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Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Updated on November 9, 2014

The Invisibility of the Black American in Connection with the Ex-Slave as Explored Through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is an implicit look at the social and cultural dynamics of American society. To write a work that so intricately embodies these social and cultural dynamics is not an easy task; however, the text reads as though Ellison accomplished this with ease. The mini-slave narrative at the beginning of the text is an explication that expresses the Black community’s connection to slavery and where Black Americans fit into that dynamic of modern American society. The text itself falls into the realm of call and response with its eloquent depictions regarding the narrator’s invisibility that calls out to the African American to respond with affirmation. Although this text was published in 1952, its themes transcend generations. The narrator in Invisible Man is an extension of the enslaved African whose journey is documented through a modern American existence showing the constricting effects of ex-slaves’ attempts at assimilation, the confusing nature of the notion of freedom devoid of freedom, and the continued perspective of the Black man as a species other than human.

The Inorganic Nature of Assimilation in America

Some Black Americans have traditionally followed the lure of assimilation in the United States believing that they will be accepted by leaving cultural characteristics aside and acting as much like White society as possible. This has often proved to be a fruitless venture that leaves one out of the circle of his or her own people and subject to constant rejection by the White society. According to Thomas Gossett, rejecting the Black community was not just a practice implemented in the United States by the general population. Rejecting the Black community has traditionally been a practice by doctors, lawyers, politicians, and law-makers. These are the very people in which society as a whole places great trust. Gossett notes specific presidents who engaged in the practice of rejecting the Black community and thwarted civil rights efforts. The very man who is celebrated for emancipating the slaves said that he “shared the traditional attitude of many of his contemporaries that the Negroes were inherently inferior…(and) he doubted whether the Negro was fit for citizenship” (Gossett 254). Furthermore, Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to Owen Wister stating that Blacks were “as a race and in the mass...altogether inferior to Whites” (Gossett 268). One must consider what is noted as fact and indisputable rather than what is presented to the public to save face. Americans in general have a tradition of looking at the Black community as a negative addition to society, and there is no denying that regardless of the few who have joined with the Black community in various movements to promote equality in this nation. The impact that this message has had on some Blacks includes denying anything related to their culture in order to be accepted into by a Nation that may never truly accept them, a futile, inorganic endeavor.

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What is the Psychological Impact of Negative Views of the Black Community?

The United States of America as a whole may elect to deny that racism has had a serious impact on the Black community; furthermore, some may even venture to say that the stressors that impact the Black community are no more taxing than the stressors that the average American realizes on a daily basis. Those who would follow such a thought process would be wrong in their assertions, for members of the Black community must endure the daily stressors of the American way of life along with racism and discrimination. The impact of living such an existence often has huge impacts on some members of the Black community, rendering them immobile mentally, physically, and financially. This is not to say that other groups do not experience racism and oppression in The United States; however, the focus here is on the Black community. One immense impact that racism and discrimination has had on Black males has resulted in what Franklin and Franklin reference as the Invisibility Syndrome. According to Franklin and Franklin, the constant attempts to marginalize Black Americans has led to some Black males actually contributing to the institutional practices and rhetoric that view them as inferior. In subscribing to these practices and rhetoric, Black males render themselves invisible in American society regardless of perceived success or social ranking (33-34). What does it mean for one to constantly seek approval from those who constantly abuse them? What is the impact of an abusive relationship? An abused person will defend his or her abuser to the end of time without intervention, and without treatment, an abused person soon adopts the abusive practices and mental perspectives of the abuser. It is therefore sufficive to state that one impact that exposure to prolonged abuse on the part of racism and discrimination in American society has rendered some Black males incapable of coping with American society. This inability to cope may present itself in various manners through their behavior, including the perceived need to completely assimilate into a society that hates them akin to the abused holding on to the abuser by the pant leg as the authorities attempt to remove him or her from the scene of the crime.

Dr. Bledsoe’s Purpose

The narrator in Invisible Man is an excellent depiction of the proposed abused individual attempting to assimilate into a society that hates him. Even in the midst of his actions that are said to further the cause of civil rights for the Black community, the abused victim syndrome is apparent in his character. As W.E.B. Du Bois said, in the midst of an ocean of racism and hatred, beginning to question one’s identity and self-worth is inevitable (12). At first glance, Dr. Bledsoe is a character who may seem to be caught in this web of self-hate stemming from assimilation; however, he is the character who Ellison uses to attempt to teach a much needed lesson to the narrator. Dr. Bledsoe knows exactly who he is, and he knows his place in his own society and in the White community. He knows how he got to where he is, and he admits that some of the actions he has had to take to get there may even be deplorable. When Bledsoe asks the narrator why he takes Norton to the bottoms, the narrator tells Bledsoe that he was doing what he was ordered to do. Bledsoe responds in the following manner: “Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse?” (Ellison 139). He goes on to tell the narrator that Norton thinks he is satisfied with the outcome of the situation; however, he knows that he is not. In saying this, he is trying to tell the narrator that in one way or another his actions will fall back on the school. He is trying to tell the narrator that there is no room for error as a Black man and that he should not be fooled by a nice guy appearance in the character of Norton. In response to Bledsoe insisting on punishing him, the narrator says that he will go back and tell Norton of Dr. Bledsoe’s plan. Bledsoe responds with the following:

I don't care...Because I don't owe anyone a thing, son. Who, Negroes? Negroes don't control this school or much of anything else-haven't you learned even that?...nor white folk either. True they support it, but I control it...I say 'Yes, suh' as loudly as any burr-head when it's convenient, but I'm still the king down here. I don't care how much it appears otherwise. Power doesn't have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it. Let the Negroes snicker and the crackers laugh! (Ellison 142)

Here Bledsoe is trying to illustrate the skill of survival in America as a Black man in order to be one’s own man. He does go on to say that this is not a pretty existence, but it is what has gotten him into his position in society. He blatantly tells the narrator that he would destroy some of his own people to stay in his position. He then tells the narrator to go to New York and earn his tuition for the next term. He offers him letters of reference to “help”, but he blatantly tells the narrator not to trust anyone with the following words: “But this time, use your judgement, keep your eyes open, get in the swing of things! Then, if you make good, perhaps…well, perhaps...It’s up to you” (Ellison 145). These reference letters turn out to be damning to the narrator’s character; however, he is warned. Keeping his eyes open would mean not trusting Bledsoe; however, the narrator has not learned to be cautious of everyone and to question everything. He is still of the impression that assimilation is the way to success as opposed to self-identifying. Bledsoe has self-identified and become successful in the midst of a racist environment. He does not like what he has to do to stay standing at times, and readers may not like his character one bit; however, he knows who he is.

The Narrator’s Need for Acceptance in the Wider Society

The narrator has an ever-apparent need to fit into White society because he believes in the dreams that he sees in the context of White society. It is apparent that he will do anything to fit into White society even if it compromises who he is because he does not know or care to know who he is. He admits that he longs to be like Bledsoe because “he was the example of everything I hoped to be: Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy-complexioned wife” (Ellison 79). He speaks of Bledsoe’s light-skinned wife in a manner that gives the reader the perspective that a darker skinned wife is undesirable. Furthermore, he seems to equate success and wealth with having such a wife as though the color of her skins will have an impact on how much he as a man is able to achieve.

The narrator allows different people and organizations within his environment to tempt his self-being and self-responsibility. He is presented to readers as weak in this respect. For instance, The Brotherhood is an organization with leaders who have self-seeking agendas and a tendency to try to control their immediate environment. Brother Jack illustrates his organization’s self-driven perspectives when he says, “We are all realists here, and materialists. It is a question of who shall determine the direction of events” (Ellison 307). The Brotherhood takes actions to control occurrences in the community to further their own agenda. The well being of the community is of little importance to them when compared to winning the title of community savior. One would think that such a title would be synonymous with improving the community in which they propose positive change; however, they are willing to sacrifice the community as a whole to claim this title. This is because The Brotherhood is not concerned with Harlem; on the contrary, they are more concerned with starting a race war that allows them to take the all knowing stance politically. The narrator’s interaction with the Brotherhood is representative of the ex-slaves’ attempts to assimilate into American wider society.

In order to clearly view this perspective, one must know what it means to assimilate. Assimilation means to make modifications to one’s own culture in order to fit into another. The ex-slaves did have a culture regardless of what was left behind in Africa, and they made efforts to fit into American society post-slavery. These efforts were often made in vain, for many segments of the wider society would not accept Black people into American society period. However, many Blacks still made efforts to fit into American society, leaving all facets of their culture behind. The Brotherhood requires such a cultural abandonment in Invisible Man. This cultural abandonment is a requirement to be a member of The Brotherhood. This is apparent with the fact that The Brotherhood does not allow the narrator to even retain his previous name or select a new name for himself:

This is your new name, Brother Jack said. Open it. Inside I found a name written on a slip of paper. that is your new name, Brother Jack said. Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment. Get it down so that even if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond. Very soon you shall be known by it all over the country. You are to answer to no other, understand? (Ellison 309)

This practice is in the tradition of the premise of total assimilation. Without a doubt, one is considered totally assimilated if he or she is willing to give up all that he or she is in order to enter the wider society under the guise of the assimilation protection program. The major problem with this is that when one gives into such a stringent view of living in order to fit in; one finds that there is no fit in such a society that would have one give up all that he or she is.

