Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

What it’s about: Harlem, New York City. The unnamed Narrator, a black man in his 20s, introduces himself “an invisible mansimply because people choose not to see me.” At the novel’s opening, he lives unnoticed in the basement of a house wired with hundreds of electric lights, operated by power stolen from the city’s electric grid. The Narrator lives in a state of “hibernation”, which he explains as “a covert preparation for a more covert action“, and relates his life story.

Raised in a small town in the Jim Crow-era South, the Narrator is haunted by the advice of his dying grandfather, a freed slave, to “[l]ive with your head in the lion’s mouth, overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.” He graduates high school, delivering an oration about humility as the essence of social progress, and wins a scholarship to a prestigious black university. To receive his prize, he is forced to fight in a boxing match for the entertainment of the town’s white dignitaries. At university, he is asked by the college president, Bledsoe, to chauffeur a wealthy white trustee, Mr Norton, on a visit to the college. They drive through old slave quarters outside the campus, and meet Jim Trueblood, a poor labourer who has impregnated his own daughter. Mr Norton, fascinated and horrified by Jim’s story, asks the Narrator to get him a drink. The Narrator drives to the Golden Day, a speakeasy filled with prostitutes and patients from the nearby mental hospital. Mr Norton’s presence causes a riot in which he is injured. A furious Bledsoe expels the Narrator, but gives him sealed letters of introduction to assist him in finding a job in New York, so he can make money and return to college.

The Narrator relocates to Harlem, and presents Bledsoe’s letters to six businessmen, but is unable to find work. In the office of Mr Emerson, the final businessman, Emerson’s son makes a veiled sexual pass at the Narrator, and shows him the contents of Bledsoe’s letter, revealing Bledsoe’s intention never to readmit him to college. The Narrator finds work at the Liberty Paint Factory, and is assigned to the boiler room, where an elderly attendant, Lucius Brockway, explains how to turn black paint into pure white. Paranoid that the Narrator is a unionist who wants to steal his job, Brockway tricks him into causing an explosion. The Narrator wakes up in hospital where he is subjected to shock treatment, until he cannot remember his own name. He is released and returns to Harlem and nearly faints in the street. He is taken in by a kind stranger, Mary Rambo, who offers him a home.

The Narrator witnesses the eviction of an elderly black couple, and makes an impassioned speech, provoking a riot. He is approached by Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, a political organisation that seeks to improve living conditions for the poor. The Narrator becomes indoctrinated into the Brotherhood and becomes a renowned public speaker, developing a slight rivalry with Tod Clifton, a handsome young recruit. He also encounters Ras the Exhorter, a Pan-Africanist agitator who preaches racial segregation and condemns the Brotherhood for being controlled by whites. Despite his popularity with the people, the Narrator is accused by the Brotherhood of putting his own beliefs ahead of the Brotherhood, and is demoted by being sent downtown to lecture on “The Woman Question”. He has a brief sexual liaison with the wife of a Brotherhood member, and returns to Harlem following the disappearance of Clifton. He finds Clifton selling Sambo dolls in the street, having become disillusioned with the Brotherhood. They argue, causing a disturbance, and Clifton is shot dead by a policeman. At Clifton’s funeral, the Narrator delivers a powerful oration, encouraging the public to support the Brotherhood. He is criticised by the Brotherhood for his “unscientific” methods, and concludes that the organisation has no real interest in helping the black community.

After being trailed by Ras’ henchmen, the Narrator buys a hat and a pair of green-glassed sunglasses to elude them. He becomes mistaken repeatedly for a man named Rineheart, who appears to be a pimp, a gambler and a preacher. Slowly, the Narrator recognises the possibilities of freedom in Rineheart’s world of deception and multiple identities, and concludes that he has been invisible for most of his own life, dominated by the “bat blind” agendas of others. He resolves to follow his grandfather’s advice and undermine the Brotherhood, outwardly conforming to their rules while feeding them fake information. He tries to seduce Sibyl, another Brotherhood wife, to learn more about their activities, but is horrified when she asks him to play out a rape fantasy. He returns to Harlem, where riots have broken out, and realises that the Brotherhood have encouraged the riots to further their own cause. He falls in with a group of men who try burn down a tenement building. Ras reappears on horseback, carrying an African tribal spear and shield, and urges the crowd to lynch the Narrator for his disloyalty to the black cause. The Narrator attacks Ras with the spear and escapes into an underground coal bin in an abandoned house.

