On a summer day in Harlem in 1939, on the corner of New York City’s West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, Ralph Ellison met a man named Leo Gurley, and Gurley told him a story. Ellison, then a 25-year-old writer, was in a unique position to solicit stories from strangers: he’d been working for the Folklore Project, part of the government-funded Federal Writers’ Project, since the year before, collecting folklore from black New Yorkers.
“I hung around playgrounds; I hung around the street, the bars,” Ellison recalled to an interviewer in 1977. “I went into hundreds of apartment buildings and just knocked on doors. I would tell some stories to get people going, and then I’d sit back and try to get it down as accurately as I could. Sometimes you would find people sitting around on Eighth Avenue just dying to talk.”
The story Gurley told Ellison was about a man in South Carolina called Sweet-the-Monkey who had achieved the ability to become invisible by cutting out the heart of a black cat, climbing a tree backward, and cursing God. He had used this power to rob banks, houses, and stores, and to elude white police officers. “They couldn’t do a thing with that Sweet-the-Monkey,” Gurley said.
The stories Ellison heard during his time with the Folklore Project would resurface in his 1952 novel Invisible Man—the only novel he would publish in his lifetime, now enshrined as a classic of American literature. Gurley’s story, in which a black man’s invisibility is a kind of curse as well as a gift, simmered close to the surface of Ellison’s narrative. His novel’s main character, an unnamed black man from a small Southern town, informs the reader in the book’s first sentences, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
“Throughout Invisible Man, there are sketches and caricatures of people he met during the Federal Writers’ Project,” Albert Murray, noted writer and critic and one of Ellison’s closest friends, told the New York Times in 2003.
Ellison used his observations of speech to craft the cadence of dialogue in his book. He included a chant about a character called “Buckeye the Rabbit” that he overheard on a playground: Buckeye the Rabbit, shake it, shake it. Buckeye the Rabbit, break it, break it. Another character declares, “I’m in New York, but New York ain’t in me, understand what I mean?”—a line Ellison heard in Eddie’s Bar in Harlem on April 30, 1939, from a man from Jacksonville, Florida, who had arrived in the city 25 years earlier.
In 1954, a year after Invisible Man won the National Book Award, an interviewer for The Paris Review asked Ellison how representative black folklore was of the American nation.
“The history of the American Negro is the most intimate part of American history,” he replied. “Through the very process of slavery came the building of the United States. Negro folklore, evolving within a larger culture which regarded it as inferior, was an especially courageous expression ... We can view it narrowly as something exotic, folksy, or ‘low-down,’ or we may identify ourselves with it and recognize it as an important segment of the larger American experience—not lying at the bottom of it, but intertwined, diffused in its very texture.”
While researching ideas for this project, I learned about the Works Progress Administration’s Folklore Project, which hired out-of-work writers to collect narratives about the American experience. Here, I discovered a connection to telling stories that was similar to mine—one that presented different perspectives on the “black experience.”
One of the writers who contributed to the Folklore Project was Ralph Ellison, who collected oral histories and folklore from black Americans to create stories about life in Harlem. Like Ellison, I also want to create narratives that have been within the black community for generations. I want to make drawings that escape the narrative of death and destruction that seem to be portrayed as the singular black experience in America.
One of the oral histories collected by Ellison for the Folklore Project is called “Sweet-the-Monkey,” a folk tale recounted to him in June 1939 by Harlem resident Leo Gurley on the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. In this story, the main character has the power to turn himself invisible and is regarded as a trickster. Several of my drawings for Federal Project No. 2 include a character representing me, drawn using a stipple technique to show that his “blackness” is nonexistent in the eyes of other people, that he is “not black enough”—rendering him invisible.
The drawings I made for this project represent both my own experience growing up black in Huntington Beach, California—where I was one of the only black kids in the punk scene and at my Christian high school—as well as the experiences of my friends. I wanted to move away from the usual stories of despair about race that I frequently see, and focus instead on the nuances and humor of the subject that often go unnoticed. So I collected friends’ stories of growing up, about experiences that shaped their identities.
