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Ralph Ellison Quotes on Going from Invisible to Visible

These Ralph Ellison quotes will inspire you to pursue greatness, regardless of where you’re coming from.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar. He is known for producing some of the most highly regarded works in American literature.

Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914, Ellison and his family had to deal with difficult times in his childhood. He lost his father at the age of 3, which left him and his family struggling financially.

Ellison studied music in Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in 1933 but moved to New York City in 1936 after his third year because of financial issues. While at New York, he met writer Richard Wright who pointed him in the direction of writing.

Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, won the National Book Award in 1953 and established him as one of the most prominent American authors of the twentieth century. His other works include Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act, a collection of political, social and critical essays.

In recognition of his works, Ellison received numerous awards, including two President’s Medals, a State Medal from France, and an honorary Doctorate from Harvard University.

Ellison died on April 16, 1994 in New York City. His unfinished novel, Juneteenth, was published posthumously in 1999.

Despite coming from a humble background, Ellison managed to establish himself as a serious and important literary figure. In his honor, below is our collection of inspirational, wise, and thought-provoking Ralph Ellison quotes.

Ralph Ellison quotes on going from invisible to visible

1. “It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.” – Ralph Ellison

2. “Life is to be lived, not controlled, and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” – Ralph Ellison

3. “If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then and only then will I drop my defenses and hostility, and I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.” – Ralph Ellison

4. “Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it.” – Ralph Ellison

5. “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” – Ralph Ellison

ralph ellison quotes on going from invisible to visible

6. “Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form…without light I am not only invisible but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death…the truth is the light and light is the truth.” – Ralph Ellison

7. “In order to travel far you have to be detached.” – Ralph Ellison

8. “The world is a possibility if only you’ll discover it.” – Ralph Ellison

9. “It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.” – Ralph Ellison

10. “I feel the need to reaffirm all of it, the whole unhappy territory and all the things loved and unlovable in it, for it is all part of me.” – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison quotes that will inspire you to reach your highest potential

11. “Man’s hope can paint a purple picture, can transform a soaring vulture into a noble eagle or moaning dove.” – Ralph Ellison

12. “I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all, I find that I love.” – Ralph Ellison

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13. “The world is just as concrete, ornery, vile, and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me.” – Ralph Ellison

14. “Having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge.” – Ralph Ellison

15. “I don’t allow anonymous people to give me a sense of my worth.” – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison quotes that will inspire you to reach your highest potential

16. “But what a feeling can come over a man just from seeing the things he believes in and hopes for symbolized in the concrete form of a man. In something that gives a focus to all the other things he knows to be real. Something that makes unseen things manifest and allows him to come to his hopes and dreams through his outer eye and through the touch and feel of his natural hand.” – Ralph Ellison

17. “And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.” – Ralph Ellison

18. “If only all the contradictory voices shouting in my head would calm down and sing a song in unison, whatever it was I wouldn’t care as long as they sang without dissonance.” – Ralph Ellison

19. “By and large, the critics and readers gave me an affirmed sense of my identity as a writer. You might know this within yourself, but to have it affirmed by others is of utmost importance. Writing is, after all, a form of communication.” – Ralph Ellison

20. “Our task, then always, is to challenge the apparent forms of reality-that is, the fixed manner and values of the few, and to struggle with it until it reveals its mad, vari-implicated chaos, its false face, and so on until it surrenders its insight, its truth.” – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison quotes on art, life and reality

21. “Meaning grows in the mind, but the shape and form of the act remains.” – Ralph Ellison

22. “The thing to do is to exploit the meaning of the life you have.” – Ralph Ellison

23. “The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.” – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison quotes on art, life and reality

24. “Play the game, but don’t believe in it – that much you owe yourself … Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate.” –  Ralph Ellison

25. “Perhaps simple to be known, to be looked upon by so many people, to be the focal point of so many concentrating eyes, perhaps this was enough to make one different; enough to transform one into something else, someone else; just as by becoming an increasingly larger boy one became one day a man.”  – Ralph Ellison

26. “For now, I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words.” – Ralph Ellison

27. “But live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go on to the next conflicting phase.”  – Ralph Ellison

