Food for Thought
How can a commonplace item such as food entail such profound meanings? How can the incorporation of symbols dealing with food into a novel discussing personal identity and invisibility be possible? Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, manages not only to integrate food symbols into the plot, but also infuses them with significant connotations. One evident symbol represents the narrator’s acceptance of his southern heritage. Another type of food represents the poverty-stricken conditions of many of the African-Americans of the time. Beverages complement the significance of the food by portraying other people’s views towards the blacks. In this novel, food symbolizes many things, including the narrator’s acceptance of his heritage, the poverty of the black community, and the covert racism of the Brotherhood.The yams procured by the narrator symbolize his acceptance of his Southern heritage. For example, when the narrator bites into the yam, he is “overcome with such a surge of homesickness that [he] turned away to keep control” (264). Although the narrator has put on a faE7ade by acting as if he resents all things southern, this show of emotion proves otherwise. He has subconsciously neglected the more enjoyable facets of the south because the negative aspects, such as racial prejudice, eclipsed them. In addition, the narrator shows his recognition of his history when, referring to the yams, he exclaims, “They’re my birthmark I yam what I am” (266)2E The narrator has finally come to terms with his southern legacy and openly accepts it. The period of the narrator’s disdain for the racist ways of the south has ended, thereby evolving his personality. Although the plump, succulent yams do not appear very often in the novel, their significance is indispensable to the development of the narrator.Cabbage preserves the same implication of poverty throughout the novel. For instance, the narrator describes cabbage as “a depressing reminder of the leaner years of [his] childhood” (296). Not only does cabbage remind him of his southern childhood, it also rejuvenates his recollections of deprivation. This furnishes some insight into the ambiguous past of the narrator as well as into his current conditions, both of which were filled with poverty. In addition, at Clifton’s funeral, the “stench of decaying cabbage” portrays the impoverished state of the black community (460). This area, inhabited predominantly by African-Americans, is in an exceedingly appalling condition, which the fetid stench and the vending of rotten food portray. The Brotherhood, which encourages equality on all fronts, has obviously made little or no effort to improve these circumstances for the residents of Harlem. Racism, whether blatant or secret, produced the black community’s paucity, which cabbage symbolizes.Beverages, particularly translucent liquids, demonstrate the Brotherhood’s hidden racism. For instance, Emma pours “about an inch of clear liquid” to each Brother, which causes the narrator to feel, “The stuff burned, causing me to lower my head to hide the tears that popped from my eyes” (310). The lowering of the narrator’s head depicts the image of inferiority since people typically let down their heads when in the presence of their superiors. This strong beverage exemplifies the concealed racism within the Brotherhood and should serve as a warning of things to come for the narrator. Furthermore, when the narrator is at the committee meeting, he is stunned when he “stared at the glass, seeing how the light shone through, throwing a transparent shadow and there on the bottom of the glass lay an eye” (474). The clear water represents the removal of a veil from the narrator’s eyes as to the true nature of the Brotherhood; the glass eye represents the blindness of Brother Jack. Jack claims he is color blind in regard to race, but in reality, he is blind in the sense that he does not truly see the narrator. The racial discrimination of the Brotherhood is visibly represented through both of these drinks.Throughout the narrator’s life, he has seen examples of poverty and racism. Food often symbolizes both of these evils. In the various instances when the author desires to depict the image of privation, he utilizes the symbol of cabbage. Although there are many instances in which items other than food denote racial discrimination, clear liquids do typically imply it in this novel. The narrator’s desire for yams, a celebrated food of the south, symbolizes his acceptance of his southern past. Ordinarily, he balks at anything that even has a southern implication, but by yearning for yams, the narrator has overcome his hatred for parts of the south. The author’s use of food to expose these ideas facilitates the reader’s comprehension of the situation since the food can be repeated in a wide array of unrelated situations.
The Trope of Invisibility and its Political Stakes
Racial discrimination represents an issue which damages the foundation of any civilized society – it turns people against each other and has no basis except ignorance and thirst for power. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” approaches this problem through the eyes of a young black man, at the beginning of the twentieth century in America, an invisible entity without a voice in a divided society, in which political decisions are made by the white people in power.
The main character is appropriately given no name, being an epitome of all black people in America. After the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, African-Americans were officially freed from slavery, and during the reconstruction period which followed, they gained more influence in political and social circles. Nonetheless, the following years brought drastic changes due to the implementation of certain laws which took away many of their rights. The Invisible Man, as all black people in America, felt the outcome of these laws – although they were supposed to be equal to white people, they were not allowed to use the same facilities as them or to attend the same education institutions, they were prevented from gathering political or social influence and they were constantly disregarded by the upper class. On the whole, they were seen as unimportant and less than human by their white counterparts. This situation is presented in Ralph Ellison’s book through the metaphor of invisibility, which refers to the irrelevance of African-Americans in a society dominated by whites.
The Invisible Man’s not being named is representative for his lack of recognition as an individual in society. Having a name would mean having an identity, a distinct and unique personality, but his being stripped of something so common emphasizes the protagonist’s state of translucence in a world to which he does not matter. Invisibility is not a physical problem, but it is rather the way the others see him. Therefore, it is closely related to blindness, which “is the state of those who refuse them as individual beings [and] these conditions are complementary.” (Lopez Miralles 3) Blindness is not a disease of the body, but a malady of the mind, a problem of the “inner eyes” (Ellison 3). Ignorance and prejudice are, in the end, just matters of convenience to those from the upper layer of society, who are too afraid to lose or even share power, as the narrator noticed: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” (Ellison 3) Consequently, reinforcing racial stereotypes would only strengthen the foundation of their power, at the cost of a divided society.
This discrimination is injurious for both races, since it only turns them against each other. Refusing to acknowledge the equality between the two can only lead to resentment from the discriminated part, often degenerating into violence. The confrontation in the street between the Invisible Man and the white man, after accidentally bumping into each other illustrates the lack of balance between what was expected of black people and what they were given in return. The laws would have made it impossible for a black person to defend themselves in front of a white man, or to stand equal chances in front of a trial – and even in a situation where the African-American was not at fault, “the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all.” (Ellison 12) Living in this reality, where he was to be punished regardless of his actions, the Invisible Man refused to feel responsible what he did, as he noted with irony: “Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!” (Ellison 4) His violence was merely the result of social determinism – since he was not treated like a human being, he did not feel that it was necessary for him to respect any figure of authority, regardless of their power. This violence against white people led, nonetheless, to a more hateful response from the latter, in a continuous war between the races, so “both the Invisible Man and American society share the blame for their mutual invisibility and blindness.” (Morel 6)
The conflict between the two men, at night, is symbolic for the unavoidable confrontation between races. The Invisible Man is a phantom, while the white person is a sleepwalker, so the two cannot coexist in peace as long as they are not part of the same world, of the same reality. There is an imbalance between the impalpable phantom and the physical, but not fully conscious sleepwalker. The phantom is more awake than the sleepwalker, but the latter has an identity which is visible to everyone and, therefore, he has more power to assert.
The clash between races can also be noticed in the Invisible Man’s war with the Monopolated Light & Power, from which he stole energy to make his hole “warm and full of light.” (Ellison 5) It seems indeed “strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light,” (Ellison 6) but it is usually the case that one desires what they are missing. The Monopolated Light & Power represents the supremacy of the white race in social and political issues, while the narrator’s theft is symbolic for his rebellion against his condition and a quiet statement that he deserves equality. Since he cannot gain direct power, or have access to light without stealing, he is “hibernating”, waiting for a chance to fight discrimination and rise to an equal position.
The place which was supposed to be dark, the “hole in the ground” (Ellison 5) is filled with light, so “Ellison’s use of these symbols not only places the light beneath, rather than “above”; it places the light within, though it is important to note that the power for Invisible Man’s light comes from the outside.” (O’Meally 154) The light from within indicates the narrator’s realization of his own importance and value, although actually putting his qualities forward as a member of the society would be impossible without the acceptance of the white race in power.