In one, She Guided Her Mother’s Hands, a friend who is part of a biracial family buys a book to teach her own mom how to braid her hair. In Black As Punk, I wanted to tell the story of a friend who hated being the only black girl in the scene. No Nunchi shows my Korean friends and I hanging out together at a restaurant in Los Angeles. There was a time when there was stigma around black people and Koreans mingling, especially during the 1992 L.A. riots, so my friends and I like to talk about how we can come together, maybe even start a restaurant of our own. Other times, I want to hang out with friends and not talk about politics at all. I tell them: let’s just get pizza, and not worry about the news for a second. In I Wish My Pizza Came With No Worries, my character is walking past black intellectuals who are having an argument that’s never going to get resolved.
Several of the images also reference my own experiences. I went to Christian and private schools in Southern California, where there were 80 kids in my class and only three black kids. I don’t know what it feels like to go to a school where I’m in the majority. Class Portrait is an illustration of my and my friends’ experiences going to private schools.
Growing up, I loved reading, but I wasn’t always into reading black authors. I became self-conscious about the books I was supposed to read in high school and college, like W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X. These books educated me, but they also made me feel like I had to be black all the time.
As I created these drawings, I found myself wondering if I was running away from my blackness, or getting tired of having it dominate my life. Even in writing this, I’m still holding back my true feelings about the subject, out of fear of having my blackness questioned. It took a lot for me to not edit the drawings when I finished. Even though I’m constantly trying to live for myself, I guess my black experience is based on always questioning who I am.
Edward Cushenberry was born and raised in Orange County, California. Now he lives in the Los Angeles, where he splits his time between photographing his life and drawing everything else that’s going on in his world, in an attempt to merge real life with romanticism.
Explore Federal Project no. 2
This Land Is Your Land
During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.
Shelter in Place
The most iconic image from the Great Depression centers on rural poverty—but then, as now, the misery of homelessness was compounded in America’s cities.
Song of the Mississippi
Heartbreak defines the human experience. And nothing can break your heart like your own country.
Hole in One
Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.
Back to the Music, Back to the Game
A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.
The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair
Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.
Public Service Announcements
Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.
Proposals for a Monument
Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.
Portraits of Hard Living in America
The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.
The Afterlives of Slaves
Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.
If You Build It, They Will Leave
During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.
The Health and Safety of the Mother
During the Depression, the government encouraged men to get back to work—and women to stay home.
Handmade dolls embodied marginalized workers’ desire for autonomy—and, now, the plight of children at the United States’ southern border.
A Room of One’s Own
A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.
A Queen Is Born
A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.
Stoop Life and Survival
Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.
Conspicuous consumption plummeted during the Great Depression, but the fantasy of big spending remains a part of the American dream.
The Visible Man
Telling, and preserving, the stories that reveal what it’s really like to be black in America—from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel to now.
The People of the Land
Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.
After the Curtain Calls
Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.
The American Guide to the New Vermont
Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.
The Measure of a Man
As Depression-era art centered on the heroic male figures rebuilding America, Paul Cadmus infused his public work with overt expressions of gay desire.
Letting Sleeping Children Lie
Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.
When Art Is an Act of Protest
A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.
The Pioneer Women
For young women who grow up on the family farm, there comes a time to make a choice—should I stay or should I go?
The Shapes of Things to Come
Before many Americans had ever seen an abstract painting, the WPA commissioned artists to create large, avant-garde murals—for installation in a public housing project.
Signs of Boom and Bust
Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.
The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool
Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.
On the Road in Search of Soul
The black Southerners who joined the Great Migration wanted to leave oppression behind—not their beloved family recipes. Their traditions would redefine American cooking.
She Works Hard for the Money
During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.
Wall to Wall
Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and new visions of the future fight for prominence.
Life Beyond Bars
The Works Progress Administration funded the creation of public works like dams, bridges—and more than 30 prisons and jails.
The relentless churn of daily news can feel like a burden—especially for those who don’t see themselves represented in it.
The Cycle of a Woman’s Life
A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.