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The Visionary Masterpiece of Ellison's Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison wrote a triumphant novel that echoes true decades later.


In 2016, I became galvanized by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. At no other time in my academic career had I bared witness to an author who I could affirm as one of American Literature's finest. Upon my first reading, the sheer magnitude of its weight overtook me. Heavy but not dense, Ellison painted a picture of the Black male experience with complexity and richness contrary to what the title suggests. Up until that time, I had not realized how starved I was for substantive storytelling. Each word written, character crafted, and moment etched, the work of an artist. Like paint strokes on a broad canvas, there was no blank space without purpose, and no detail out of place. Invisible Man is a masterpiece whose truth still resonates decades later.


Invisible Man reminds readers that though wounds can be mended, the scars that remain are impossible to ignore.

This Novel is Required American Reading


I will not proclaim myself as being a subject matter expert on issues involving race in this country. As a Black female, however, I am an expert on the exasperated emotional toiling systemic racism has created on Black America. The redundancy of it gives little time for a pause, fills the silence with anticipation, and breeds cynicism. My soul aches with frustration when White Americans refuse to grapple with their history or dismiss themselves from conversations involving conflicts of race as if to say they bear no responsibility. Seemingly unaware that the dismissal of Black voices is the root of the problem. Simultaneously assigning blame for any injustices that persist within BIPOC communities on those individuals alone. Fact: Transgenerational trauma creates a legacy of trauma that cannot heal on its own over time (*). American Slavery produced hundreds of years of pain for millions of Black Americans. American Slavery metastasized emotional, physiological, and psychological trauma that ripple throughout Black America. The unnatural hate, envy, and fear bred in White America during American Slavery is itself a mental illness that needs addressing. Today, though we champion the importance of mental health until the efforts of Black Lives Matter is equally championed, all discussion rings hollow. Until we acknowledge the movement's moral integrity, and its support saluted as a patriotic duty, history will be doomed to repeat itself. In an America that prefers to ignore its greatest shame, Black voices will still go unheard, and Black pain minimized. Black visibility forever shrouded in White America's shame while Black history gets washed, striped, and recreated in a false narrative that seeks to heal the oppressor while admonishing the injured. Invisible Man reminds readers that though wounds can mend, the scars that remain are impossible to ignore. Regardless of the damage inflicted, no life fought hard to live, by a person of value, will remain unseen.


I wrote the following summary and review in 2016 after reading the novel. My goal at the time was to discuss the narrative tools employed by Ellison to provide America with a manual to repair her broken relationship with Black men.


 

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I remember seeing a small section carved out for African American Literature while working at Barnes and Noble. It was in, of all places, the back corner of the store, closet to the restrooms. Classics like The Color Purple, Beloved, and Giovanni's Room were shelved next to an assortment of what the company titled Urban Fiction. Erotica by Zane, and Contemporary Literature by Eric Jerome Dickey. A wide assortment of creative stories sat in a dark corner, ignored. What enraged me most was not the location, but the blatant misclassification of the masterpieces on those shelves. The year was 2011, I did away with the segregated bookshelves, and three years later became the first Black Store Manager in my region. Though the company has its fair share of issues concerning diversity, they also have a business model that predates the civil rights movement.


To this day, I still get offended when Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is referred to as African American Literature. Offended but again, not surprised. It is a challenging read, but do not misinterpret the complexities of complexion by narrowly defining this story as another African American Novel because the audience is broader than that label. By doing so, you are doing a disservice, not only the author but to yourself. Invisible Man unveils the importance of the Black male identity and amplifies the discussion of humanity. Ellison exposes the root of systemic racism with vivid detail through subtle moments of tragedy, and magical realism to explain how White America attempts to erode the value of Black identity. Ellison has written a novel so rich in texture, so bold in tone, and so deep in thought that it must be consumed with intention and care.


Ellison wrote a novel so rich in texture, so bold in tone, and so deep in thought that it must be consumed with intention and care.