The discrepancy between the two sides is emphasized in the representative scene of the battle royal, in which the narrator is tricked into joining a bloody and dehumanizing fight with other black people, for the entertainment of “leading white citizens” (Ellison 14). Not only do they have to fight each other, but their eyes are also tied with white cloth, making them blind towards the white spectators, as well as towards their own race and identity. The young black men cannot see each other or their white oppressors, so the two races become “invisible to each other as individuals.” (Lopez Miralles 60) The color of the cloth is symbolic for power exercised by the influential whites – even if the African-Americans wanted to take the cloth off, they were forced to put it back on, being kept in darkness deliberately, so that they could not escape from the shadow of ignorance.
The narrator is also invisible to himself – under the control of the whites, he could not even command his own movements, and he felt that he “had no dignity” and “stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man.” (Ellison 18) He had no power to fight back those who stole his freedom, and this is mainly because of the strategy of his oppressors to keep the black race disorganized and humiliated. Intentionally setting African-Americans against each other, channeling their energy towards the basic instinct of survival made it impossible for them to see their true potential and to realize the downgrading situation they were forced to take part in. Thus, “the blindfolded boys from the battle royal are blind for not recognizing their humiliation” (López Miralles 61), and the white people only directed a show in which the black race was made invisible to itself, unable to escape.
The political implications of the battle royal lie in the struggles of the black race in a capitalist society. Since African-Americans had no political or economic power, they had to endure more than white people, only to earn less than them, and in the process, to “overcome unnecessary hazards, often arbitrarily imposed”, and publicly make fools of themselves. (Kostelanetz 9) This alienation and exploitation of individuals ultimately creates a class division which forces the ones at the bottom to struggle and fight each other, while supporting the ones at the top. (Hill) In much the same way, the opportunist whites who directed the battle royal were “given entertainment and a reaffirmation that their race is the dominant one” (Hill), while the African-Americans had to fight for the little they could get. In the end, the deepest desire of the Invisible Man, as well as the whole black race is general, was simply equal chances in society, but they were kept subdued, in fear, for the benefit of the higher political and social classes, who required them to “know [their] place at all times” (Ellison 25)
In conclusion, invisibility is a metaphor for the social and political situation of black people living in America at the beginning of the 20th century, as they were disregarded and ridiculed by the white race. The Invisible Man is representative for all African-Americans, trying to survive in an adverse society and waiting for the right moment to make their voice heard.
Hill, Jordan Alexander, Symbols of Race, Identity and Politics in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
Kostelanetz, Richard, “The Politics of Ellison’s Booker: “Invisible Man” as Symbolic History”, Chicago Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1967, pp. 5-26
López Miralles, Alejandro, “Invisibility and Blindness in Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s Native Son”, Philologica Urcitana, Vol. 9, September 2013, pp. 57-66
Morel, Lucas E. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man, University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky: 2015
O’Meally, Robert G., New Essays on Invisible Man, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1988
Man’s Search for Purpose: The Stranger and Invisible Man
The search for purpose has been an infamous struggle for people throughout history. When traveling on the journey of self-enlightenment, many people face obstacles that hinder their ability to determine who they really are. People may ostensibly believe they have found their purpose, whether it be through their career, family, or otherwise. However, many wish to dig deeper in hopes of discovering their authentic purpose, without the shadows of societal expectations and common ideologies. In the novel, The Stranger by Albert Camus, the main character, Meursault, does not unearth his identity until he comes face-to-face with his own mortality. Likewise, in The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Narrator struggles to figure out his purpose because his own sense of identity is clouded by the ideologies of others. Both stories are strikingly similar to the hardships of immigrants in America in the early 1900s; they had to figure out who they were in the midst of ostracization and confusion.
The Stranger teaches readers an important lesson: sometimes, one must embrace mortality to determine the purpose of living. This is precisely what happens to Meursault. He goes through the motions of living, rather than actually caring about how anything turns out. For example, in regards to Marie asking him if he loves her, he thinks, “I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t love her,” (Camus 41). This exemplifies how his relationships are not meaningful to him, resulting in his detachment from the world. His romance with Marie had little effect on his thoughts and feelings, which is unusual for someone in a committed relationship.
It is clear throughout the novel that Meursault believes solitude, coupled with a boring job, is his only purpose in life. However, before the day of his execution, he has a revelation; his purpose is for other people to learn from his mistakes (Camus 121-123). If one goes through life carelessly and without attachment, the search for self will never fully develop. In a more general sense, Meursault teaches the reader that finding a purpose in one’s life requires the realization that death is inevitable, and that leaving any legacy, positive or negative, will be beneficial. This idea is similar to the struggles of the Narrator in Invisible Man, as both men need an eye-opening experience to develop a true sense of identity.
In Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Narrator feels unseen to the rest of society. Because he is a black man growing up in a period of segregation and discrimination, others’ views of him are clouded by the color of his skin. In fact, he is told by Dr. Bledsoe, “You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist–can’t you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think,” (Ellison 141). This greatly affects his self-perception and makes him feel as if his destiny is predetermined. He lets the judgments of others distort his own sense of identity, which is a lesson from which readers can learn. In order to find purpose, one must objectively look at oneself without any prejudices or stereotypes clouding what is truly there. Although the Narrator is certainly weighed down by the shackles of racism, his self-concept does not have to be damaged. His internal struggle, although definitely caused by external forces, is not a permanent one. This teaches the reader that the discriminatory ideologies of others should not stand in the way of a person’s quest for purpose.
Like the Narrator, immigrants in the early 20th century struggled to stay true to their own beliefs and culture. After arriving in America, they were seen as outsiders and were often ostracized for being different. Although they traveled to America in hopes of finding a greater purpose, they were hindered by the judgements of others. Their hardships relate to those of Meursault in The Stranger and the Narrator in Invisible Man; they are seen as the odd men out in society, as were immigrants. However, immigrants had a certain drive for success that the aforementioned men do not possess. Neither Meursault nor the Narrator have any motivation to change their circumstances. Both men float through life, letting others’ ideologies and prejudices define how they view themselves. In contrast, immigrants that arrived in America in the early 20th century did not accept others’ views of them as fact. For example, Irish immigrants were often chastised simply for their ethnicity. They were barred from applying to jobs and were seen as lesser than natural born Americans. Despite this mistreatment, most persevered and were successful in society as a minority. They did not let others’ ideologies blur their own sense of self purpose, which is a lesson that many could learn from today (“Irish Immigrants”).
Authors utilize characters to teach readers imperative life lessons. Camus and Ellison both did precisely this through Meursault and the Narrator. After reading about Meursault’s trial and eventual execution, readers realize that becoming aware of a person’s own mortality is the key to finding true purpose. Moreover, when seeing how the Narrator is so quick to conform to society’s idea of him, readers recognize why being true to a person’s own identity is so crucial to finding meaning in a person’s life. These rather negative examples of the search for identity are in stark contrast to the struggles of immigrants in the early 1900s, when the oppressed Irish-Americans overcame the barrier of other’s ideologies to form their own destiny. Although very different, all three instances exemplify the different ways literature speaks to humanity; man cannot find true purpose while facing the cruel reality of nature without illustrations to guide by example.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1946. Print.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Kenny, Kevin. “Irish Immigrants in the United States.” Irish Immigrants in the United States. IIPDigital: US Embassy, 2008. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
Illusions in The Invisible Man
There are two types of illusions: optical and perceptual. Optical illusions are objects that are distorted due to the anatomy of the eye. Perceptual illusions are objects that are distorted due to the nature of the brain. A child hears a monster outside his window, but when the parent turns on the light, it is revealed that it is only a branch hitting the window. A survivalist develops frostbite in her leg and a ranger must amputate it before she dies. After the amputation, the woman sees the leg separated from her body, but can still feel it there. Perceptual illusions are an unconscious form of self protection, but too much protection can isolate an individual. In the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the main character, a nameless, faceless black man falls victim to the illusion that his identity is determined by others and as a result severs himself from society.
