From a 1967 interview with Steve Cannon, Lennox Raphael, and James Thompson, which originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine (March issue, pp. 76-95):
I came to New York from Tuskegee with the intention of going back to finish college. I came up to work. I didn’t earn the money so I stayed. But while I lived at the Harlem YMCA I did not come to New York to live in Harlem — even though I thought of Harlem
as a very romantic place. I’m pointing to an attitude of mind; I was
not exchanging Southern segregation for Northern segregation, but
seeking a wider world of opportunity. And, most of all, the excitement
and impersonality of a great city. I wanted room in which to discover
who I was.
So one of the first things I had to do was to enter places from which I was afraid I might be rejected. I had to confront my own fears of the unknown. I told myself, “Well, I might be hurt, but I won’t dodge until they throw a punch.” Over and over again I found that it was just this attitude (which finally became unselfconsciously nondefensive) which made the difference between my being accepted or rejected, and this during a time when many places practiced discrimination.
From a piece by James Alan McPherson, which originally appeared in Atlantic Monthly, 226 December 1970, pp. 45-60:
Ralph Ellison, a pair of high-powered binoculars close to his eyes, sits by the window of his eighth-floor Riverside Drive apartment, looking down. Across the street, in the long strip of green park which parallels the Hudson River, two black boys are playing basketball. “I watch them every afternoon,” he says, and offers the binoculars to me. I look down and recognize the hope of at least two major teams, ten years hence, developing. Perhaps future sociologists will say that they possess superior athletic abilities because of biological advantages peculiar to blacks; but perhaps by then each of these black boys will have gained enough of a sense of who he is to reply: “I’m good at what I do because I practiced it all my life.” The encouragement of this sort of self-definition has become almost a crusade with Ellison. But I also recognize that if I ran down and waved my arms and shouted to them: “Did you know that Ralph Ellison watches you playing every afternoon?” they would continue to shoot at the basket and answer: “Who is Ralph Ellison.”
Both of these passages can be found in Conversations with Ralph Ellison, edited by Maryemma Graham and Anrijit Singh (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
The picture above can be found at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s by the photographer Jeff Wall, Canadian, born 1946. This print (2001): Silver dye bleach transparency (Ilfochrome);
aluminum light box.