Invisible Man reaches into the core of human existence by allowing the reader to travel down the darkest corners of their subconscious to peel away years of misinformation. Do not come to this book expecting to casual read. It is rewarding work that requires time and focus. For many readers, this may be the most attention they have ever devote to a Black man. You must look beyond the surface of the man to see his worth. Every interaction has meaning, and it is impracticable to draft a summary that encompasses them fully.


On the surface, Invisible Man reads like a novel about the African American male identity. If you explore the coercive demons that haunt the narrator, you begin to unwind the purpose of the story. In a darkly twisted landscape of the post-Jim Crow United States, the Invisible Man must piece together the puzzle of his life through his relationship with various characters. In this summary, I opted to place focus on three themes: misdirection, denial of cultural identity, and isolation.


Growing pangs of a misguided youth


As a young man, we meet a naive narrator not yet contaminated by the wickedness of the world. His first instance of misdirection comes in the form of a prophetic dream that is a surreal premonition of academic achievement. His struggle to be seen and heard starts in a Battle Royal, where he must compete aimlessly against his fellow Black male peers. It is here where the narrator experiences his first of many obstructed searches for acceptance. At no point during this scene does he seem comfortable with the arena in which he is to compete, and the viewing audience of White men revel in witnessing the young men inflict harm on one another. They applaud the savagery and encourage them to fight to the death to earn a reward. This Battle Royal fight scene is an allegory for the mentally abusive relationship between a victim and their oppressor. After winning the fight, the narrator receives a letter that reads:


To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”- pg. 33

Upon entering college, the narrator is faced with his second instance of misdirection by those who encourage his ambition. Mr. Norton is a well-respected University donor is introduced under the guise of being a supporter of Black student success. His motives are not altruistic. For Norton, he has invested in the idea that Black Men are capable of success despite suffering from years of oppression. That through their innate ability to follow instructions, respect authority, and forgive their oppressor, Blacks can achieve The American Dream. If the narrator is obedient and performs by example, Norton will have proven that Black men are both tamable and trainable. The measure of success for Black Men is in their ability to erase any presence of their identity that is deemed offensive to White America. This idea echoes back to the Battle Royal in that Mr. Norton implies Black men must stay pitted against one another to appease White America. This section serves as an example of how Black men get misled into following the guidance of people who do not have their best interest at heart. Mr. Norton carelessly put the academic success of another Black Man at risk for his satisfaction. In this act of misdirection, we see once again how White men take joy in the pain they inflict on Black men. Mr. Norton reminds the narrator that he must continue to climb out of the depths of black despair. The only direction he must go in life is up, as reiterated by the University Dean, Dr. Bledsoe. The Dean instructs the narrator to travel north as redemption for showing Mr. Norton a side of Black America that was forbidden. Norton's white guilt is transposed into the narrator's Black shame.


Cultural Insanity


Once in New York, the narrator searches not only for employment but for his cultural identity. For the first time, he is amazed at the variety of Black men and women throughout the city, the unfettered way in which they live their lives. Dean Bledsoe instructs him to deliver sealed letters to various men in New York City with the expectation that they will give him an opportunity. He is told to remain blind to his fate and place his future in their hands. These White men lack a reasonable level of interest in and knowledge of the Black employees whose lives they control. Black men and women are novelty items that can be manipulated or disregarded. While dropping off one of these confidential letters in the office of a man by the name of Mr. Emerson, a collection of essays on the study of primitive cultures by Sigmund Freud, lay open on a desk in his waiting area. The subject matter within the essays revolves around magic, emotional ambivalence, and incest. Ellison uses this reference to support the idea that White men fixate on sexual behaviors within cultures with whom they were unfamiliar. Ellison wants readers to observe the sexual objectification of the Black male body throughout his experiences with white characters in the city.