The Invisible Man is narrated by a character who recently discovers that he is unseen by others. The book is a recollection of moments from his past before he realizes his invisibility. From his teenage years in the South to a Negro college to a political organization in the streets of Harlem, the Invisible Man explains how the illusion began. He is looking back at his life and realizing that he has only defined himself as how others see him. Throughout the entire book, the Invisible Man tries to convince the reader that he is the victim of his illusion and little can be done to prevent his invisibility. One of the first memories of invisibility is when he performs a speech in front of white leaders in an event called the Battle Royal. Once in the event, he realizes that the event is actually entertainment for the rich white leaders. They urge the black youth to fight against one another and throw money at the beaten boys. The Invisible Man reluctantly fights with the hope of reading his speech. When the whites tell him to read his speech, he is bloody and bruised. He stutters words as the drunk white men laugh at him. At the end of the speech, he is given a scholarship to a Negro College and quickly forgets about the pain he endured. The speech was about “social responsibility” and “equality”, which he quickly regrets saying, which is ironic as he is standing among the men who instructed him to put aside his otherwise peaceful nature. He explains that he had never considered himself a fighter, but in the Battle Royal he becomes the whites stereotype him to be: an undereducated sycophant. Because the Invisible Man had not developed the illusion that he is invisible, he recites his speech louder to the white men as they drink, and talk as if they truly could not hear his voice. The men only make more noise and laugh at the blood spraying from the boy’s mouth. This scene is the birth of the illusion that his identity is malleable. He believes that he can submit to these men in order to be successful without neglecting his true self. The older Invisible Man recalls the scene by stating that he was happy to have received the scholarship thus proving that he still does not see reality.
As the Invisible Man walks through the streets of Harlem, he sees white men throwing an old black couple’s possessions out the window of the apartment the couple could not pay rent for. The Invisible Man makes a speech about the event as it is happening and a man named Brother Jack asks him to join a political organization. Brother Jack promises him a new name, past, clothing, style, and home. The Invisible Man agrees and for a short while grows famous in Harlem. It isn’t until he makes a speech that the organization does not allow him to recite that he realizes that he is a tool. They ostracize him and once again he loses his identity. The reality of the situation was that the Invisible Man was not simply given a new identity, he was stripped of what was left of his past. He was told to forget who he once was and even given a new name. He became exactly what others wanted him to be, but when leaves he sees the reality: in his pursuit to find himself through others, he sees that others only see him as a tool. Since the story is recollection of memories, the Invisible Man is just now, as the reader is hearing the man’s past, destroying his illusion. While his invisibility benefited him for a short period of time, he admits that he had always felt like a puppet to others. With the newly found evidence to support the claim that he his identity is not only invisible to others, but also himself, he will be able to find it himself.
When the parent showed the child that the monster outside was really just a branch tapping the window, the child realized that there was no threat and he could safely go to bed. The ranger covers the survivalist’s amputated leg with a mirror. This prevents her from going into shock and stops the perceptual illusion that she can still feel her leg. When illusions are prolonged (if the child refuses to go to bed in his room because of the monster), the brain unconsciously develops more reasons to believe that the illusions are reality. When the illusions become prevent one from socializing, eating, sleeping, and other necessary human activities, they evolve into hallucinations. Illusions, whether they are developed in his own mind or by society, haunt and torture the Invisible Man. The Invisible Man’s illusion is not a monster under the bed that can be revealed with a light switch, his illusion is his own identity. He defines himself as how others see him, but that changes from person to person. As the story develops, the Invisible Man distinguishes reality from his illusion as he begins to realize that his identity is his own. Just as the parent turns a light on for the child to see that the monster is an illusion, the Invisible Man isolates himself in order to reveal reality. Through isolation, one may find true identity as he or she is untouched from other’s prejudgments.
Symbolism in Invisible Man: The Racism of the Sambo Doll
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is novel rich with themes and motifs regarding the African American experience of early twentieth century America. It depicts a young African American man’s descent from an acceptance of racism during his tenure at an unnamed African American collge to his eventual disillusionment with Northern leftist radicalism, until finally realizing his true life’s purpose as an “invisible man” who will work to make the world a better place. Ellison’s tale of an unnamed African American man and his journey to personal enlightenment, along with themes and motifs, is layered with symbols that drive the narrator in ways that would be impossible without. One of the most poignant symbols in the novel is the “Sambo” doll, a crude stereotype of an African American man. Based on the evidence in the novel, the “Sambo” doll represents the novel’s themes regarding identity and race more fully than any other symbol.
In chapter twenty, the narrator is walking down the street when he hears Tod Clifton’s voice.(Ellison, p. 430) He then immediately comes upon Clifton controlling a “Sambo” doll like a puppet, making it dance and sing a song. The narrator caught Clifton selling a cheap toy version of a common stereotype of African American (431-432). This act is viewed as a betrayal of the race by Clifton, as he is profiting off of a negative stereotype. Immediately following, Clifton is shot and killed by a police officer (436). The narrator soon takes the doll as a souvenir and in the final chapter burns it for light when he is hiding underground (568). In its first appearance, the doll appears to represent the classic stereotype of a black street performer, dancing and singing for the amusement of white people. The doll is manipulated by strings held by Clifton, symbolizing how stereotypes are controlled by outside forces and do not define one’s identity. The stereotype perpetuated by the doll, in combination with it being controlled like a puppet, suggests that the outside force that pushes the stereotype and racism may in fact be the person that the stereotype is degrading.
Clifton’s acceptance and profiteering of the this stereotype gives the inherent racism of the doll merit, as an African American man is willing to make light of this issue for personal gain. The narrator, however, comments on this, stating “Yes, the dolls were obscene and his act a betrayal. But he was only a salesman, not the inventor, and it was necessary that we make it known that the meaning of his death was greater than the incident or the object that created it” (448). Clifton, although he benefited from the racism, was not the provoker in the eyes of the narrator. Rather, to the narrator, it was society that allowed this betrayal to occur, and that Clifton was merely a victim that had to go along with it.
This sense of individual profit and victimhood is consistent with the narrator’s struggles and views with individuality, perhaps the most important theme in the novel. When the narrator burns the doll for light while hiding underground, the narrator is showing that although a stereotype may be controlled and manipulated by outside forces, the individual is powerful enough to destroy its stranglehold on their identity. This act of defiance represents the enlightenment that can come from breaking free of the tyranny of society’s rules. The narrator states “The next to go was Clifton’s doll, but it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else” (568). The narrator’s difficulty in burning the doll represents the difficulty, but not the impossibility, of the individual to destroy man-made prejudices and ideals. All of this supports the premise of the narrator’s views on the self and how to achieve personal enlightenment. The narrator is only able to break free from racism by taking charge and destroying it himself.
The “Sambo” doll is a powerful representation of the ingrained acceptance and profiteering of racism in America, as well as the role of the individual and their ability to conquer it. Clifton selling the dolls shows how one can be subservient to societal pressures that ultimately benefit no one, and yet his profiteering shows that one can sacrifice morals for the sake of personal gain. The destruction of the doll proves the absolute power of the individual to fight those societal pressures, and is the perfect summation of the novel’s themes of individuality.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Morally ambiguous characters offer personas that, while difficult to unravel, add depth and nuance to works of fiction. In Invisible Man, author Ralph Ellison depicts Brother Jack as a morally ambiguous figure whose characterization changes the protagonist’s purpose. When the narrator first meets Brother Jack, Jack seems compassionate; he offers the struggling narrator a high-paying job to combat racial prejudice. But as the plot develops, the narrator realizes that Jack’s intentions are not as altruistic as they initially seemed: he is intent only on blindly imposing the Brotherhood’s ideologies, with little regard for the plight of African-Americans or the narrator. Brother Jack’s duality frequently changes the narrator’s perspective on the Brotherhood’s mission, ultimately fueling his entire journey.
Jack is introduced as the narrator’s main contact to the Brotherhood, a society seemingly intent on addressing racial injustice. After hearing the narrator’s exhortation at the Provos’s eviction, Jack invites him to join the Brotherhood, offering him a large salary and a home to advance Harlem’s black community by “articulat[ing] the grievances of the people” (292). It seems that he genuinely cares about African-Americans, not as an indistinct group, but the circumstances of its individuals. In convincing the narrator to join the Brotherhood, he explains that “too many have been dispossessed of their heritage, and we have banded together in brotherhood as to do something about it” (304). Thus, he establishes himself as a selfless champion of the black community’s rights, a notion that the narrator quickly absorbs. He also convinces the narrator that his involvement will be especially important for the community, supporting his provocative, emotion-based rhetoric. In their first meeting, Jack tells the narrator that his abilities are special, that “[h]istory has been born in [his] brain” (291). Jack’s continuous praise for the narrator’s talents reassures him that his efforts could generate real change. Even after the narrator’s first address is condemned by the other brothers for being reactionary and unscientific, Jack defends the narrator, pointing out that the narrator “has succeeded by instinct where for two years your science has failed” (351). His support for the visceral speech shows that he is genuinely concerned with bringing the black community together, not just blindly enforcing the Brotherhood’s dogma. Jack’s morality, his interest for the advancement of African-Americans and his belief in the narrator, inspire the narrator to dedicate his life to the Brotherhood.