The novel finishes with the Narrator in his brightly-lit cellar, commenting that “you carry part of your sickness within you“, and extolling invisibility as preferable to conforming to social pressures to become white or “strive toward colorlessness“. Despite his apparent contentment, he describes himself as “a desperate man“, saying that “too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate“. He announces that his hibernation is over, and that he must “shake off the old skin and come up for breath” by rejoining the world. He concludes, enigmatically, that “even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” and a final thought that frightens him: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Why it’s a classic: Invisible Man, Ellison’s first and only completed novel, was published in 1952 to rave reviews, winning the National Book Award and making him an overnight celebrity. Critics hailed its ambition and complexity, and its radical approach to describing the African-American experience. Before Ellison, novels about black life in America were few and far between, and seldom became mainstream successes, with the notable exceptions of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). These narratives tended to follow the well-established formula of social realism and biography, following the protagonist’s heroic struggle for acceptance in white society, focusing on their suffering and endurance to win readers’ empathy. Invisible Man subverted these tropes and presented a radically different type of narrative – a complex and often anti-heroic protagonist, hurtling through a violent and surrealist landscape that is both recognisably America and its nightmarish mirror-image. Gone was the earnest and respectable narrative voice of the up-from-slavery stories: Ellison’s unnamed narrator is highly articulate and fully in control of his story, delivered with an ironic and bitingly satirical tone.

Though Invisible Man has often been read as a bildungsroman, taking its protagonist from youthful naivety into self-knowledge through a series of adventures, it arguably has more in common with the Existentialist writings of Camus and Paul Bowles, in which the protagonist learns to stand outside society, negating rather than embracing the social conditions of his times. Unlike many of the Existentialists, Ellison is also wildly funny, sending his narrator (and his readers) into outlandish, larger-than-life experiences like the comic picaresques of Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift or the futuristic dystopias of Orwell and Burgess, told in a heightened, vividly poetic style that heightens the exhilarating adventures. Ellison was, quite rightly in my view, hailed as a major American writer, and the foremost exponent of a new generation of black writing, paving the way for James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansbury and Alice Walker, who combined radical politics with idiosyncratic, highly-stylised prose.

It’s difficult to imagine, nearly 70 years later, just how radical Invisible Man‘s politics were in the patsy climate of early 1950s America. When the novel was published, much of the American South still held laws requiring racial segregation; the Supreme Court had not yet given its judgment in Brown vs Board of Education that ordered the desegregation of schools; Martin Luther King was still a theology student in Boston; a young woman named Eunice Waymon (later Nina Simone) had just been rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music; and the civil rights movement was still years away.

Invisible Man was the literary equivalent of a hand grenade tossed into this environment of unquestioned white supremacy. He took particular aim at the legacy of Booker T Washington, the founder of Tuskagee University in Alabama, where Ellison studied in the 1940s and which became the model for the black college in the novel. Washington preached a doctrine of black self-reliance, gradual social progress via education, and (controversially) a policy of non-resistance to white violence and discrimination against blacks. From the beginning, Ellison’s narrator questions the logic of this subservience. Gazing at a statue of the college Founder (closely based on the real statue of Washington at Tuskagee University), “his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave“; the narrator stands puzzled, “unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”

Invisible Man makes it brutally clear why Washington’s model of black passivity in the face of racist bigotry was not only illogical but self-destructive. Through each of the narrator’s misfortunes, the veneer of social progress and tolerance is peeled back to show the ugly truth of racist America festering beneath. The wealthy whites who pay the narrator’s college scholarship reduce him to a dancing Sambo in a boxing ring, like the paper dolls Clifton sells later in the streets of Harlem. Progressive patrons like Mr Norton are less interested in the earnest young narrator than in Jim Trueblood, an exemplar of black depravity and inferiority. Sibyl sees him not as a person but as an actor in her taboo rape fantasy. The all-white Brotherhood (presumably modeled on the Communist Party) appears to offer an alternative model of social progress, but their colour-blindness and opportunistic exploitation of black suffering turns them into unfeeling automatons, as terrifying as the boilers in the Liberty Paint Factory and the electric shock machines in the hospital.

Ellison’s fearlessness in speaking truth to power, within the context of a finely-crafted work of literature, was pretty much unprecedented in American cultural life. Invisible Man eloquently gave voice to the frustration and rage of black America, predicting the political revolution of the 1950s and 1960s with eerie accuracy, while helpfully fanning the flames of unrest.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge black bouquet. I first encountered Invisible Man at university, focusing on the opening and closing sequences and (shamefully) skim-reading the rest. Ellison’s central image of a black man, alone in a cellar surrounded by hundreds of electric lights, has haunted me for thirty years, as has the idea of “invisibility” as a state of enforced existence. Many oppressed groups have spoken about the pain and suffering of being rendered invisible within a white patriarchal society, but few writers have managed it as eloquently as Ellison, or subverted the idea of oppression so dazzlingly by flipping it on his head. For thirty years, I’ve wondered what happened next. Does Invisible Man come out of hibernation, re-enter the world and find “a socially responsible role to play“? Would he lead with a message of love, as he seems to suggest, as Dr King did, or follow Ras the Destroyer (or Malcolm X) into a Pan-Africanist separatism? Or would he stay “hibernating” in his cellar, sardonically commenting on the world without participating in it? What are “the lower frequencies” and is he really speaking for us? Ellison’s reluctance to tie up the ends of his story is part of its enduring appeal, and give the book an uncanny sense of modernity.

