Two W&L professors reflect on Ralph Ellison and his writings

Marc Conner and Lucas Morel speak in honor of the first African-American student to attend W&L


Ellen Kanzinger

Marc Conner and Lucas Morel speak at Chavis lecture. Photo by Ellen Kanzinger, ‘18.

Alison Murtagh



Washington and Lee University professors Marc Conner and Lucas Morel discussed their book, “The New Territory: Ralph Ellison and the 21st Century,” during the John Chavis lecture last Wednesday evening.

The book comes after years of discussing Ellison’s work and leading various symposiums in his honor.

The speech was a part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month. John Chavis, a free black educator and minister was the first African-American student to attend W&L (at the time, Liberty Hall Academy) in 1795.

Morel first led a conference in 2002 that focused on Ellison’s novel, “Invisible Man.” From there, he continued to dig into the literature and lead discussions.

According to Conner, they held another symposium in 2012, which was the 60th anniversary of “Invisible Man.”

“This was both a desire to commemorate Ellison’s great work, but more than that, to really ask, what does that novel say to us in the early 21st century, and even more, what does Ralph Ellison say to us in our own day and time?” Conner said during the lecture.

Conner said both the symposium and the book aimed to address Ellison’s complex view of America.

“Although the author of the acclaimed novel, “Invisible Man,” died over 20 years ago, Ellison still has plenty to teach us about our country, and our times.” Morel said.

The professors worked with 15 national and international scholars for the compilations of essays found in their book.

The authors had three main reasons they were compelled with Ellison and his writings.

“First, he wrote some passages, and characters, and scenes better than any other American writer ever,” Conner said.

The second reason was that he was fearless.

“He took on the great American challenge of race, history, politics, violence, hatred, heroism, tragedy,” Conner said. “I know of no American writer who stared the abyss in the face the way he did–with an absolutely admirable strength of character.”

Finally, the men were fascinated by his connection with his country.

“He expressed what it means to be an American now, in our future, and in our past,” Conner said.

Additionally, while preparing for the conference in 2002, Morel and Conner discovered that Ellison spoke at the university in 1963.

“And we believe he is the first black American to deliver a lecture at Lee Chapel,” Moore said.

Bella Sparhawk, ‘17, who attended the lecture, said the lecture provided her with a new perspective.

“It really made me think about the reflective demand that writing procures, and how Ellison’s book demanded reflection both personally and socially on the role of race, and then how the professor’s book does the same thing,” Sparhawk said. “It makes us think about the past through two different lenses, and how we can interpret that moving forward.”

Sparhawk said it was inspiring to see professors from different disciplines come together and work on a project.

“I think it really speaks to the community nature of W&L, which I  love,” Sparhawk said.

Julio Hidalgo Lopez, ‘20, echoed Sparhawk’s comments, saying he thought it was awesome to see professors work together.
“You go around campus and you’ll see professors collaborating on everything, and that’s really in the spirit of scholarship I think,” Hidalgo Lopez said.