It eventually becomes clear that Jack cares only about his power and the Brotherhood’s creed, seeing the narrator as only a tool for its furtherance. During the narrator’s first day at the Harlem office, Jack warns that the Brotherhood’s discipline “is very strict, but within its framework [he is] to have full freedom to [his] work” (360). In his oxymoronic juxtaposition of “freedom” and “framework,” Jack’s support for the narrator’s creative work is hindered by his internal desire to enforce the Brotherhood’s principles. And despite his original concern African-Americans’s struggles in Harlem, he quickly abandons the city after the organization’s attention shifts to a national scale. When the narrator returns from the Woman Question, he finds that much of the brothers have been laid off; in particular, he finds brother Clifton who is peddling racist dolls in the streets and is later killed by police. Jack and the Brotherhood’s traitorous abandonment of Harlem leave the narrator feeling lost, realizing that “all [their] work had been very little, no great change had been made” (444). Jack responds to the narrator’s criticism of Harlem’s abandonment by explaining that the Brotherhood does not “not shape [their] policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street,” but rather tells them what to think (473). During this confrontation, it becomes wholly evident that Jack lacks any compassion for Harlem’s racial struggles, but is instead occupied with garnering power to enforce the Brotherhood’s ideology. The narrator also realizes that Jack is no different than Norton or Bledsoe; that he “was simply a material, a natural resource to be used” (508). Feeling utterly betrayed, having fallen victim to a futile ideology prescribed by a corrupt, power-hungry man, the narrator declares that his mission will never be the same again, launching his crusade against the Brotherhood.
While the narrator scorns Jack for being morally bankrupt, Jack is possibly blind to his own moral shortcomings. Early on, Jack genuinely hopes the Brotherhood will effect real change for struggling African-Americans; this is clear in his persuading the narrator to join the Brotherhood and his continued defense of the narrator’s controversial style. But he soon becomes engrossed in the Brotherhood’s strict ideologies and the power that comes with upholding it. Perhaps it is Ellison’s symbolism of Jack’s eyes that describes the dichotomy best: his good eye represents his morality, his blind eye – sacrificed for the Brotherhood – indicates that his morality has been blinded by his attachment to the Brotherhood’s principles. Jack’s morality guides the protagonist’s journey. Originally well-intentioned, Jack’s sensibility and support guide the narrator into the Brotherhood with hopes of changing the world. As Jack’s empathy became shrouded by dogma, he turns against the Brotherhood entirely. Decidedly moral or immoral characters (Mary, or the cruel men who made the boys fight) had measured effects on the narrator’s journey, but Jack most profoundly affected the narrator by constantly prompting him to reconsider his mission, supporting much of the plot.
Stereotypes and Exploitation of Women in Invisible Man
In Invisible Man, the trope of invisibility functions as a criticism of racist American society, but it also encompasses the novel’s subtext of gender erasure. Both black and white females throughout the novel are underdeveloped and virtually invisible, constructed along a spectrum that replicates the classic duality in stereotypes of women—mother/Madonna or whore/seductress. The most notable white women represent the tabooed white female and are portrayed as highly sexualized and obsessed with the sexual stereotypes of black men. Black women are also seen as extremely sexual creatures, but those who are not overtly sexual automatically fall into the category of the nurturing mother figure. In the novel, both black and white women are blatantly stereotyped and are exploited and used by men who seek to further their own interests and desires.The white women that appear in the novel represent the taboo of the white female for black men, symbolized especially by Mr. Norton’s daughter, Hubert’s wife, Emma, the sophisticated hostess at the Chthonian, and the Naked Blonde. The novel’s most notable white women are highly sexualized and are used by the novel’s men by means of that sexuality. These women, especially the Naked Blonde and Sybil, are thereby relegated to the role of the stereotypical white seductress who is attracted to the equally stereotypical notion of the primitive and animalistic sexual impulse of the black man. The Naked Blonde, with a “small American flag tattooed upon her belly,” (Ellison 19) dances for the narrator and the other black boys before the Battle Royal and is recognized as an obvious taboo by them. This woman, who ostensibly seems to be the American dream for every man, white or black, is actually taboo for all the men who watch her dance. For the narrator and the other black boys, the prospect of a naked white woman is horrifying and painfully shaming, knowing that she is completely forbidden to them and that the only purpose of her sensuous dance is to make the boys squirm in anguish. For the white men the Naked Blonde is off-limits because she is a stripper and is therefore of a decidedly lower class then they are, which makes her unmarriageable. Their only access to her, then, is through paying her to arouse them. Thus the white men dominate her and control her sexuality through money, their higher class, and through their perceived male superiority.The Naked Blonde is completely aware of her sexuality and “faintly [smiles] at [the] fear” (20) of the black boys as she dances for them. Just as she serves as the stereotypical female seductress, she projects a similar stereotype onto the boys as she believes that they will not be able to control their primitive sexuality in the presence of her naked body. She smiles knowingly at their discomfort, aware that it is evidence of their attraction to her. The Naked Blonde is not only reduced to the role of seductress, but is used as a commodity by the white men to fulfill their own desires. As a stripper at a function put on by white males, the Naked Blonde’s purpose is to entertain, arouse, and follow the white men’s orders, much like the function of the black boys. She is relegated to subhuman status by the white men, evidenced by the “terror and disgust in her eyes” as they chase her around the floor and toss “her as college boys tossed at a hazing” (20). The narrator himself describes her hair as “yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll,” (19) further augmenting the image of the Naked Blonde as a puppet of the rich whites, controlled by them to further their own wants.Similarly, Sybil, the white wife of a Brotherhood member, portrays a forbidden white female and also functions as the overly sexual white seductress. Sybil, in Greco-Roman mythology, was a siren who lured sailors to their death, advancing the image of Sybil as a white seductress. She admits to having rape fantasies involving black men, furthering the stereotype that black men cannot control their sexual impulses. She begs the narrator to “threaten to kill” her (518) and cries, “Come on, beat me, daddy—you—you big black bruiser…Hurry up, knock me down! Don’t you want me?” (522). The narrator is put off by the way she sees him as “Brother Taboo-with-whom-all-things-are-possible” (517) and becomes disinterested in her, just as he is disinterested in the Naked Blonde because he is terrified by the taboo she represents. Sybil wants to use the narrator to fulfill her interracial rape fantasy, but he is only using her to get information about the Brotherhood. He admits that she is the type of woman who he “would have avoided like the plague” had “her unhappiness and the fact that she was one of the big shots’ wives” not “made her a perfect choice” (516).The narrator wants to use Emma in similar fashion, remembering that she was once attracted to him and thus deciding to use her to get information about the Brotherhood’s plans. He remembers Emma in terms of her sexuality, recalling her “bound breasts pressing against” him and “that teasing light in her eyes” (512). Thinking of her boldness and the voicing of her opinion, he notes the resentment he had once felt for her. He likes her when she is sexual, but when she starts to speak and act on her own thoughts like a man he resents her. Later, noticing that she is so sexually turned on that “she might willingly surrender herself (in order to satisfy herself),” he decides not to pursue her any longer because “she was far too sophisticated and skilled in intrigue to…reveal anything important to” him (515). The narrator is only using Emma to get what he wants from her, and once she has outlived her usefulness he abandons her.She is also used by the Brotherhood, who marginalize her by making her pour drinks for them, using her as their messenger by making her deliver the narrator a message, and by using her sexuality to help lure the narrator into joining the Brotherhood. Brother Jack warns Emma that the Brotherhood wants to recruit the narrator and that she should “make [him her] interest too,” after which she asks him to dance (303). Emma is therefore another example of a white woman being used by men to further their own interests.The black women in Invisible Man are equally stereotyped, most forming to the classic female duality of mother/Madonna or whore/seductress. For example, Edna, Hester, and Charlene, the whores at the Golden Day, fall into the whore/seductress side of the spectrum. Edna admits to fantasizing about white men and jokingly propositions Mr. Norton: “I sho do. I just love ’em. Now this one, old as he is, he could put his shoes under my bed any night” (88). It can also be said that the prostitutes at the Golden Day portray maternal aspects as well, helping the narrator take care of the ill Mr. Norton. The “exotic