In the introduction to Invisible Man, author Ralph Ellison presents the book’s hero as “a fictional character who was bent upon finding his way in areas of society whose manners, motives and rituals were baffling.” It’s a somewhat generic description that could apply to titles like Harry Potter and Fifty Things To Do in Los Angeles with Kids. Fortunately for readers of the classics, the book delves a little deeper into the human condition than does the typical travelogue.
Published in 1947, the main story takes place between the World Wars, near the end of the 1920s. The main narrative revolves around an unnamed young black man who is expelled from a Southern blacks-only college after accidentally exposing some of the shocking truths of the nearby post-slavery community to one of the school’s white trustees. Sent to New York City as punishment, the anonymous hero experiences the joy and eventually the disillusionment of interacting with whites who claim to help the black citizens of Harlem. Throughout the text, the author presents a character who is unjustly and repeatedly humiliated for no other reason than that he is black.
Ellison saw his literary task as one of “revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American.” But a more accurate purpose of the book seems to be a determination of whether slavery can still be de rigueur and the cultural norm fifty or more years after all slaves have been officially emancipated. His answer: yes. Whites are still the masters; blacks are the slaves. In fact, they are worse than slaves: they are invisible. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” For Ellison’s protagonist, this invisibility is a natural answer to the reality of ongoing cultural slavery.
It’s a troubling conclusion, but not as troubling as Ellison’s use of stereotypes and broad generalizations to make his claim. In other books that deal with race in America, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, specific individuals adhere to varying degrees of moral or immoral behavior. In Invisible Man, by contrast, the characters in each race are much more monolithic, regularly lining up with the “yes-masre” image of Deep South slavery. In the narrative, all white males consciously or unconsciously long for the oppression of the blacks; each white woman longs for a few minutes alone in bed with those same strong, husky black men. Blacks, through their slavery conditioning, have no choice but to acquiesce to the exploits and charms of the white males and females respectively. Those that don’t adhere to this rule exhibit a form of race rebellion that nonetheless is still under the control of the all-power dominate European colonizers.
Different black characters do respond differently to this invisibility. Dr. Bledsoe, the college dean, manipulates the invisible nature of blacks for his own advancement and power. Ras the Exhorter, a violent black nationalist, seeks to remove all blacks back to Africa and make them literally invisible on the American continent. Tod Clifton, a disillusioned fighter for black equality, embraces his slave nature with renewed vigor. But each of these options is simply a reaction to white oppression. For the narrator, the best choice is to live invisibly, surviving in the dominant culture but having no influence on it, nor letting it have any influence on you.
Existing as I do in the post-Civil-Rights era, I found it difficult to empathize with the author or his anonymous character. And as a white man living in an increasingly minority-dominated region of the United States, spending the majority of my time as a white minority in my wife’s own non-Caucasian and foreign-language enclave, I seriously doubt that Ellison’s ultimate response to racism—dropping out—has any positive long-term benefits for oppressed communities. Perhaps the author agrees, for far from being invisible, his book—named by Time magazine as one of the hundred best novels written between 1923 and 2005—succeeded in pulling back the veil on black experiences in white America. Whether he had a serious desire to have African-Americans escape society or not, Ellison’s book played an important role in bringing them back to visibility.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.