My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Everybody wants to tell us what a Negro is, yet few wish, even in a joke, to be one. But if you would tell me who I am, at least take the trouble to discover where I have been.” ~ Ralph Ellison from “The World and the Jug”
While conceiving this masterpiece of American fiction, Ralph Ellison was faced with a confluence of several political and artistic forces whose elements formed the landscape navigated by its protagonist. The wind of the Harlem Renaissance had swept through Black communities in New York providing them with a flourishing of art both as a political weapon and cultural instrument of intrinsic value. The social decompression of the war economy expanded available spaces for self actualization inspiring pursuit of a Black cultural theory in the post-Reconstruction period. The New Negro Movement sought to extend the DuBoisian notion of the Talented Tenth and brought intellectual convergence around the establishment of a shared Negro identity. World War I created a vacuum in able bodied men to run the Northern industrial sector. The Great Migration drew a flood of urban workers into these cities to take the place of those deployed on the front line. Communism having marinated as an ideological conversation during the previous century came into its own as a governing philosophy becoming the object of suspicion for a rising geopolitical authority in the United States. The Black community in America with its teeming masses of disdainful victims of capitalism became the center of contention between these two doctrines until the decline of Black radicalism in the Reagan era. The Great Depression arose to flatten society with a cataclysmic impact sufficient to erase any prior political and economic gain.
His childhood and formative years spent in a diverse middle class community of Oklahoma City would buttress him from the stark urban naturalism which became the literary pulp of Richard Wright. A rich artistic life filled with musical study and immersion in classical literature formed the crux of a writer who considered art a personal truth requiring no express political intent to merit its validation. His desire to write from this apolitical perspective is deeply ironic considering that Invisible Man went on to become one of the most politicized works of modern fiction. For each succeeding generation, it has served as a foil for negotiating affairs of race, class, identity and social construction while justifying its position as a premier text in the African American literary canon. Invisibility and cultural intersection as rendered bare by Ellison remain subjects to be scrutinized even as Blackness becomes a more highly visible mainstream phenomenon. This restructuring of spatial terms should inspire us to interrogate the invisible space which once proscribed the occupancy of Black people within this nation. How do we confront gender, sexual, class and immigrant invisibility in such a manner that we do not become a dogmatic Brotherhood overriding the political perspective of others with no regard for the qualities of their particular oppression?
In his brutal opening visage, Ellison fleshes out a rough sketch of the characteristics of invisibility explored in the course of the narrative. The protagonist arrives at a gathering of the most respected local businessmen for the purpose of impressing them with his graduation oratory on the ironic theme of the virtue of humility in achieving progress. His expectations are upset when he is forced to engage in a physical brawl and brutal coin grab with nine other young men from the community. Only after this humiliation is he given audience to speak even as they continue to converse over his words. His intellectual invisibility is further reinforced when he mumbles “social equality” only to rescind the sentiment moments later at the unspoken threat of losing the meager opportunity for which he had literally fought. The exploitation of impoverishment, disorienting inconsistency in the rules of engagement and restriction of voice as a method of curtailing free agency or undesirable ideas display themselves as means of social regulation throughout the novel.
Ellison provides a brief glimpse into the adolescent journey of the protagonist before transitioning to his encounter with college life. This academic experience is punctuated by a confrontation with an administrator who essentially tells him that if he would gain any power for himself in this world, he must learn to render invisible anything in the Black condition which causes discomfort to white financiers. One is tempted to interpret Bledsoe as a figure in the image of Booker T. Washington. Through further dialogue we come to understand him as what remains in the shadow of arguably all great men (the obscure legend known only as “Founder”), a largely sycophantic personality concerned with maintaining centralized power and prestige only to the degree that it serves them personally. These individuals are neo-colonial power brokers of invisibility curating which areas of Black life will receive notoriety and silencing the voices of those who won’t assume the required posture.
