BY MELISSA SOLANO
Herman Beavers gave a talk on Ralph Waldo Ellison, an African-American novelist and musician, describing his life, his greatest works, and the theme of African-American literature as a whole on Nov. 12 at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Beavers, who holds a doctorate in American studies, spoke briefly about Ellison’s childhood and parents, highlighting the fact that his parents raised him to believe that he could be on par with any of his white counterparts. It was due largely to this encouragement that Ellison always pushed himself and never showed any fear or sense of inferiority, despite hostile forces around him.
“He is one of the most popular and successful college dropouts…well, other than Steve Jobs or Bill Gates,” Beavers said about Ellison. Ellison eventually became the first African-American novelist to receive the National Book Award, which he won for his well-known novel Invisible Man. Beavers focused his talk primarily on this novel as a must-read for all scholars who wish to call themselves well educated.
Beavers also called Ellison a “renaissance maker” because of the various fields of work he tried and succeeded at – from essays to novels to music.
“He dramatized the black soul,” said Beavers.
In contrast to how many other writers of his time included African-American characters, Ellison did not write with the intent of simply including black characters just for the sake of including them. This fact alone made his work stand out from his contemporaries, who include prominent writers like William Faulkner and Ernest Hemmingway.
Beavers also touched on the controversy that surrounds African-American Literature as its own genre.
“Race is a purely ideological construct,” he said. He stressed that such literature is not just for African-American people, and that, rather than being glazed over in the history of literature, it ought to be celebrated for its honesty and ability to connect people.
A common misconception as to why people of other races, white people in particular, tend to shy away from African-American literature, Beavers said, is that people assume such works will be full of blame of their own race because of African-American slavery. Readers do not want to feel guilt for the mistakes of their ancestors, despite the fact that it was centuries ago.
However, blame is not the truth held within the works, Beavers said. While some readers today may not be able to relate to the issue of slavery, Beavers said the characters’ struggles, triumphs and humanity “speak to everyone’s soul as a human being.” He strongly encouraged all students to read Ellison’s works in order to get a clear and thorough idea of the times and to relate to character struggles in an emotional way.
Beavers attended Overland College as an undergraduate. He received his master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University and his doctorate from Yale in American studies. He currently teaches African-American literature and American studies at Penn State University.