Thanks to my friend and Ellison scholar Lucas Morel, I found out that Fanny Ellison, Ralph Ellison’s widow, died recently in New York of complications of hip surgery. She was 93. I had not known, until I read the New York Times obituary, how important she was in civil rights, theater, and culture in the 1940s, nor of her role in helping with Invisible Man.
I’m a huge fan of Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man, of course, has much to recommend it, particularly for lawyers. A lot of Ellison’s mission in IM runs parallel to what the NAACP was trying to do through litigation in the years leading into Brown. And while it may be stretching the case to say that the invisible man authored Brown, I think Ellison’s goal of focusing on our common humanity and on seeing people as individuals, rather than members of despised groups, appears in Brown as well.
One of my favorite passages in IM involves the elderly couple, who’re being evicted from their Harlem apartment. The couple’s meager possessions are strewn on the sidewalk; there are fragments of life stretching back to the era of slavery–emancipation papers, a picture of Abraham Lincoln, a commemorative plate from the St. Louis World’s Fair, a newspaper account of Marcus Garvey, letters from their grandchildren, cheap furniture. The Invisible Man’s refrain was, “[W]e’re a law abiding people.” Yet, the elderly couple was being evicted. So Ellison asked by what law were the couple being evicted? How could that eviction be consistent with law? The eviction was demanded by the “laws,” it is true:
[L]ook up there in the doorway at that law standing there with his forty-five. Look at him, standing with his blue steel pistol and his blue serge suit, or one forty-five, you see ten for every one of us, ten guns and ten warm suits and ten fat bellies and ten million laws. Laws, that’s what we call them down South! Laws!
The couple had almost nothing from which they could be evicted. All they had was “the Great Constitutional Dream Book” and even that they could not read.