Although he became famous as a writer, as a young man Ellison didn’t know that writing would be his path. Growing up in segregated Oklahoma City, he idolized Duke Ellington and planned to become a musician. Ellison studied music at Tuskegee, but before he graduated his family finances crunched and there was no longer enough to pay tuition. Instead he rode the rails north to New York City, where he met Richard Wright.
When he was 23, Ellison had to rush to Ohio where his mother was dying. “I lost my mother the day after I arrived,” he wrote to Wright. “This is real, and the most final thing I’ve ever encountered.”
By the spring of 1939, Ellison was back in the city with a job documenting life histories for the Federal Writers’ Project. As Soul of a People recounts, he approached people on the streets and asked them about their lives.
Ellison was gaining a sense of African American history as he interviewed Harlem residents for the WPA folklore division. He talked with Pullman porters, unemployed truck drivers, musicians, and children. One day at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox, he met a gifted storyteller from South Carolina named Leo Gurley, who told a story about the only man in that town who could escape the oppression of Jim Crow – by becoming invisible.
“He was one sucker who didn't give a damn about the crackers,” Gurley said of the man (“I done forgot his real name”) who used a spell to make himself invisible and take what he needed to survive.
Other days, Ellison interviewed a drummer about his gigs and audiences, or an older man about why he came to New York. These stories formed a mosaic of a migration larger than anyone had previously imagined.
Nationwide the life history interviews documented the lives of ordinary Americans and shared their voices in the public domain on a scale that had never been seen before.
This spring marks the 75th anniversary of a group of those life histories gathered by the Writers’ Project. Titled These Are Our Lives, the book assembled stories gathered in the South from people who were black and white, poor and better off, rural and urban. The editor W.T. Couch presented the stories as “written from the standpoint of the individual.” There’s room to dispute that – WPA interviewers often started from a list of set questions, managed the writing, with the final text edited by Couch. Yet the effort marked a step toward people telling their own stories in their own words.
On another channel – or another frequency – the voices of life history interviewees percolated through American literature and arts for decades, through talents like Ellison. Historian Jerrold Hirsch notes that the closing of Invisible Man echoes with Ellison’s awareness of that collaboration: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
On May 15 we will celebrate life histories and These Are Our Lives with an event at the Library of Congress, where the WPA life history manuscripts are collected along with the archive of a counterpart today, StoryCorps. I look forward to that, bringing together those 1939 voices and the storytelling that they inspired. If you're near D.C., mark your calendar and come.