Throughout the novel, sexuality concerning interracial social relationships is itself an anthropological experiment told through the eyes of a Black male. The revelation of this collection of essays, written by a notorious hyper-sexual deviant, Freud, and the interactions that follow, shift the direction of the novel. The pointlessness of his mission, inability to be given meaningful employment, and frustration of being kept in the dark propels him to find out what he is within the letters he is delivering. Each recipient is instructed, in so many words, to “keep this nigger-boy running”. Instead of being enraged at the White men who receive the letters, he directs his anger towards Dean Bledsoe. He sees Black men as a force that seeks to destroy him. His view of blackness becomes tainted, often referring to black inanimate objects that as unattractive, admitting at one point that all around him,


“...meanings were lost in vast whiteness in which I was lost”. - pg. 238

Once he is eventually hired at a paint factory, there is a profound moment of disillusion by way of dissolution. To create the brightest type of white paint, you must add the blackest of black lead to the paint base. This formula is by no means an accident. Ellison emphasizes that the only way for whiteness shine its brightest is by absorbing the rich depth of blackness. Juxtapose with the narrator's choice in joining a White organization referred to as The Brotherhood. He will be the black piece of lead that leads this group, helping their great whiteness to shine its brightest. This supports a theory that Blacks are more prone to applaud Whites who are supported by other Blacks than they are to support other Blacks. Whites are believed to be more educated, therefore better equipped to lead a revolution, and The Brotherhood seek to exploit his race to further their cause. By stripping him of his name and supplying him with a new identity, they puppeteer him, supposedly for the greater good of all Black men. He was not hired to speak; he was hired for show. The Brotherhood hopes to use his image to unite Blacks within his community in supporting their agenda. Unbeknownst to the narrator, he is manipulated into aligning himself with people who conspire to destroy the Black community.


"We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture."- pg. 354

The Brotherhood is not without its share of disorganization. In his attempt to escape persecution towards the end of the novel, the narrator dons a literal disguise, not unlike the figurative one he has worn throughout his time in New York. In wearing this costume, he is continuously mistaken for other Black men. White America manipulates him in the same way a child would use a toy. He is the living embodiment of a Sambo doll: strings pulled, body tugged, his life literally in their hands. As the narrator attempts to escape the maze of the world around him, he becomes thrust into a familiar scene of a social uprising in Harlem. An unarmed Black male murdered at the hands of the police. The harbinger of cultural collapse. The Brotherhood created a wedge in Black Harlem, and, after they lose hope for the Black cause, they abandon their work and leave Harlem to burn. White America provokes a reaction, creates an arena, and watches as the Blacks self-destructs within their community while the provocateurs escape unscathed.


"They want the streets to flow with blood; your blood black blood and white blood so they can turn your death and sorrow and defeat into propaganda...Use a nigger to catch a nigger" – pg. 558

Thoroughly misguided, identity erased, and running away from the man he has become, his isolation exposes just how invisible he is in the whiteness of the world surrounding him. He is the black lead paint used to brighten their whiteness and make it stronger. He is the hope of White supremacy by performing his assigned role to advance their agenda. He is the image and physical manifestation of blackness that White America has created and somehow convinced Black Americans to see of themselves. He is the Black American male under the illusion of inclusion. The events highlight a White establishment that, in its path to creating assimilation, devolves Black identity into madness and destruction.


What We Take Away


To be invisible is to be incapable of being seen. There is a natural defect in human consciousness that prevents us from wanting to expand on ideas that may be uncomfortable, or place value on what we cannot visualize. Empathy fills in the gaps of sight and emotion, but not everyone can see perspectives other than their own. The novel is intentionally hard to navigate, just as systemic racism has made life in America virtually impossible to navigate for BIPOC individuals. The reader, therefore, must assume a double consciousness that Black Americans are predisposed to possess. This novel is more than a required read; it is a magical wonder. It is love and light. Invisible Man is a marvel of the human psyche and a national treasure.



Quotes from the Second Vintage International Edition March 1995

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