The narrator that Ellison created is a prime choice of character to explore the issue of assimilation because he is ready to assimilate at an early age. His comfort level with assimilation does not stem from a love for his nation but from a desire to be successful in his nation. He already knows that he has certain intellectual abilities that White society does not view as common. It is those abilities that leads him to believe that he is destined to be set apart from his own people. Observe his reaction to having to take the same elevator with the servants when he is about to receive his scholarship: “I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn’t like the manner in which we were all crowded together within the servant’s elevator” (Ellison 18). Instead of realizing that all members of the Black community would have to support each other regardless of intellectual abilities or occupations, he takes the stance that he is superior to those who have to work in the sense of servitude or manual labor. The narrator’s perception is delusional and supported by White society in order to keep him in his designated place and to enhance his ability to keep other designate spaces luming for others in the Black community. The narrator does not have an identity; he has an assigned identity that White society makes translucent to him when he gives his speeches. He is willing to accept this designation for individual gain; however, he actually gains nothing short of confusion in accepting these designated spaces.

Freedom Devoid of Freedom

What does it mean to be a free Black man in America? It means to possess a sense of modified freedom. This is a form of freedom that is devoid of freedom, for the Black man in America may have the perception that he lives freely; however, he will never be free of negative stereotypes, racism, and fear. In the light of this fact, it is not difficult to view Ellison’s predominant theme in Invisible Man. The narrator is constantly seeking an identity in a world that sees him as invisible; he wants to be recognized as a man, but he does not yet know what it means to be a free man. According to Valerie Smith, Ellison confronts the limitations of America’s perspective on a Black man’s life in The United States while simultaneously confronting the limited scope of the Black man’s view of freedom. Depicting the varying complexities of American life is what makes Invisible Man such a highly complex novel (25). The major point that Ellison makes in the novel is that there is no point in attempting to assimilate and hold back one’s true nature regardless of scope. If one is a Black man whose personality receives a fearful response from the community at large, there is no point in modifying one’s behavior to make the wider society feel more comfortable because the truth is that the wider society will never be completely comfortable in reaction to a Black man. There is no need for compromising one’s true personality. Eventually the narrator in Invisible Man comes to this reality. Ellison states that “In my novel the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility to visibility” (Graham and Singh 12). The notion of a Black man possessing a freedom that is devoid of freedom in America is a reality with which the Black community must learn to cope or cease to prosper in any sense of the word. Ellison’s novel takes one along with the narrator on his journey to this realization.

When the narrator commences a critical thinking process with regards to his environment, he realizes that the historical and present environment is and always will be tainted with the racism and prejudices of the wider society. The wider society does not view the Black man as a human being, and he must adjust to that perception in order to survive. The narrator’s grandfather attempted to pass this information on to his family at the beginning of the text; however, the narrator lacked understanding because he did not have the experience as a Black man in America to understand at the time of the communication. When the narrator’s grandfather called his father to his bedside before dying, he said, “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison 16). He also made sure to tell his son to pass this information on to future generations; however, the narrator’s parents did not understand. They thought his grandfather had gone insane. Consequently, this misunderstanding is passed on to the narrator. The old man refers to this behavior as treacherous, but why give such advice to his family if it is in the nature of treachery? The old man is giving his family the tools that they will need to survive in the wider society. He is telling his son that he must destroy the White man from the inside out, and the way to do that is to give him the appearance of appeasement and never forget who he truly is inside. This is the idea of self-identification incorporated with self-preservation, survival. Look like a fool; when absolutely necessary, act like a fool, but when it comes down to it, do not be a fool. By the time the wider society realizes that one is not a fool, one will have obtained his own place that allows for his own identity and self-support, leaving the wider society a minuscule aspect of one’s life. These actions are necessary to co-exist in a society that views one as less than human or inferior.

The Persistence of the Notion of Inferiority Applied to the Black Community

Unfortunately, this observation that Black people are less than human or inferior is a perspective that has never left the United States. Of course, there are some members of the wider society who no longer believe this; however, there are many others who do believe that Blacks are subhuman. Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor at Hiram College in Ohio; he wrote and posted Eight Things White Parents Should Teach About Black People. Observe numbers 1 and 7 on the list:

1) Black People and White people are different but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Black people look different, often eat different foods, communicate and socialize in ways that may seem strange or odd for you. But just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that the way you do things is better. Always remember that.

7) Black people are not pets, so don’t touch them without permission, or change your voice when you’re around them, or worse: automatically try to set them up with any Black person you know. This never works out. If you’re curious about their hair just ask, you’d be amazed at some of the stuff Black folks hear all day. (Johnson).

