“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. 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…” — the nameless protagonist in Ellison’s novel Invisible Man
The Time Magazine essayist Roger Rosenblatt said that “Ralph Ellison taught me what it is to be an American” and upon reading the book for the first time in my twenties as a young Navy officer I came to the same conclusion for myself. From that first paragraph with its initial line that grabs you by the collar, the story’s narrator takes you for the ride of your life, opening your eyes to those things hiding in plain sight, revealing uncomfortable truths that the cowardly and dull among our fellow citizens refused–and continue to refuse–to see.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma in 1914 and it is through his experience in a pioneer state that had no history of slavery–a large part of what had been known as Indian Territory just eight years earlier–where though he grew up the “poorest among the poor,” he was given access to interact with white people and attend a good school; opportunities not even open to African Americans in the northern states of the time. It is through his experiences in this western part of the American Midwest that he learned to see the interplay and interconnections of white and black culture, though strictures still existed. He father sold ice and coal but died in an accident when Ellison was a child. His raising was left to his mother, Ida, who was an activist and was arrested several times for violating segregation laws.
Young Ellison was a talented young man and saw many mentors–both black and white–during his developing years. Among these was Ludwig Hebestreit, the conductor of the Oklahoma City Orchestra, who saw great promise in the young musician. Ellison was thus accepted to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on an Oklahoma state scholarship to study music. Wishing to play jazz trumpet, he faced opposition by the more conservative-minded faculty who judged the music base and reflecting poorly on the “race.” At this point stories diverge. What is clear is that Ellison traveled to New York either to find summer employment with the intent of returning to Tuskegee, or to pursue a different career in the visual arts (photography) or sculpture. In either case the artifacts from these interests show a man of multiple and considerable talents.
While in New York he came across Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and other influential members of the “Harlem Renaissance” and switched his energies to writing for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). There he worked in the Living Lore Unit of the project where he gathered materials of–and was influenced by–black folklore and culture. Until he joined the Navy during the Second World War he contributed essays and stories to various publications, eventually becoming editor of The Negro Quarterly. Unpublished stories from this period prior to the publication of Invisible Man, posthumously published in 1996 under the title Flying Home and Other Stories show the development of a unique and powerful voice about to enter American letters, .
Invisible Man is a fully modern novel and Ellison’s influences–Hemingway, W.E.B. DuBois, T.S. Elliott, Joyce, Richard Wright, and Cervantes–are apparent both in his ability to incorporate their literary devices and to transcend them. His ability to move the novel far beyond its time and methods is what makes the work as readable and understandable today, over 62 years since its publication. At the heart of Invisible Man is the desire of the individual to overcome not only the strictures that society in its various incarnations has imposed and wishes to impose on on him, but also his struggle to overcome his own base desires and limitations. Much has been made of this last point, some literary critics going so far as to have Ellison hearken back to the American Transcendentalists. But I find this contention too simplistic and–frankly–ridiculous. This judgment does the work much disservice and ignores its modernism.
Ellison himself called his work “a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality.” The protagonist writes his story from an underground room that is illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs, the power for which are stolen from the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He recounts his misadventures, from growing up in the south with a talent for public speaking, which is used by his white benefactors for their own amusement, forcing him to agree to fight in a “battle royal” in the ring of blindfolded black men. Nonetheless, he secures a scholarship to attend Tuskegee. While there he helps to make ends meet by working as a driver for one of the college’s white benefactors. While driving in the country the benefactor becomes transfixed by the intimation of incest in one of the local black families. The narrator soon finds himself in trouble with the college for “encouraging” the white man’s mistaken impression of black culture and is expelled. He is told, however, that the college will write letters of recommendation for the young man to the benefactors of the college in New York City. When he arrives there he finds that rather than recommendations, the letters describe the young man as unreliable and untrustworthy. The son of one of the benefactors, feeling the man’s injustice, helps him secure a low paying job at Liberty Paints where their claim to fame is “optic white.” He works for the senior mixer who makes the paint and is also black. Suspecting, however, that the narrator is engaged in union activities the older man accosts him and the two men fight as the mixer containing the paint explodes. The narrator, awaking in the company hospital, finds himself unable to speak and that he has lost his memory. The hospital uses the opportunity of the appearance of an anonymous black patient to conduct experimental shock experiments on him. Soon he regains his memory and leaves the hospital, albeit in poor condition from his mistreatment. He collapses on the street and is taken in by a kindly black woman in Harlem by the name of Mary. There he is nurtured back to health and black Harlem society. While walking down the street he witnesses an eviction of an old black couple and speak eloquently in public in their defense. This talent for speaking is noticed by the Brotherhood, an integrated organization to help the politically and socially oppressed. He is recruited by them and given a new place to live and new clothes. He is trained in rhetoric by the Brotherhood and used by them to advance their causes until he is accused of advancing his own fame at the expense of the organization, which causes him to be censured. He is reassigned to the woman’s rights cause where he is seduced by a white woman who fantasizes about being raped by a black man. The narrator’s best friend in the Brotherhood, Tod Clinton, another black man, leaves the organization, as do many other black members who feel the organization is using them as tools. Increasingly Harlem is being influenced by Ras the Exhorter, who is a black nationalist and separatist who feels that the narrator and other blacks are betraying their best interests. Soon the narrator sees his best friend, Tod Clinton, on a sidewalk in Harlem selling “Black Sambo” dolls. Police stop Clinton for a license and when he attempts to flee he is shot and killed on the street. The narrator organizes a funeral for his friend and speaks out in his defense against the police. Despite this show of community solidarity his actions fail to serve the interests of any of the powers in Harlem. He now finds himself isolated, pursued both by the now largely white Brotherhood, who consider his actions selfish and self-serving, and by Ras and his separatist followers, who consider him to be a traitor to his race. The racial tension caused by the funeral and continued police brutality breaks out in a race riot. The narrator finds himself pursued on the street by the police, who believe that he is a looter. He falls down an open manhole and the police close it up on him. From that point he vows to remain invisible to society and to live underground.
By turns tragic, horrifying, and hilarious, Invisible Man is a modern picaresque novel in the tradition of Don Quixote, told in prose by an exponent of the jazz form. The narrator leads us along the path of the hero and, though African American, transcends his race to reveal his humanity in all of its fragile forms–bravery, selflessness, foolishness, stupidity, naivete, kindness, solipsism, lust, hope, and fear. In the end he is bathed in light, though existing under the surface of the world. As a result, he is anything but a character seeking transcendental enlightenment, which is illusion. He is, instead, a character who has found the ability to see things as they are, including those uncomfortable truths about himself.
Ellison and his protagonist are fully modern in their views. Ellison’s character is led down blind allies both through his own guilelessness, and the sometimes misguided and other times malicious intent of others. Rather than a victim, in the tradition of the writing of Richard Wright, Ellison’s character overcomes the vicissitudes imposed on him by accepting what he is and what he can be. We see that white society and black society in America are engaged in a dance, sometimes violent and sometimes in opposition, oftentimes spawning fear, that inevitably draws them closer together. In this way the story is not so different from the struggle of others, each wave of immigrants and other traditionally disenfranchised groups working against the limitations placed on them by the powerful. Each is rejected, abused, and manipulated. In the end, though, each strives toward the ideal of freedom, not just for themselves, but for everyone. To do that requires the clear eye of critical thinking and the ability to live life in reality, bathed in the unforgiving clarity of light.