ceeley Williams for me and my surprise that it could be so tight. Then there was the time we went to a gambling joint and he almost got in a fight—I won’t forget that either.
Tuesday, April 25th, 1939.
It seems, Joe, that I can never finish anything these days without interruptions; even when it is rushed as this is. After reading the first two pages I think you had better send me a list of questions so that I might clear up any confusions.
The idea of your trip sounds swell from certain angles of vision. After the romanticism of the attempted Russian venture, however, I wonder if the possibilities that occur to me are the same that makes it so attractive to you. Incidentally, I have been talking of a trip to Mexico for some time, but of course there is the money angle. Wright, too, who has just won a Guggenheim fellowship, is thinking in the same channels. Perhaps I should explain the statement concerning Russia. To have entered in such a manner would have resulted in almost certain imprisonment. You, my friend, would have been taken for a spy. Since the widespread sabotage and wrecking which resulted in the recent trials, it has been extremely difficult to enter the U.S.S.R. through the regular channels. The Russians would have thought that their enemies, knowing of their friendliness to American Negroes, had resorted to sending you as a capitalist wolf in naive sheep’s clothing. Why don’t you try through official channels? Go back to the trip. It seems to me that with your knowledge of sociology that it would provide excellent opportunities for research. Something more scientific and more penetrating than the things done by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell and others, who have offered indignation and pity rather than analysis—even though I think the camera and text have combined to give a picture lush with implications and of undoubted social and artistic value. No one has approached Negro life in this manner and it seems a fertile field. No doubt a publisher would jump at such a book. About Mexico I think that here too, you could do a valuable piece of work. When considered from the point of view that the cultural and economic condition of the two peoples are so very similar, it becomes astonishing that there is practically no contact between them; no one interested in interpreting each to the other. Langston Hughes knows the language but fails to see the important job he could perform, he has no vision in this direction. If we are ever to attain independence in the Black belt, or rather, if that independence comes to depend upon armed uprising, then these people will be our logical allies; their history is such that they could not help but be sympathetic, could not help but offering some help. They are fighting now for their independence from American capitalists and in time—if they keep their present political direction—they will be come an important factor for democracy in the Americas. You might perform an important job without becoming involved with anybody’s politics; the facts and the nature of the material is such that it would not be necessary. Of course this takes money, but living is cheap in Mexico. There is also the possibility that you might obtain a job teaching there. I am told that sociologists etc. are needed. No doubt they would jump at the implications of having an American Negro working with them.
You say you plan to “enjoy to the hilt what this life has to offer to two individuals etc.” Malraux in his Man’s Hope has a character who has been put the question “how can one best make the best of one’s life” answer: “By converting as wide a range of experience as possible into conscious thought.” Conscious thought has a way of leading to action. In fact the action is the consciousness—unless one is a fool or a knave, or both. Be that as it may, I believe in the answer and as I remember you I think you will agree.
One should live at the height of his time intellectually, one should be able to pick apart every experience, examine it and relate it to his whole world-view. In short a man should possess his experiences and not be possessed by them. Such thought becomes creative. And these times of social consciousness the resulting action is likely to become social action. This is rough as hell but likely as not you know what I’m trying to say even better than I do myself. Now: Today life in the U.S., seems to offer some pretty bitter experiences, so much so that, unless you’re rich, for the believer in democracy it offers only disillusionment; so much so that through all strata of our population you find people forging weapons to protect themselves: labor unions, C.I.O. and the League of American Writers etc. The intellectual has fared no better than the worker. His world has become one of social action. To live life to the hilt as you put it has come to mean living with an alertness to the social forces operating in the world today; there is no escape, nor through art nor through literature—just finished Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—nor through music. What I’m trying to say, Joe, is that if you take the trip do by all means take it “to the hilt,” deep and wide but then convert it to conscious thought; make a book of it. A mocking bird sang each night on the post office building at Tuskegee, in the moonlight and shadows scented with honeysuckle. It made an impression on me. One summer I helped you make a survey of a cooperative farm a few blocks from America’s largest Negro school, where people who could not read or write worked bare-foot in the Alabama sun. This too, made an impression, though a bewildering one. At that time I believe I put the more value upon the moonlight and mocking birds; now it is the other experience that has become the more meaningful. Conscious thought has converted it into an impulse to creation; in these times it is the positive reality. One sucks experience through the body into the mind and there makes something of it to change, improve the realities from which the experience came. You are certainly lucky to have a wife who will go along with you. Older Negro women had the pioneering spirit, even one of adventure, but the younger crop reach too readily for the shadow of Security, perhaps it should be SECURITY. The two of you should be able to influence the consciousness of the entire next generation of Negroes.
It is that that we here are attempting to do. At present it is still unformed organizationally, but the consciousness is here. Wright already has one book and another to be published in the fall. Theodore Ward has Big White Fog that was produced in Chi., and is working on another. I am mapping a novel of the Negro college. I believe, Joe, that all Negro institutions should be examined and exposed for what they are in the light of world events. It will be muckraking of a sort, but we hope, constructive in its very power to disintegrate. Perhaps there won’t be an organization but we will have a group in contact with one another who know what they are about, the direction in which they are traveling. Frankly, we are angry; but not so much so that we can’t see. The standards are high—Wright is rated with Hemingway, is an important figure in the League of American Writers. We have overcome the cultural and intellectual isolation that has been characteristic of Negro writers. Let me know what you think of it and I’ll go into it more fully next time. I guess I’ve written enough to start you to debating, then the both of us shall discover what the other has been thinking these last years. Perhaps you’ve done a book—how the hell would I know? My best wishes to Mrs. Leroy Francis Lazenberry and success to you both.
Ralph Ellison (1914–1994) was born in Oklahoma and trained as a musician at Tuskegee Institute from 1933 to 1936, at which time a visit to New York and a meeting with Richard Wright led to his first attempts at fiction. Invisible Man won the National Book Award. Appointed to the Academy of American Arts and Letters in 1964, Ellison taught at several institutions, including Bard College, the University of Chicago, and New York University, where he was Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities.
Excerpted from The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison, copyright © 2019 by The Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust, reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency.