Fanny Ellison


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.

And therein lie some really interesting questions: what did Ellison mean by the great constitutional dream book? It’s an allusion, of course, to dream books, which were popular in African American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for interpreation of dreams (particularly for gambling purposes). (My friend Arlene Kiezer is working on dream books, by the way–so I hope I’m getting this story right.)

But I think Ellison is referring to the dreams of African American intellectuals more generally, about equality, the NAACP’s campaign to stop lynching, the dreams of equal funding for separate schools, an end to discrimination in housing, voting, and segregation in public transportation. What’s interesting is that folks, like Ellison, appealed to the Constitution as a way of achieving those dreams. There was, of course, a vastly different reality in the era of Jim Crow. The phrase “law” meant often the dictates of laughably biased judges, legislators, and other officials of law enforcement. Sometimes the Jim Crow system resulted in hideous violence, like the Tulsa riot of 1921. Young Ralph Ellison witnessed the destruction shortly afterward, when traveling home with his mother from Indiana to Oklahoma City. As a result, the young Ellison had little respect for “laws”–the statutes themselves or those judges and officers who enforced them.

Yet, there was an optimism among some–like Roscoe Dunjee, the editor of the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch and a father-figure to Ellison in his youth–that the world might be ordered differently. And though Dunjee’s masculinity was impugned by other members of the Oklahoma black community for suggesting that the rule of law might offer some hope, Dunjee made constant appeals to law. In the 1930s he served on the board of the NAACP and in the 1940s he pushed Aida Louis Sipuel to file a lawsuit to integrate the University of Oklahoma’s law school. The dreams of African American intellectuals in the 1910s influenced the development of political action and litigation strategies (as Kenneth Mack’s recent article in Yale brilliantly reminds us). And what must have been particularly sweet for Roscoe Dunjee was that, though his idea of faith in the Constitution was ridiculed, he lived long enough to see the Brown decision. Or, to paraphrase Ellison’s 1979 lecture at Brown University, “Going to the Territory,” in the aftermath of the Tulsa riot Brown would have been “unthinkable–even as a comic, practical jok[e].” It is yet another example of the unexpected outdoing itself in its power to surprise. It’s also a reminder of just how much and how quickly life changes for the better. Later in life, as a professor of literature at NYU, Ellison praised the virtues of Dunjee’s faith in the principles of equality in the Constitution.

Fanny Ellison’s obituary takes (what in my mind) is an inappropriate swipe at Ralph Ellison’s post-humously published novel, Juneteenth. It’s a complex book. One example here: a central character is Bliss, a boy of amibugous racial heritage, who’s mother accusses a black man of rape. The man is lynched, then the man’s brother raises the child in hopes that he will be able to teach the white community about the value of love. Bliss, however, crosses the race line and becomes a race-baiting Senator. Then, he is shot (by his black son!) while delivering a speech on the Senate floor. Whew. As I say, there’s a lot going on in that novel.

For those interested in Ellison’s jurisprudence, there’s much in Juneteenth of use. In his notes for the book, Ellison elaborated on the conflict between religion and law, which had appeared in IM as well. And he also contrasted (in ways that may seem strange to lawyers) the facts, law, and truth. He commented on the “fact” that African Americans were subordinated by law; but that there is another truth:

don’t get the truth confused with law. The law deals with facts, and down here the facts are that we are weak and inferior. But while it looks like we are what the law says we are, don’t ever forget that we’ve been put in this position by the power of numbers, and the readiness of those numbers to use brutality to keep us within the law. Ah, but the truth is something else. We are not what the law, yes and custom, says we are and to protect our truth we have to protect ourselves from the definition of the law. Because the law’s facts have made us outlaws. Yes, that’s the truth, but only part of it; for . . . we’re outlaws in Christ and Christ is the higher truth.

We’re all very fortunate that Fanny Ellison allowed Juneteenth to be published and we’re all poorer with her loss. Yet another connection to the past is gone.

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