If we could choose, who would we have represent Oklahoma? A few overgrown adolescents from Sigma Alpha Epsilon chanting racist slogans on a bus? Or can we aim higher than that? What if we looked within, examined our history and our resources, and gave voice to someone more worthy of expressing the best of what we might be or do? I’ll bet you can guess who I have in mind.
In the wake of Monday’s national headlines and all the shame and anger they’ve inspired, it helps to recognize that efforts are already underway in this direction. A little more than a week ago, I sat with several new friends inside the Oklahoma History Center as we enjoyed dinner and a multimedia extravaganza courtesy of the newly-minted Ralph Ellison Foundation‘s Gala event. Though a snowstorm raged outside and dissuaded a few folks from braving the streets to attend, those of us who did experienced
a collective warmth and a sense of beginning something grand together. Fittingly enough, the snow began to melt the next day—the first of March, to be precise, Ralph Ellison’s 102nd birthday and a date that, as Mayor Mick Cornett proclaimed at the Gala celebration, would be known in Oklahoma City as “Ralph Ellison Day” from that moment on.
Symbolic honors can be bestowed easily like that, with just a few words from a public official, or they can take more sustained effort, like the organization of last year’s multitude of Ellison Centennial activities including the installation of a portrait of Ellison into the Capitol’s portrait gallery and the academic symposium that drew Ellison scholars from all over the country. It’s been a gratifying experience for those of us who value Ellison’s work to have felt these waves of official recognition rising, cresting, breaking all around us this past year or so. For many of us, it’s almost like a long exiled traveler has finally been welcomed home.
Locally, we may well be setting the stage for a more enlightened future in our city and our state when it comes to to understanding our difficult cultural heritage with regard to race, not to mention living up to our ideals. Engagement with Ralph Ellison’s work and legacy can help us do that, and celebrating him consistently as an Oklahoman native son has the potential to lift us up together, black folks and white folks and other folks alike, to the level of a conversation worth having. That’s the spirit in which several of us launched the first inaugural Ralph Ellison Festival that took place on Film Row just over a couple of weeks ago.
The idea for a festival dates back to conversations between Literati Press‘s Charles Martin and I, along with a few others, during our reading group that focused on Invisible Man about a year ago. I’d been deeply marked by Ellison’s book when I first read it as a teenager, but in exposing it to new readers I was awed by its capacity to still hit like a hammer despite having been written over 60 years ago. That most people in Oklahoma seemed only dimly aware of Ellison—much less the fact that our state and city had produced one of the most important American writers of the 20th century—seemed like a situation worth working to correct. And so, inspired by our reading and what we gained from hanging around the periphery of the Ellison Centennial Celebration, a few of us fantasized about finding a way to carry its momentum forward.
Time passed, and we made some inquiries as we all worked on other projects, but it wasn’t until the debacle of Ferguson, Missouri around the end of last summer that we felt sufficiently galvanized to push the idea with gusto. To an almost chilling degree, Invisible Man had never seemed more relevant. Eventually, not long before Christmas, we got a green light from the Film Row District board to instill their February “Premiere” block-party event with whatever Ellison-themed programming we could devise. In the process of scrambling to plan, execute, and promote a worthwhile festival within just a couple of months, we reached out to fellow travelers like hip hop artist Gregory Jerome, painter Skip Hill, and Michael Owens, Executive Director of the Ralph Ellison Foundation. They essentially joined us as festival co-organizers, helping us develop an event that would hit on multiple artistic fronts. Along the way, we expanded our orbit to include poets like Quraysh Ali Lansana, Lauren Zuniga, and Candace Liger as well as many other artists from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. A full list of festival participants can be found here.
Looking back on that Festival night, I’m impressed at what we were able to accomplish with limited resources and in so short a time. We had four solid musical acts on three different stages at the Paramount, paintings and sculpture displayed throughout our three venues, a book fair that assembled a diverse array of local writers and small publishers, an intimate poetry reading courtesy of Quraysh and then a more raucous one over drinks later that night when Gregory passed the mic around a group of about six poets before
rocking it himself with his impressive, Festival-closing live set. Not a bad first attempt, considering the challenges we faced. I found magic moments of synergy in Gregory’s set, in the way Lauren Z. roused the Paramount’s crowd to consciousness, and in surprises like Candace’s exploration of the Louis Armstrong song that gave Ellison so much mileage in his prologue to Invisible Man. And what could be more gratifying to a festival organizer than to see a more-than-decent crowd assemble on a cold and foggy February night, a crowd that cut across demographic lines of young and old, black and white, academics, artists, professionals, working folks, hipsters (or what have you) and seemed to come from all over the city?
So, before shelving the ongoing project of this Festival for at least a little while, I obviously need to thank everyone who contributed their time, their work, their attendance, or even just their enthusiasm and moral support. After this modest first attempt at a Ralph Ellison Festival, we have the sense of an idea taking hold, of the beginnings of engagement, momentum, and of course visibility, that most important of Ellisonian themes. As the Ralph Ellison Foundation pursues its own work—and as our affiliation and partnership with that organization grows and deepens, as I hope it will—I’m convinced that we can expect great things to keep happening in Oklahoma City in the name of Ralph Ellison.
What could the future look like? In terms of the Festival’s growth, I’m eager to envision next year, which I’m happy to say several of us are already talking about. After what felt, from the inside, like a wild and rushed experiment this last time, we can certainly benefit from taking some time to talk together, to bring new voices and talent to the table, to consider what we might like to see and do next time, and to pursue the kinds of sponsorship and support that will let us garner the resources to put on a bigger and better Ralph Ellison Festival in the future. Considering all the different angles from which people around here are approaching Ellison now and invoking his work—civic, academic, artistic, educational, political, and more—I already see on the horizon the potential for productive synergy between all of us.
William Faulkner famously wrote “the past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Enduring the persistence of sickening relics like that SAE chant at our state’s most visible center of higher learning suggests that Faulkner was right. But there’s more to that old story, of course: if we can identify and expose the sickness, we’re already on our way to finding an antidote. From my reading, I’m convinced that such an antidote reveals itself in Ellison’s work. Maybe more importantly, I believe that it can be applied locally. As the man himself wrote, “the world is possibility if only you’ll discover it.” Despite a few challenges, that’s probably even true of Oklahoma.
We hope you’ll consider reading, working, and discovering with us. To join the conversation, or just to stay in the loop, please visit and “like” the Ralph Ellison Festival on our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and encourage others to do the same. We’re eager to spread the word, hear your ideas, and expand the discussion.
To learn about and support the Ralph Ellison Foundation, please visit their site at http://ralphellisonfoundation.org.