28. “I was no longer afraid. Not of important men, not of trustees and such; for knowing now that there was nothing which I could expect from them, there was no reason to be afraid.”  – Ralph Ellison

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29. “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth.”  – Ralph Ellison

30. “That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their INNER eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison quotes to inspire success and greatness

31. “While fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of “as if,” therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change.” – Ralph Ellison

32. “Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.” – Ralph Ellison

33. “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought—to lose your direction is to lose your face.”  – Ralph Ellison

34. “Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health.” – Ralph Ellison

35. “We look too much to museums. The sun coming up in the morning is enough.” – Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison quotes to inspire success and greatness

36. “For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being ‘for’ society and then ‘against’ it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase – still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.” – Ralph Ellison

37. “Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget.” – Ralph Ellison

38. “Power, for the writer…. lies in his ability to reveal if only a little bit more about the complexity of humanity.” – Ralph Ellison  

39. “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time being ashamed.” – Ralph Ellison

40. “Education is all a matter of building bridges.” – Ralph Ellison

Inspirational Ralph Ellison quotes

41. “The understanding of art depends finally upon one’s willingness to extend one’s humanity and one’s knowledge of human life.” – Ralph Ellison

42. “America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many. This is not prophecy, but description.” – Ralph Ellison

43. “If the word has the potency to revive and make us free, it has also the power to blind, imprison, and destroy.” – Ralph Ellison

44. “I tell white kids that instead of talking about black men in a white world or black men in a white society, they should ask themselves how black they are, because black men have been influencing the values of the society and the art forms of the society.” – Ralph Ellison

45. “Hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” – Ralph Ellison

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thought-provoking ralph ellison quotes

46. “Nothing ever stops; it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down superfine, but it doesn’t just blow away.” – Ralph Ellison

47. “Literature is integrated, and I’m not just talking about color or race. I’m talking about the power of literature to make us recognize – and again and again – the wholeness of the human experience.” – Ralph Ellison
If you’re enjoying these quotes, make sure to check out our collection of literature quotes to share with your favorite bookworm.

48. “And all Negroes at some period of their lives there is that yearning for a sense of group unity that is the yearning of men for a flag: for a unity that cannot be compromised, that cannot be bought; that is conscious of itself, of its strength, that is militant.” – Ralph Ellison

49. “Words are your business, boy. Not just the word. Words are everything. The key to the rock, the answer to the question.” – Ralph Ellison

50. “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” – Ralph Ellison

More Ralph Ellison quotes and sayings

51. “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” – Ralph Ellison

52. “I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied.” – Ralph Ellison

53. “I remember that I’m invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” – Ralph Ellison

54. “Good fiction is made of that which is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” – Ralph Ellison

55. “They could laugh at him but they couldn’t ignore him.” – Ralph Ellison

56. “Some things are just too unjust for words, and too ambiguous for either speech or ideas.” – Ralph Ellison

57. “I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others.” – Ralph Ellison

58. “And sometimes the difference between individual and organized indignation is the difference between criminal and political action.” – Ralph Ellison

59. “God is love, I said, but art’s the possibility of forms, and shadows are the source of identity.” – Ralph Ellison

60. “The clock ticked with empty urgency, as though trying to catch up with the time. In the street a siren howled.” – Ralph Ellison

Which of these Ralph Ellison quotes was your favorite?

Ralph Ellison was one of the most important authors of the twentieth century. He will always be remembered for the impact he made on American literature.

Ellison also distinguished himself from many other black authors of his time. Unlike many in the black American literary community, he believed that the identity of the African American community was inherently part of the history and identity of the US as a whole.

Did you enjoy these Ralph Ellison quotes? Which of the quotes was your favorite? Let us know in the comment section below. Also, don’t forget to share with your friends and followers.

Norbert Juma, Lead Editor
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  1. rob Peck

    June 15, 2020 at 9:04 PM

    Thanks for reminding me of Ellison’s consummate craftsmanship. Despite it being 4 decades later, I still recall the passage in The Invisible Man where he describes listening to Satchmo while under the influence of reefer. In a kind of literary magic act, he describes what he hears so evocatively, readers can see the music. Now that’s one heaven of a gifted writer!

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