My Semester With Ralph Ellison

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05/02/2009

New York University, New York, New York 10012

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

In 1971 I took a class taught by Ralph Ellison, author of ‘The Invisible Man.’ It was my last year at the Washington Square Campus of New York University. In those days there was also a Bronx campus. Wannabe hippies, like me, went downtown. I was a little nervous about graduating, because most of the famous people who went to NYU, like Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick had dropped out. I was in no danger of doing that. The future looked dim. Years later when Spike Lee graduated from NYU Film School, I felt vindicated. It was cool again to graduate.

I had to hand in work to be accepted into the class. I dashed off several love poems. I got accepted. But I was expecting Ellison to praise my writing. He never mentioned it. On the first day of class he came with the secretary of his apartment, who attested that he was indeed Ralph Ellison. He was authentic, not bogus. I heard of James Dean imitators, but I had never thought writers were able to draw that much devotion.

Ellison took out his lecture notes and read about the philosopher Kenneth Burke. Burke said the most important word in life is ‘No.’ Some students disagreed. They said the word ‘Yes’ was more important. It was obvious by his response that he had never taught before. He told those students, ‘No. You’re wrong,’ and continued reading his notes.

One student asked him to put down his notes and tell us what it was like being a writer and how he became one. Ellison grudgingly took time off from his notes to answer. He said earlier in the day he saw a policeman giving a ticket to a woman whose dog peed on the sidewalk. Ellison claimed the dog did nothing wrong. In fact, the urine would help the grass grow. That was what should have been there, not concrete. The dog was just doing what was natural. It was the sidewalk, not the dog or woman who was at fault. But you can’t give a ticket to a sidewalk. He said that was why he became a writer – to take the side of the dog, to represent those who have no voice. Then he went back to the importance of the word ‘No.’

That was the way the class went the rest of the semester. Students kept interrupting him from his lectures, asking for anecdotes. (I stayed out of the power struggle and didn’t challenge him. I was trying to get on his good side. I was still waiting for him to make positive remarks about my poems.) He didn’t like that. He said he spent the whole summer writing those notes. Notes were difficult to publish. Therefore, if we don’t learn something from them, no one will. Then he’d force himself to tell another anecdote.

He told us he reads two books religiously the same time each year: ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Moby Dick.’ I was amazed he could read the same books year after year. He read Mark Twain’s book to appreciate the first attempt by an American author to write in the vernacular. He read Melville’s book to remind himself that you can’t exhaust a subject. He wished that book was even longer.

He’d also piss off the Black students by telling them that no matter what they wear or what music they listen to, it’ll be watered down and taken over by society. Culture is vulnerable to outside forces. Whites will be dressing like Blacks and imitating their music. He thought of this idea long before it was proven true by the Beastie Boys. One Black student claimed it was biologically impossible for a White person to grow his style of Afro. Ellison said the stores will now sell Afro wigs.

For the term paper I wrote about the significance of the word ‘No.’ It was supposed to be ten pages. I ran out of original ideas after three. How much can you write about ‘No?’ To make up for this discrepancy I included seven pages of love poems I wrote the night before. I made sure each poem revolved around the lover saying ‘No.’ A week later I get a call to see him. He said I didn’t hand in my paper. I said I did.

‘That didn’t look like a term paper,’ he said. ‘There weren’t any footnotes.’

‘It’s all taken from personal experience,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t able to footnote it because I don’t want the woman to know the poems are about her.’

‘Is it okay if I give you a ‘C?’ he said. ‘That’ll solve this problem.’

‘That’s okay,’ I said. He still didn’t comment about my poems. Yet, years later I appreciated his silence. I realized he was being gracious. The poems were bad.

 

Hal Sirowitz is the former Poet Laureate of Queens, New York. His first book was Mother Said (Crown). His latest book is Father Said (Soft Skull Press). In between he wrote My Therapist Said, and Before, During & After.

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§ One Response to “My Semester With Ralph Ellison”

  • Liz says:

    I love this piece. It reminds me of all the bad teachers I’ve ever had, and how, when one of them is a great writer it somehow makes the badness have a kind of grandeur to it. Writers are just people and often they put the best of themselves into their writing. I love the forgiveness at the end of this, and the modesty of it. It’s just a wonderful piece of work. Thanks!

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