girl” with “a pleasant voice with a slightly husky edge” who mistakes the narrator for Rinehart is also a seductress, as her speech makes it clear that she and Rinehart are sleeping together: “No, daddy, don’t look back; my old man might be cold trailing me. Just walk along beside me while I tell you where to meet me. I swear I thought you’d never comee. Will you be able to see me tonight?” (494). Also fitting the stereotype are the girls from Harlem, “the best-looking girls” who are commandeered as a “squad of drum majorettes…who pranced and twirled just plain girled in the enthusiastic interest of the Brotherhood” (380). Similar to the way that the novel’s white women are primarily used by the men, the majority of the black characters are exploited as well. This is particularly evident in the stereotypic black whores/seductresses. The whores at the Golden Day are obviously used by men for their sexuality; Rinehart is not only using the “exotic girl” for sex, but as she mistakenly tries to slip the narrator Rinehart’s money it becomes clear that he is using her as a cohort in his schemes as well; the girls in Harlem are procured simply to use their sexuality to arouse interest in the Brotherhood. Clearly, the stereotype of women as merely sexual creatures crosses color lines, encompassing both the novel’s black and white women, who are then exploited by the men around them2EOn the other side of the spectrum is the motherly/Madonna stereotype of black women found in the novel. The women characters that fit this stereotype are portrayed as nurturing, caretaking, and helpful. While this is not necessarily an offensive characterization as whore/seductress is, the act of stereotyping women into this duality of Madonna/whore serves to deny the diversity of black women in America. An example of this mother/Madonna stereotype is Sister Provo, the elderly woman being evicted from her home. The narrator describes her as “a motherly-looking old woman” (267) and states that her tears move him “as when a child, seeing the tears of its parents, is moved by both fear and sympathy to cry” (270). It can be said that Sister Provo and her husband are being used by the white power structure, which is responsible for their eviction, to maintain its power and dominance over the black community. They are exercising their power over the poor minority culture and are using the couple to display the reach and strength of the authority that they yield. By taking their possessions, the white power structure is reinforcing the notion that it is in control of the lives of the blacks in America; it can give and take as it sees fit.Mirroring this scene is the one with Lottie, the pregnant wife of Dupre, who begs him not to burn down the tenement and who represents a mother figure, as does the nameless mother with the children who also inhabit the tenement. In this scene, the angry mob is displacing its anger at the white power structure onto their own community, burning down their own tenements. These women become victims of this misdirected anger as a mob of drunk, chaotic men destroy their homes.Also fitting the mother/Madonna stereotype are the duped Sisters from Rinehart’s church and Jim Trueblood’s wife and daughter. While both of the Trueblood women are pregnant and are therefore mother figures, the daughter Mattie Lou functions as a seductress as well, evidenced when Jim Trueblood refers to her as a whore: “…maybe sometimes a man can look at a little ole pigtail gal and see him a whore” (59). The Sisters from Rinehart’s church are used by Rinehart in one of his many schemes involving his shifting identities, and the Trueblood women are banished to the periphery as their voice is never heard outside the story of a man. Neither white nor male, these women are treated as invisible and their version of the story is never told. Kate’s violent reaction to finding her husband on top of their daughter is the only time that the female perspective is interjected into Jim Trueblood’s recounting of the events, and Jim primarily thinks in terms of his own survival instead of the suffering he has caused his family: “Except that my wife and daughter won’t speak to me, I’m better off than I ever been before” (67). The act is judged by an audience of men, including Mr. Norton and the narrator, the school administrators, and other powerful white men. Mr. Norton even pays Jim Trueblood for telling his story; clearly, it is the Trueblood women who have been used and victimized.The only memorable black woman who is positively portrayed and given any kind of depth and development is Mary Rambo, the kind woman who acts as mother/Madonna by taking in and healing the narrator after the explosion at the paint factory. Mary is a nonsexual “big dark woman” (251) who offers to “take care of [the narrator] like [she] done a heap of others” (252). A man nearby then praises Mary’s maternal instincts: “You in good hands, daddy, Miss Mary always helping somebody and you need some help” (253). As her name suggests, Mary represents the saintly mother of Jesus, doing everything she can to support the narrator and, in effect, adopting him as her surrogate son. Mary pushes the narrator to learn from and embrace his past, and he comes to think of her not as a friend, but as “something more—a force, a stable, a familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face” (258). Mary reminds him that he can and is expected to become something in life. Soon, though, the narrator meets Brother Jack and joins the Brotherhood, and he begins to see Mary differently. He becomes ashamed and embarrassed of her, and his vain attempt to dispose of the cast-iron bank is symbolic of the narrator’s attempt to shatter her image. The bank, like Mary, represents a part of his heritage that the narrator wants to forget. He begins to complain about her cooking and starts to notice the noise, poverty, and filth of her home, as indicated by the banging on the pipes, the smell of cabbage, and the invasion of roaches. Mary’s language turns from concern to the stereotypical nagging of a mother: “Boy, when you come home? […] Then where you going so soon, ain’t you going to eat supper? […] What kind of business you got on a cold night like this?” (297-298). The narrator begins to feel uneasy and guilty under Mary’s restrictive gaze, and she becomes another situation that the narrator must leave in order to find his identity.When the narrator at last leaves Mary’s home, she appears no more in the novel except in the narrator’s thoughts and memories. She becomes an abstraction that the narrator’s consciousness invokes when he is in trouble and in need of motherly guidance. In fact, Mary regains her helpfulness and reaches the full power of her position as mother/Madonna after she is removed from the novel. The narrator leaves Mary’s home without even saying goodbye, confident that she will be fine. Just like the other women in the novel, Mary has been used by men and discarded when she proves to be no longer useful. The narrator no longer needs Mary in the flesh, for he can conjure her up in his mind whenever he needs her.Women in Invisible Man are conspicuously underdeveloped and stereotyped along two extremes of the spectrum, denying the diversity and complexity of the female gender. The narrator’s encounters with white women suggest that he primarily understands them as forbidden objects of desire, but a closer examination of the white female characters in the novel indicates that they are primarily used by men for their own ends. Black women are similarly used by men, existing only as highly sexualized seductresses or as self-effacing maternal figures. The novel makes the struggle for social equality visible through the narrative of an “invisible” black man, but the marginalization of blacks in the novel is mirrored by that of the women as well. With the exception of Mary Rambo, the women characters in the novel are underdeveloped, undiversified, and, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Women are exploited by men and their own struggle for equality is ignored because the novel’s dominant institutions—the white power structure, the Brotherhood, and society as a whole—tends to treat people not as individuals but as stereotyped groups. It is because of this tendency that the narrator has so much trouble forging an identity, and it is why the novel’s women can never attain a fully developed or meaningful identity for themselves.Works CitedEllison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1995.
Sports Mascot or The Survival of Sambo?
In American culture today the pressure to fit into the societal norms is more prevalent than ever. By establishing very clear standards for “fitting in”, the dominant culture makes the idea of approval seem easily achievable. However, unknown to minorities is the rigidity of the standards and how frequently they are mocked when attempting to conform. This ridicule is often perpetuated through the use of racial caricatures — descriptive visual devices that exaggerate certain aspects of individual races in order to create humor. In the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, cultural standards are often reinforced through the use of the “Little Black Sambo Doll” — a racial caricature that changes the body of a Black Man into a monkey, to fit the “animal-like” stereotype of a black man, solely to entertain the beholder (SparkNotes). Though he does not recognize it, throughout the novel the Narrator is seen by the White community as the Sambo Doll. This view further dehumanizes him and allows the White culture to keep their power over him. Similarly, the Cleveland Indians’ “Chief Wahoo” is just one of these many caricatures, seen by many as: “A dehumanizing red ‘Indian’ cartoon wearing a wide, big-toothed grin. A cartoon caricature similar to Sambo or a piece of anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda” (Krimmel). The comparison of Chief Wahoo to “Sambo” directly connects the novel to today’s society.
