Ellison memorial unveiled in Harlem

Sunday, May 4, 2003

— Nine years after the death of award-winning author Ralph Ellison, a towering bronze sculpture honoring him and his extraordinary novel, "Invisible Man," was unveiled Thursday opposite his longtime home in West Harlem.

Bill Cosby and wife, Camille, actress Ruby Dee and folk singer Odetta were among several hundred people who filled Riverside Drive in front of The Beaumont apartment building Thursday for the ceremony. Ellison, who lived at The Beaumont for more than three decades, died in his eighth-floor apartment in 1994.

Ellison's elderly widow, Fanny, sat weeping in her wheelchair throughout the event, overcome by emotion.

The sculpture itself, with the Hudson River and New Jersey Palisades providing a spectacular backdrop, stood 15 feet high and 10 feet wide; an "invisible man," striding downtown along Riverside Drive, was cut out from its center.

"I love it," said Dee after a golden shroud was dropped, revealing the artwork. "I couldn't think of anything better. It's an invisible man you can't help but recognize."

Earlier, the actress had roused the crowd with a stirring reading from Ellison's debut novel -- the section where the book's protagonist buys yams from a street vendor.

"I yam what I am," concluded a gleeful Dee, finishing her piece to a standing ovation. She paused briefly, said "Ralph," and burst into laughter.

Ellison's 1952 book was one of the greatest of the 20th century, earning him the National Book Award. Near the sculpture stands a marble monument that summarized its content:

"His pioneering novel, 'Invisible Man,' details the struggles of a young African-American man in a hostile society."

The sculpture was created by artist Elizabeth Catlett, who spoke before the dedication with Cosby. The comedian offered his suggestion for the piece honoring Ellison.

"I told her, 'You pull the cloth off, and there's nothing there,"' Cosby said. "You have to think about what it means.

"She liked that."