In addition to this biting critique of Black leadership, the white philanthropist is also subjected to a probing (and telling) inquiry through Ellison’s dialogue. Salvation for Norton defined as charitable giving towards Black edification is exposed to lack any true compassion or yearning for justice otherwise he would not be so shaken to incredulity when confronted by the consequences of southern injustice which exist beyond the campus grounds. In his conversation with the veteran at the Golden Day, he expresses a notion that the school is tied to his destiny, but is then unable the reconcile the debilitating effect of widespread social oppression. While the campus can expose Black youth to the limitless possibilities of education and fill their minds with worldly knowledge, it could do nothing to salve their disillusionment from bearing the weight of a social contract which states they may only progress so far before being reminded of their place within society.
The longest and most enduring critique in the novel is saved for the white Leftist progressive whom at the time of its writing were largely invested within various branches of Marxism, Communism, Socialism or Trotskyism. Upon expulsion from school, our protagonist journeys to the urban North in order to seek work. After realizing that Bledsoe has designated him persona non grata on the campus and that no assistance would be forthcoming from Norton in spite of their alleged linked destinies, he makes an effort to carve out a new life for himself thereby shaping his own identity free of the social pressure towards higher education which haunted him in the South. Through the subterfuge of a phony recommendation from Emerson, he secures a non-union position at Liberty Paints where he is jostled between identities as an imbecile to Kimbro, a scab to the Union and a provocateur to Brockaway before having his identity stripped in its entirety through post-traumatic amnesia. Ellison during this period draws invisibility down to a deeply human level exploring the importance of memory and experience in shaping our identity. Without the conceptual texture of these twin elements, we lack the context in which to understand ourselves as chronological influencers and “plunge outside of history” to the narrator’s own words proving prophetic in hindsight. Memory and experience give us the power to reflect upon past occurrences and future test our present actions based upon a newly evolved understanding of cause and effect. When we discard memory and experience from our navigational toolkit according to the dictates of the Brotherhood, we relinquish some of our capacity to be truly influential and regress to mere interchangeable fragments in the fulfillment of someone else’s vision.
When Ellison draws the protagonist into relationship with the Brotherhood, we find him at once both lauded for his articulate concern in the interest of his people and chided for couching that concern in the context of race. This persuasive gambit sets the stage for a split in consciousness where he is urged to exercise his oratorical gift in the service of this community while divorcing himself from the racial alienation which provides the impetus for him rising to action. The Brotherhood show themselves further engaged in a duplicitous strategy by raising a speaker amongst the Harlem community that can strike the necessary emotional tone with its residents while dismissing the concerns of that community in any future planning. Such political duplicity is not something confined to the progressive Left of the past when the politics of the Black community were once betrayed by Communist organizations wishing to hold our support amongst the discontented, but taking no interest in addressing the racism embedded in white labor unions leading such brilliant organizers as A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen and George Schuyler to abandon their work with the Party. The political invisibility continues in the present day through the post-racial demand of the Democratic Party establishment and even members of the Black community claiming that it would be unfair for President Obama to show particular favor to this community since he is the President of all America. At the same time, we are brought to our own split in consciousness for we share a racial identification with President Obama which makes us feel especially smited by attempts to render him and his experiences invisible as occurred during the debate over the birth certificate. All of the discomforting memories of race which are stirred up between both of those poles is valid and worth accessing in planning our political direction forward.
The Brotherhood couches their diminishing of race in a scientific view of history which does not appear to recognize that even the action of having to diminish race is a reaction to its reality and further reinforcement of its power. Race is a reality that has permeated the relationships and thinking of all members of society such that they are thinking about it even when not doing so explicitly. Therefore the better hand of history would acknowledge race and racism in order to work through these issues with deep analysis and accountability. Invisible Man shines in causing us to reflect on all of these lived experiences and appreciate them as elements which may initially drive us underground in order to escape our discomfort, but can make us better for the journey when we emerge. As long as the politics of marginalization and resource inequity continue to be a scourge upon society, the politics of invisibility as outlined in this text will continue to be a source of understanding and fictive enlightenment. In spite of the gains made by the Black community since Ellison’s time, there is still marginalization and invisibility occurring within urban communities lacking access to fresh produce, medical care and educational opportunity. The symbols in Ellison’s text remain as rich and necessary as ever to sharpen our analysis of the conditions which impede bringing invisible and marginalized populations to the vanguard. If we would render ourselves any greater success building bridges over these cultural intersections in the present than was achieved in the past, we would do best to put away the paternalism and seek to build equal partnerships with full transparency.