According to Douglas Cardinal, a member of the Canadian Blackfoot Tribe, “Chief Wahoo actively contributes to the mockery of American Indians” (Taylor). This “mockery” dehumanizes American Indians, thus further isolating them from high society. The increased alienation minority groups face, along with complete disregard of their issues, leads them to dissociate from their roots in order conform to American culture and fit into society. This allegiance allows the dominant culture to feel entitled and paternalistic over minorities, which continually gives them a sense of approval to completely ignore the concerns of ethnic communities. The novel begins as the Narrator, is invited by the town’s scholarly white citizens to give a speech at the Battle Royal. Unbeknownst to him, the Narrator must participate in the brawl before delivering his speech. By coercing the eight black men to fight one another, the White’s are abusing them for nothing but pure entertainment. The ease with which the dominant culture is able to “Shake Sambo the dancing doll, shake him, you cannot break him” (431), emphasizes the social ladder gap in the South. Knowing they “cannot break him”, the white’s easily “Shake Sambo” by forcing the black men to fight for their amusement. Seeing the black community through the lens of their white-culturally formulated stereotypes and treating them as nothing but Sambo Dolls, the authoritative Southerner’s further separate the minority from American society.
The maltreatment the Battle Royal consists of, disrespects and dehumanizes the Narrator and his race, thus further complicating the climb up the social ladder towards hierarchy in American society. Similarly in today’s society, the most popular representation of Native Americans is the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, Chief Wahoo. Lack of knowledge regarding American Indian culture, in addition to the graphic caricature that inaccurately represents them, allows Americans to easily ignore the fact that, “The use of racist mascots dehumanizes Native Americans, and thereby, makes it easy for society to ignore their concerns…It allows people to treat us as invisible” (Waldstein).This claim by Philip Yenyo, the Executive Director of the American Indian Movement of Ohio, demonstrates how classifying all American Indian’s into the ‘Wahoo’ caricature enables the dominant culture to sequester the ethnic group and their concerns. This easy, unconscious characterization leads American’s to disregard the people’s concerns, forcing Natives to identify less with their own culture in exchange for being heard and understood. In the novel, the Narrator attempts to distinguish himself away from his culture during his speech by withholding his true feelings about society and only expressing what the White’s want to hear.“‘Social…Equality’ ‘What you just said!’ ‘Social responsibility, sir’ ‘You weren’t being smart, were you, boy? You sure that about equality was a mistake? You had better speak more slowly so we can understand. We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times’” (31). By retracting “equality” and replacing it with “responsibility” the Narrator is suppressing his beliefs so that the White’s will “do right by [him]”, and possibly even help him be recognized by others of high society.Being as influential as it is, the popular culture in America lures minorities outside of their cultivation and traditions — many of which have been passed down for generations — in exchange for being accepted into society.
In Invisible Man, the Narrator’s undying belief, “‘If you’re white, you’re right’”(217) constantly propels him away from his culture and family. The Narrator constantly strives to dodge his past in an attempt to avoid societal isolation, often refuting connections made to his Southern or Black identities. For example, the Narrator denies himself of a very enjoyable breakfast: “‘Pork chops, grits, one egg, hot biscuits and coffee!’” as an attempt to step away from his isolating African American identity and toward integration. Instead of accepting his culture through the pleasure of a delicious meal, the Narrator orders “‘orange juice, toast and coffee’”, then quickly states, “I [was] proud to have resisted the pork chop and grits. It was an act of discipline, a sign of the change that was coming over me” (178). So deeply influenced by the white dominant society, the Narrator believes his refusal of savory satisfaction is “an act of discipline”. “Disciplining” himself to reject his desires to achieve White toleration lets the Narrator believe “a sign change was coming over [him]”. By disassociating from his culture the Narrator is increasingly ‘white-washing’ himself to be able to feel “a sign of change coming over [him]” that would help him climb the social ladder. The constant avoidance and subhuman treatment the Narrator is exposed to influences him to match the accepted characteristics of society. Native American’s today are similarly discounted by the same influential system, except instead of Sambo, American’s arrange the minority into the racial caricature Chief Wahoo. Lindsay Gibbs, a sports reporter whose focus is racism and protests, believes, “Chief Wahoo fosters disrespect of Native Americans” (Gibbs). Native Americans are viewed as nothing but a caricature which “fosters [American] disrespect” of the culture, allowing the majority to easily deride them. This dehumanization and dismissal of Native American’s and their concerns leads many to leave their culture in search of toleration. Philip Weeks, a retired professor of American Indian Studies in the United States especially Ohio, states, “The myriad of problems facing [Native Americans] in urban America lead many to protest. Yet most others did not agree, instead they chose to identify less strongly as Indians. Often marrying non-Indians, they sought avenues by which to find a home in, and the acceptance of, mainstream America” (Weeks). Suffering from neglect of their people and their issues, many Native Americans choose to “identify less strongly as Indians” in order to discover “avenues by which to find a home in, and the acceptance of, mainstream America”. According to a US History online textbook some Native Americans seeking recognition replaced, “The core of individual identity — one’s name — to ‘AMERICANIZE’ the children” (40.d Life on the Reservations). By altering even “the core of individual identity” Native Americans “cho[o]se to identify less strongly as Indians” so as to “Americanize” themselves and further their integration into “mainstream America”. Present in the novel and today’s society, racial caricatures disrespect and dehumanize minority cultures, disallowing them to achieve social equality; thus sequestering the minority and subjecting them to step outside of their delicacy to attempt to achieve societal amalgamation.
The ethnic communities’ strong and continually growing allegiance to American hierarchy further affirms the majority people of their “superiority”. This assurance of power gives the majority a sense of entitlement, enabling them to treat the minority and their concerns paternalistically. Though the Narrator does not initially realize it, the real purpose of the Brotherhood is not to further the rights of the Black Community, but to deceive them into thinking they are doing so. The Brotherhood was created to channel revolutionary energy from the frustrations of the Black’s who were failing to further themselves in the dominant White society. By hiring Black spokesmen such as the Narrator and Clifton into the group, the Brotherhood is misleading the black community and feeding them the false hope that they will help them. In reality, and as articulated by Brother Jack, these so-called leaders, “‘Were hired to talk’ ‘[And to] say nothing unless it is passed by the committee. Otherwise I suggest you keep saying the last thing [you] were told.’” (470). Reminding the Narrator that he was only “hired to talk” and be a mouthpiece for the Brotherhood reassures Jack and the rest of the white committee members of their supremacy. This affirmed dominance enables them to authoritatively advise the Narrator to “say nothing unless it is passed by the committee” and to “keep saying the last thing you were told”. The Brotherhood feels entitlement over the Narrator, because of his repeated die-hard devotion to the organization. This authorizes them to treat him in a paternalistic manner that repeatedly results in his compliance. Reassurance of their complete control licenses the Brotherhood to ignore the Narrator’s increasing unease concerning the politically failing Harlem district. Noticing the many political shortcomings in Harlem, which are causing extreme inhibitions in the advancement of blacks, the Narrator asks Brother Hambro for ways to revive hope and restore activism. Brother Hambro, a white leader, knows he is superior to the Narrator and his concerns, which allows him to easily veto the Narrator’s proposition. Hambro discloses to the Narrator, “[the Negroes] must be brought along more slowly. They can’t be allowed to upset the tempo of the master plan’” (504). In this context, Hambro is employing his paternalistic power to prove the Brotherhood — the dominant culture — knows what is best for Harlem. Stating, “they can’t be allowed to upset the master plan” Hambro is upholding the current social ladder that grants him the entitlement to easily ignore the minority’s anxieties. This dispensation authorizes Hambro and all of the dominant white society to treat non-whites and their concerns without much regard, which prevents them from acceptance.