Johnson goes on to talk about the use of the word nigger, generalizing Black people, and recognizing a Black person’s perspective on racism or racist actions as more than just paranoia.

The point is that this is a list that was posted two years ago. It is still online and well received by some; however, others have commented to Dr. Johnson referencing him as a nigger, animal, or stupid person (these are the rated PG responses). Throughout Invisible Man, Ellison emphasizes this notion that the Black man is perceived as being less than human. At the Golden Day, the vet tried to bring this notion to light to the narrator: “Behold! a walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man! (Ellison 94). He goes on to impress the same realization to Mr. Norton, “Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less—a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him but a God, a force-” (Ellison 95). When the narrator gets into the cab to go to a party with the Brotherhood, they leave Harlem, and they go into another neighborhood. Ellison writes, “We were flashing through Central Park, now completely transformed by the snow” (Ellison 299), and the narrator goes on to state: “I knew that here, somewhere close by in the night, there was a zoo with its dangerous animals” (Ellison 299). This is Ellison’s manner of further illustrating the theme of the Black man being viewed as animalistic. When they drive away from Harlem, the setting changes to a clean aired country-like environment, and the narrator’s reference to the zoo is in reference to his own people. The name on the building they go to is Chthonian in reference to another planet. The narrator gains access to another world that is foreign to his animalistic perceived existence through the Brotherhood; however, the wider society’s perception that he is animalistic does not escape the situation. The description of the room, and Emma’s reaction to him affirms this perception: “the others lounging in the the pale beige upholstery of the blond wood chairs...It was as though they hadn't seen me, as though I were here, and yet not here” (Ellison 301). The narrator is not a man to the Brotherhood. He is more like a toy a puppet for their amusement and for their agenda. Emma says, “But don't you think he should be a little blacker?...What was I, a man or a natural resource?” (Ellison 303). This is evidence that the narrator is not seen as a human being. To compound this evidence is the scene with Sybil when she asks the narrator to rape her. She is overwhelmed by this need to be raped by a Black man because she subscribes to the stereotype of their animalistic sexual appetite. The narrator is slowly becoming more aware of the wider society’s perspective of his perceived animalism. In response to Sybil’s request, he says, “What does she think you are? A domesticated rapist, obviously, an expert on the woman question. Maybe that’s what you are, housebroken and with a convenient verbal push-button arrangement for the ladie’ pleasure” (Ellison 521). It is apparent at this point that the narrator is questioning his place in the Brotherhood. This verbal push-button to which he refers goes beyond his interaction with women. It is a part of his daily responsibilities as the Brotherhood’s sixty dollar a week man. The psychological effects of being viewed as an animal will eventually set in with the narrator, and he will find his own identity only to realize that this realization (living without a blindfold) renders him unable to live among society at large; however, he does contemplate returning, armed with new understanding and coping mechanisms.

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Realizations

So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, and my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside-yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it? There seems to be no escape. Here I’ve set out to throw my anger in the world’s face, but now that I’ve tried to put it all down the old fascination with playing a role returns, and I’m drawn upward again. (Ellison 579).

Ralph Ellison uses fictional avenues to impart reality in Invisible Man. Ellison uses this literary canvass to present a picture of living as a Black man in The United States to foster deeper comprehension and understanding of the complex Black American existence. The novel is gripping and complex, and its major themes have unfortunately survived generations. This makes the novel relevant to various age groups and cultures alike. The narrator is a major character study on the impact of assimilation as connected to ex-slave-like behavior, and his complexity is worth accompanying him on his literary journey.

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Franklin, Anderson J., and Nancy Boyd-Franklin. “Invisibility Syndrome: A Clinical Model Of

The Effects Of Racism On African-American Males.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 70.1 (2000): 33-41. Print.

Gossett, Thomas F. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Graham, Maryomma, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ralph Ellison. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995. Print.

Johnson, Jason. "Eight Things White Parents Should Teach About Black People." Politic 365. 11 Apr. 2012. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.

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    • Dr Harris profile image
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      Dr Harris' Perspective 2 years ago from Washington, D.C.

      Thank you for your encouraging remarks! I am glad that you are now inclined to go back and read the novel again. Some readers are turned off by the length of the text; however, the entire book is engaging and thought provoking. The narrator's disposition actually reminds me of Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

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      huduyuthinkIM 2 years ago

      Wow! Amazing, insightful, scholarly article on one of the greatest and most profound novels of 20th century American literature. I read this novel in three different courses in college and never tired of it and always gained a new and fresh insight. You've inspired me to go back and read it again. Ellison's message is as important now as it ever was, maybe more in light of recent events.