“Consciousness, Consciousness, Consciousness”: A Talk by the Literary Executor of Ralph Ellison’s Estate

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Dr. Christine Wooley, President Tuajuanda Jordan, and Dr. John F. Callahan. Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Allnut.

On October 25, John F. Callahan returned to St. Mary’s College of Maryland to present a lecture perhaps in the running for longest title in recent St. Mary’s history: “Consciousness, Consciousness, Consciousness. And with consciousness, a more refined conscientiousness: Ralph Ellison in Our Turbulent American Times.”

The title comes from Ellison’s Address to Harvard College Alumni in 1974. In that speech, Ellison argued that the antidote to hubris is irony, or, he continued, “the development of consciousness, consciousness, consciousness,” and so on. For this lecture, Callahan aimed to examine Ellison’s writings closely through the lens of the conceptual relationship between hubris and nemesis.

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As the literary executor of Ralph Ellison’s estate, Callahan handled Ellison’s unpublished manuscripts after the celebrated writer passed away in 1994. Most notably, Callahan put together Juneteenth, Ellison’s second novel, as a condensation of some of his unpublished work.

The day before his main lecture, Callahan spent time on campus, some of which included participating in English class discussions. One, for example, was an upper division course about black modernist writers, which had just been spending time on Ellison’s work.

Dr. Christine Wooley, the English Department Chair, introduced Callahan to St. Mary’s Hall, telling the audience that although English is often about paying attention to language, “sometimes it’s about more than the words – it’s about a connection. We should all be electrified.” Wooley thanked President Jordan, friends with Callahan from her time at Lewis and Clark College, for setting the event’s planning in motion last spring.

Callahan’s lecture focused on close reading of certain passages from The Invisible Man and Juneteenth. He took a central question asked by The Invisible Man’s narrator, “Could politics be an expression of love?” and found responses in both works. Callahan argued that what makes The Invisible Man so good is its simultaneous timelessness and timeliness — its ideas are just as relevant today as they were when it was published.

After the hour-long lecture, President Jordan and Dr. Wooley joined Callahan on the stage to open up a discussion of Ellison’s writings. As one of Ellison’s closest friends, Callahan’s unique perspective made his responses especially valuable.

Much of the conversation revolved around Ellison’s views on race and how they apply to today’s world. President Jordan offered the idea that America should be more of a gumball than a melting pot. Callahan agreed on the importance of individuality: “if Ralph came in and you asked him about [the melting pot], he’d say ‘That’s some bullshit!’”. The guest extolled a “revival of the local” in order to find a politics more separate from hate.

Callahan also shared some poignant memories of Ellison’s later life. He recalled the humorous relationship between Ralph, his wife Fanny, and martinis, and he remembered Ellison’s final acceptance of his death at the hands of pancreatic cancer.

After the warm but provocative discussion, it was time to close the event. Callahan told St. Mary’s, “Keep on keeping on. You got a hell of a place here! I hope to see you again.”

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