Today, American society uses the overbearing influence of Major League Baseball to practice its paternalistic power. By recognizing the distresses Native American’s have regarding Chief Wahoo and refusing to change the Cleveland Indians’ mascot, the dominant white society “view[s] American Indians in a paternalistic manner evocative of negative stereotypic imagery” as noted in a psychological study conducted by Alexander, Brewer, & Livingston in 2005 (Freng, Scott, and Cynthia Willis-Esqueda). Rob Manfred Jr, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, has addressed concerns posed by Native Americans stating, “I know that particular logo (Chief Wahoo) is offensive to some people. And all of us at Major League Baseball understand why. Logos are, however, primarily a local matter. The local club makes decisions about its logos. Fans get attached to logos. They become part of a team’s history. So it’s not as easy as coming to the conclusion and realizing that the logo is offensive to some segment” (Oz). Manfred acknowledges the issues of the Native Americans when announcing, “I know that particular logo is offensive..and all of us understand why”, but then continuing his statement by saying, “logos are a local matter…fans get attached to logos…so it’s not as easy as coming to the conclusion and realizing that the logo is offensive,” he is exploiting the influential control the MLB withholds to excuse the lack of change to the logo. Completely ignoring the effects of the racial caricature that disrespects and dehumanizes American Indians’, Manfred and American society believe it is their prerogative to act paternalistically over the minority. People have travelled to America since its founding seeking new opportunities and a better life. Though the United States prides itself on the principles of freedom and individuality, for minority groups, who do not fit the standards of American society, it is extremely difficult to be accepted. Their differences, exaggerated by racial caricatures, complicate their integration. For example, according to Charlene Teters — an activist for the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media — “Chief Wahoo is Little Black Sambo, it is one of the most blatantly racist logos in professional sports” (Blackhorse). Referring to “Chief Wahoo as the Little Black Sambo” Teters directly connects Invisible Man to today’s society, proving that though Ellison’s novel was written over 50 years ago, the difficulties the Narrator suffers through are still prevalent today. Attempting to avoid these caricatures and the images they behold, minorities abandon their cultures in order to conform to American society. This constant conformity leads the dominant culture to believe they are superior, enabling them to ignore the subdominant group and their anxieties by treating them in a paternalistic manner that evokes their caricatures.
The Briefcase of Identity
Despite the termination of slavery following the civil war in America, oppression continued to exist through prejudice without any necessary halt. In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, a black man in his youth stumbles upon the troublesome route of self identification as he voyages from the South to Harlem, New York. As a result of the evident complexity in portraying the abstract idea of identity with accuracy, Ralph Ellison utilizes the symbol of a briefcase throughout the novel to permit the distinct comprehension of such a higher notion. The contents within the briefcase reflect the changeability of the narrator’s identity as he attempts to adapt to a prejudiced American society.
The acceptance of the scholarship contained in a briefcase initially demonstrates the narrator’s childish naivety prior to his journey to Harlem, New York. As the narrator delivers his speech in a boxing arena, he utters the phrase “social equality” rather than “social responsibility” (10), angering the white man and thus, provoking the narrator to eliminate the word equality from the initial phrase. The narrator’s elimination of the word he evidently perceives with justice demonstrates his conformity to the ideals of the white man. These ideals are inclusive of the blacks’ subservient status, which the narrator inevitably overlooks through conformity. Undoubtedly, the white man remarks that the narrator “[made] a good speech and some day [will] lead his people to the proper paths” and therefore hands him a briefcase with a scholarship to the state of college of Negroes, leaving the narrator “overjoyed” (32). The narrator’s delight with the scholarship, despite the white man’s neglectful perception of his race, demonstrates his inability to comprehend the white man’s true intentions. Thus, he may be described under the characteristics of a child who often views the actions of others in a positive manner, or rather is constantly under an illusion of the real world. The narrator’s illusionary comprehension of intentions triggers his fluid adoption of various identities.
The narrator’s ambitious attitude with regards to the possession of the recommendation letters within his briefcase uncovers his respect for the identification of a college student. As the narrator took his packet of letters, he “drew a feeling of importance from reading the important names” (163). The narrator displays a presumption in which the recognition of his significance is only made probable through the association with other significant figures. Thus, the narrator inevitably displays an honourable attitude towards his college identification, which has authorized him the right to such associations. As the narrator succeeds in reaching several trustees’ secretaries and receiving encouraging responses with his recommendation letters, “he sw[ings] [his] briefcase with confidence” (168). The narrator is portrayed among a causal and effectual relationship between his self confidence and the secretaries’ confidence in him. This relationship reveals the direct correlation assumed by the narrator between his confidence in the college and his potential to thrive among a community of successful, well respected men. Ultimately, however, the narrator is succumbed to the pursuit of a different identity as his faith in the college diminishes under disgraceful circumstances.
The narrator’s unsteady attitude towards the Brotherhood’s packets placed in his briefcase demonstrates the developing paranoia regarding the acquisition of yet another form of identity. As Brother Jack thrusts the package in his hands, the narrator is “about to toss it boldly into the street when upon looking back [he] sees him…gesturing toward [him] indignantly…and drop[s] the package into the briefcase” (331). The narrator’s initial refusal to accept the packages from Brother Jack emphasize the implanted expectation for betrayal that the narrator has developed through past experience with Dr. Bledsoe. In addition, his ultimate acceptance of the Brotherhood’s membership following his observance of Brother Jack’s disappointing response indicates a commitment through regrettable conformity rather than self derived verdict. The acceptance of the packets from the Brotherhood provoked the epiphany among the narrator of a “new phase…a new beginning” (335). The narrator’s defiance of the initial feelings of hesitancy concerning the acceptance of a new identity illustrates his persistent naive approach. Despite his failure for identification with the college, the narrator recovers idealistically through the formation of more superior ambitions. The narrator’s idealistic thinking, however, is put to cease as he comes to recognition with the unavoidable stereotypes of his race.
The broken iron bank pieces that the narrator carries in his briefcase following his attempt to rid them reveal the improbability of his formation of a unique identity. The cast iron bank which the narrator hoped to utilize to terminate the ringing sound was in the figure “of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared at [him] from the floor” (319). The existence of the iron bank affirms the existence of racism in the society that the narrator lives in. In addition, the narrator’s ideal and essentially juxtaposed utilization of the iron bank as a resolution for terminating the sound mirrors his ideal prosperity through different identities. When the narrator attempts to rid the iron bank, he has it returned by a black man, who accuses him of being “some king of confidence man or dope peddler” (330). The prejudice of this black man demonstrates the blindness experienced by not only white members of society, but also of those of the narrator’s own race. This perseverance of stereotypical thinking emphasizes the futility in the narrator’s pursuit for universal, racial equality. Though the narrator carries the symbolic burden of the iron bank in his briefcase throughout the novel, he ultimately eliminates this burden as he distinguishes the meaning of true liberty.
The narrator’s final disposal of the briefcase as a guide for the transition out of the hole reflects his transition away from an illusionary existence. The narrator essentially comprehends why the “[briefcase] was heavy, remembering Mary’s broken bank pieces” (539-540). The narrator’s recognition of the weight the iron bank has placed upon him demonstrates his recognition of the inevitable racism that has been weighing him down. The narrator makes a physical and metaphorical step away from the oppressive nature of his society as he finally drops the iron bank. As the narrator attempts to light his way out of the torch near the novel’s ending, he realizes that he “would have to burn every paper in the briefcase” (568). As the narrator separates himself of the briefcase, he as well separates himself from all preconceived notions and stereotypes. He leaves behind his invisibility and permits himself a life in the light of his own decisions.
Throughout the novel, the narrator’s briefcase accumulates into a psychological baggage as he, reflectively adopts various identities and conforms to other individual’s opinions in a blind manner. As the narrator blindly accepts the scholarship to the College of Negroes in his briefcase, his character is initiated under a naive description. This triggers the adoption in addition to the resentment of following identities, including that of association with the Brotherhood, demonstrated through the packets in his briefcase. Ultimately, the narrator recognizes that the adoption of others’ identities will not yield his own formation of an identity. This is emphasized efficiently through the iron bank pieces in his briefcase. As the narrator finally utilizes the symbolic components within the briefcase to see in the darkness, he manages to plight against the forces controlling his character. He manages to recognize the need to reckon the past and separate himself from those who simply wanted to “Keep This Nigger-Boy running”.
The Interplay of Black and White in Invisible Man
In his seminal work Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison depicts the dramatic and enlightening account of the life of the novel’s main character as he grows in understanding of himself and the reality of the world he inhabits. This unnamed narrator, a black man in a white man’s America, initially sets his sights on becoming the kind of successful, notable black man that pleases whites before becoming disillusioned with this concept and struggling to retain his own identity. Throughout his trials, the narrator is subjected to the suffocating and ever-present subjugation of his race, even as he seems to be in control of his own choices. Interestingly, Ellison chooses to illustrate this developing racial power dynamic with recurring descriptions of black and white objects that serve as representations of the two races and their relation to each other in the novel. With extensive black and white symbolism and imagery that ultimately portrays the cruelly inescapable domination of whites over blacks in this time period, Ellison paints a nuanced picture of the racial power dynamic characterizing the United States of the early 20th century.