I read Invisible Man (all the way through, this time) in the days following the murder of George Floyd, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, while I and much of the world was still in lockdown, hiding like Ellison’s narrator, in our own cellars until it’s safe to come out again. What struck me, again, is how contemporary and prescient it feels. His hallucinatory descriptions of the Harlem Riots could have just as easily described protests in America following Floyd’s killing: “[C]rowds approached the park from all directions. The muffled drums now beating, now steadily rolling, spread a dead silence upon the air, a prayer for the unknown soldier. And looking down I felt a lostness. Why were they here? Why had they found us? Because they knew Clifton? Or for the occasion his death gave them to express their protestations, a time and place to come together, to stand touching and sweating and breathing and looking in a common direction? Was either explanation adequate in itself? Did it signify love or politicalized hate? And could politics ever be an expression of love?” On one hand, we could express horror that the injustices Ellison described still haven’t gone away; on the other, we could commend him for tapping into something real and deep and difficult about the human condition, and our persistent tendency to not learn from past mistakes.

If it’s difficult to imagine how Ellison’s first readers must have encountered him, it’s also difficult to describe how thrilling a sensation it is to discover him and to be immersed in the phantasmagoric carnival-ride of his story. Here is a writer of limitless talent, fierce intelligence and the confidence to take his readers through an unfamiliar world, provoking and undercutting received wisdoms while never really offering a substitute, which somehow still manages to be a profoundly satisfying reading experience. There were moments of such profound beauty and insight in Invisible Man that I wanted to stand up and applaud. His descriptions of the Harlem Riots are particularly stunning: “there was a sudden and brilliant suspension of time, like the interval between the last ax stroke and the felling of a tall tree, in which there had been a loud noise followed by a loud silence” he writes of police gunfire. Later, he hears shop windows being smashed, and “through the blue mysteriousness of the dark the [side]walks shimmered like shattered mirrors“.

It’s a strange and sad type of comfort to know that Ellison was never quite able to answer the questions he so tantalisingly posed in Invisible Man. He published several collections of essays and became an academic and an established man of letters, but never finished another novel. (An unfinished manuscript was published after his death, until the title Juneteenth – another title that feels joltingly prescient for 2020 readers). Somehow, that lack of a sequel makes Invisible Man even more important a cultural text, since it leaves room for his readers to make what they will of his ambiguous wisdoms, and even disagree with him.

In more recent times, Invisible Man has been critiqued for its marginal and borderline misogynist presentation of women. It’s certainly strange that a writer of Ellison intelligence and insight should be so uninterested in women. When the Narrator is demoted by the Brotherhood, he is sent downtown to lecture on The Woman Question amid a series of titters – suggesting that Ellison was alive to sexual inequalities in supposedly egalitarian circles. But as the story continues, neither the Narrator nor Ellison have anything further to say about women or The Woman Question, and his female characters are a gallery of sexist stereotypes: the smothering Mammy (Mary Rambo), the passive object of desire (the naked woman in the boxing ring) and the sexually perverse temptress (Sybil).

The scenes with Sibyl are especially puzzling. In some ways, I rather admire Ellison for writing a sexually explicit exchange between the Narrator and Sybil, taking on and subverting a pernicious Jim Crow-era stereotype about black men as potential rapists of white women. In Ellison’s lifetime, there were a number of high-profile cases of young black men wrongfully convicted of the rape of white women – the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, the Groveland Four in 1949, and the execution of the Martinsville Seven in 1951. In that context, casting Sybil as the sexual aggressor and having their role-play end in farce as the Narrator writes “You Were Raped By Santa Claus” in lipstick on her stomach, could be seen as daring, or even courageous. And yet, this doesn’t quite explain the almost total absence of women from the story, or the contempt with which the Narrator views them. By contrast, the scene with Mr Emerson’s effete son, who babbles about his analyst, touches the Narrator on the knee and invites him to “Club Calamus” (a reference to Walt Whitman’s homoerotic poems in Leaves of Grass), crackle with an electricity that’s absent in his dealings with women. It’s disappointing, especially for contemporary readers, that Ellison’s elevation of the experiences of black men came at the expense of reducing women to irritating distractions – a blind spot corrected by subsequent generations of writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

Despite these shortcomings, Invisible Man is a magnificent book – dazzlingly crafted, epic in scope, disturbing and entertaining and challenging in equal measure. “No matter what the scheme I conceived,” the Narrator says, “there was one constant flawmyself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” By presenting his Narrator’s journey of self-discovery – and his flaws – Ellison prompted generations of readers, black and white, to examine and hopefully know themselves a bit better, and – maybe, possibly, hopefully – to become free.

Quotable Quote: “[M]y problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way and returned and boomeranged a long way from the point in society toward which I originally aspired. So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there’s the mind, the mind.”

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