Award-Winning Writers

Who was the first African-American writer to win the National Book Award?

Ralph Waldo Ellison (1914–1994) was the first black to win the National Book Award for his novel, Invisible Man, in 1953. Written in 1952, the book deals with a black man’s “place” in a white man’s world. Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Ellison studied at Tuskegee Institute (now University) before going to New York in 1936, intent on studying sculpture. He quickly met Langston Hughes, who introduced him to Richard Wright. Ellison became interested in writing and joined the Federal Writers’ Project in 1942, hoping to develop his skills. In 1944 he began to write what would become his celebrated novel, Invisible Man, which also won the Russwurm Award. Between 1943 and 1950 he worked on as many as four novels. His most distinguished short story, “Flying Home,” was a long excerpt from one of his unfinished novels. He also published a collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). After Invisible Man was published, Ellison made a living primarily from teaching, lecturing, and royalties from his book. In 1999 Ellison’s literary agents published June-teenth, a novel completed before his death.

Best known for his National Book Award-winning 1953 novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison was one of the leaders in the Black Aesthetic Movement.


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