Ellison initializes this connection between the literal colors of black and white and the actual races with the symbolic object of a blindfold, creating a clear statement on the kind of treatment to which whites are subjecting blacks. Deceived by his school’s superintendent, the narrator finds himself in the midst of a “battle royal” with other young black men meant for the entertainment of a room of rich white dignitaries (Ellison 17). He is soon blinded with “broad bands of white cloth,” as are the other men forced to brawl (Ellison 21). This white blindfold effectively serves as a literal representation of what whites are doing to blacks figuratively: blinding them from reality for the purpose of controlling them. In order to keep the African American population complacent with the intolerable state of race relations in society, it is necessary to prevent them from seeing things for what they are. Whites trick blacks such as the narrator into believing that their current situation is not undesirable, but accomplished, allowing the white population to better keep them under their dominion. This initial portrayal of the racial power dynamic crafts a clear and straightforward image of who has the power and who doesn’t in 20th-century American society.
Later on and throughout the story, Ellison deepens this understanding by establishing a relationship between white clothing and power, thereby leading the reader to make the connection that all power somehow originates from whites. The first notable example of this relationship occurs at the Golden Day, the bar to which the narrator brings the sickly Mr. Norton for a drink after his visit with Jim Trueblood. Upon their arrival at the tavern, a group of irreverent black veterans, many of which appear to be mentally-ill, practically swarm the elderly Mr. Norton. Soon their caretaker, Supercargo, makes his bombastic appearance:
“WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE?” a voice shouted from the balcony. Everyoneturned. I saw a huge black giant of a man, dressed only in white shorts, swaying on thestairs. It was Supercargo, the attendant. I hardly recognized him without his hard-starchedwhite uniform. Usually he walked around threatening the men with a strait jacket whichhe always carried over his arm, and usually they were quiet and submissive in hispresence. But now they seemed not to recognize him and began shouting curses. (Ellison82)
Typically Supercargo dons an all-white uniform for carrying out his duties as attendant. In distinguishing himself this way, he can command authority among the men he is tasked to look after. However, when he is lacking the complete white suit from which he derives his power, this becomes difficult and even impossible, as his wards eventually turn against him. In this example, Supercargo’s white uniform is emblematic of the intimidating power that whites possess over their black counterparts, for once he is removed from his uniform, Supercargo seems to lose any control he once had over the war veterans. This relationship between Supercargo and white power becomes even more apparent as the veterans begin to take out their frustrations on this traditional power dynamic through beating Supercargo, a proxy or stand-in for the white man. Thus, the overpowering of Supercargo by black men does not signify a reversal of the power structure; rather, as he is no longer imbued with the authority of his currently absent white uniform, this scene serves simply as a kind of catharsis for the men, who still make the connection between their black caretaker clad in white and the domineering power of whites themselves.
Ellison adds another facet to the racial power dynamic in Invisible Man with the intermixing of black and white paint later on in the book. After giving up on his futile mission of delivering Bledsoe’s letters in the hopes of one day returning to school, the narrator takes up a job at Liberty Paints, manufacturer of the “Optic White” paint sold chiefly to the government (Ellison 201). This fact in itself reveals something of how Ellison sees the U.S. government’s role the racial power dynamic: it seeks to maintain power over blacks by painting itself white, effectively barring blacks from having a say within government by electing mainly whites to official positions. What reveals more insight, though, is the way in which this Optic White paint is made. As the narrator’s new (and short-lived) boss, Kimbro, demonstrates the steps involved, the narrator looks on in confusion, for in order to craft the purest white paint of all, according to Kimbro, one must incorporate a good deal of jet black liquid into the mix (Ellison 200). This detail adds an intriguing dimension to the standard power structure of white dominance over blacks. Through following this recipe for creating Optic White paint, Ellison leads the reader to determine that white society takes the contributions of what they see as the inferior black population and exploits them to become even greater, if not more powerful. It can be said, then, that, in a way, whites derive their power from simply taking advantage of what blacks have to offer in society without acknowledging the source. The complexity of this relationship between the races calls for imagery that is somewhat illogical; the narrator is so dumbfounded at the sight of the paint and black liquid interplaying in this way partly because this likely would not occur. The improbability of this kind of chemical reaction—at least to the average reader—makes it obvious that Ellison is not aiming to achieve scientific accuracy, but rather expound on the relationship between whites and blacks hitherto established with other imagery of this nature.
Towards the conclusion of Ellison’s work, the author illustrates how the narrator figures personally into this racial power dynamic, again with colored clothing. After once again becoming disillusioned (now with the Brotherhood), the narrator is accosted by some of Ras the Exhorter’s men as he is walking through the streets of Harlem. To disguise himself he obtains a pair of dark sunglasses and a large white hat, leading to numerous instances of mistaken identity for a seemingly ubiquitous character known as Rinehart (Ellison 484). In the context of this escapade through Harlem disguised as Rinehart, his newly acquired white hat symbolizes the co-opting of the power associated with clothing of the same color for his own purposes of protection through invisibility. To most whites—as he soon comes to fully realize at the end of the novel—the narrator is practically invisible: people avoid noticing him, and even when they acknowledge his physical presence, they do not care about his personal concerns or ideas. This is made painfully apparent to the narrator, as well as the reader, with his later encounters with fellow members of the Brotherhood. Even though he obviously has the most pertinent and valuable experience among them, they refuse to accept his opinions on the actions the Brotherhood should take to better connect with the people of Harlem, preferring instead that he just reiterate what they want to hear. The Brotherhood (as a stand-in for white society at large) ignores the narrator’s ideas and perspective—in essence failing to truly see him. The hat utilizes this invisibility to his advantage as he attempts to avoid confrontations with Ras’s cronies and thus represents a re-purposing of a traditionally white power, adding yet another layer to the complex condition of race relations at play here. While whites maintain prominent control over their black counterparts, this does not prevent people such as the narrator from finding ways to exploit this very power dynamic and thereby benefit from it in some aspect.
The narrator’s newfound power through adopting white clothing is highlighted once again in the detail of his shoes provided purposefully by Ellison. After a woman realizes the he is indeed not “Rine the runner” on account of the lack of Rinehart’s signature shoes, the narrator becomes “aware of [his] black-and-white shoes for the first time since the day of Clifton’s shooting” (Ellison 492). This is one of the only times that both the colors black and white coexist on a single item of clothing, and it is the first time the book addresses the bicolor nature of his shoes, emphasizing the importance of this particular detail. The significance of his shoes lies in the fact that black and white share an equal place by occupying space on the same article of clothing. Not only does this reinforce the connection between the narrator’s newly-achieved empowerment and the color white, but it serves as a harbinger of what Ellison sees as the potential future of the racial power dynamic explored with black and white symbolism up to this point. Shoes, being the means with which one steps forward firmly, link the equality of the literal colors on the narrator’s footwear with the equality of the races that Ellison foresees for the future.
From the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the author makes the deliberate choice to describe and comment on the power relationship between whites and blacks that characterized the early-20th-century America in which the events of the novel take place through careful and consistent references to black and white objects, particularly clothing. Over the course of his story detailing the life and struggles of the narrator, Ellison develops this dynamic into something much more complicated. In so doing, he no doubt hopes to paint a more accurate picture of events as he himself experienced, for things in real life are hardly ever so simple. While whites do indeed maintain tight control of the power dynamic between them and blacks, even those subjugated by these forces find ways to exploit them for their own benefit and create some semblance of power. Nevertheless, throughout the novel it remains clear to the reader that the power and domination exerted by the white population—and even by the U.S. government—over the African American population and society is total and inescapable. Even men like Bledsoe and the narrator, who seem to possess some power in their positions for a time, only come by this power by the allowance and facilitation of whites. At the same time, however, with this same tool of color, Ellison expresses a resolute hope for an equality that awaits in the future. By constructing and developing this theme throughout his entire work, Ellison communicates to the reader the feelings experienced by the African American population during this period of United States history.