White Society v. Black Society in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”
Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” a narrative extracted from the novel Invisible Man, portrays the story of a young African American man who has been chosen to receive a scholarship and give a speech at a gathering of the town’s white male citizens. The gathering turns out to be a cruel battle between the blacks who are invited, all for the white men’s entertainment. The story itself, however, is an allegory that represents white society versus black society, and how they both support racism.
Throughout, the power that white men held over black men is extremely prominent. In the beginning, the powerful white males stand outside of the boxing ring, representing the powerful white society. The black men inside of the ring represent black society. The men who represent white society hold power over those who represent black society. The men in the ring are taunted and teased. At one point, the white males call out for a nude white woman to approach the blacks. They are forced to watch her, and to want her, but they can never have her. The woman is described to have a “small American flag tattooed upon her belly”, which supports the idea that she represents the American dream (1213). The American dream could not be achieved by blacks, and the whites were guiding that idea. Also, the white woman represents the notion that everyone should be attracted to the white race, even those of color. Black men were supposed to idealize white women, instead of black women.
Another way the white men secured power over the black men is through money. The whole reason for the fighting is a promise that the winner will be rewarded with money. At the end of the fighting, when the winner is announced, the black men are called to an area of the floor where coins had been scattered. The black men jump on the chance of getting money, but the floor is electrocuted. As the black men jump around trying to collect money, the white men are laughing, entertained by the pain they are putting the blacks through. The narrator describes the ordeal; “’Get the money,’ the M.C. called. ‘That’s good hard American cash!’ And we snatched and grabbed, snatched and grabbed” (1218). The white men make themselves feel superior by making the black men fight for money. White society, as symbolized in the white men, treat people of color as if they are inferior, supporting racism against blacks.
Along with the white men taking power over the black men, in the story, the blacks try to take power over each other. The narrator, who is deemed the invisible man, sees himself as better than all of the other blacks around him. He feels superior to them, and he even says it so; “But the other fellows didn’t care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn’t like the manner in which we were all crowded together into the servant’s elevator” (1212). Because the narrator is well-educated, he thinks he is better than the other blacks. He thinks he is good enough to be like the white men. He, in his own way, is racist. Black society, represented through the other black men, seems to resent intellectual blacks. And intellectual blacks, represented through the narrator, seems to resent the rest of black society. During the fighting, the black men split off into groups to take down each other, but they always end up fighting on their own, because in the end there could only be one winner. The narrator describes the grouping; “It seemed as though all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once” (1215). The resentment each different type of black has for the other supports racism within the black community. The narrator only cares for himself, not for the other people in the black community. He is interested in furthering himself to the point where he will not be looked at in the same light of those he is a part of. The narrator is searching for approval from the white people, ultimately pinning him against every black person around him. The narrator says that “only these men,” referring to the whites, “could judge truly my ability” (1216). The narrator believes that only the white men can see his potential and that only the white men are the ones he should be trying to impress. This factor alone separates blacks from each other and tears the community apart. The story portrays not only a white versus black idea, but also an idea of black versus black.
In “Battle Royal,” the story of blacks being forced to fight one another in front of white men represents a larger idea of the members of black society being ruled by white society and being pinned against each other. The white society supports racism by acting superior to those who are not white. They treat blacks like animals who are there to entertain. Within the black society, racism lives too. The blacks look down on one another, and the narrator seeks approval of only the whites. He sees the black community, the community he is a part of, as something he should be ashamed of, something he should be trying to climb out of. This story shows how racism is present in both white society and black society, and how black people support racism by giving in to it and by giving into the white people that want to control them.
Searching for Identity: An Analysis of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both African American authors active in the middle of the twentieth century, took on the challenge of exploring and exposing the adversity that African Americans faced through their writing. They brought to light the issues of discrimination and the negative effects that racism was having on not only African Americans but society as a whole. Wright and Ellison, in their respective novels Native Son and Invisible Man, depict African American protagonists who are restricted by racism and struggle to develop their own identities in the early twentieth century, resulting in unwanted identities and, occasionally, a lack of identity itself.
Wright and Ellison both had similar encounters with racism that greatly impacted their writing. They were both natives of the southern United States and moved north to urban areas. Wright first moved from Mississippi to Memphis, then to Chicago, and later New York where he met Ellison, who had moved from Oklahoma (“Richard Wright”). When they met in New York, Wright served as a mentor to Ellison and helped him to grow as a writer (“Ralph Ellison” 1516). Wright’s influence on Ellison is evident through the similarities in their writing styles and content. They both reflect on their personal experiences with discrimination in their novels and many details in their novels are woven from their own encounters. For example, Ellison’s unnamed narrator in Invisible Man even mirrors his own migration from the south to New York City. By pulling from their own experiences, Wright and Ellison are able to make their writing come alive because such autobiographical techniques add depth, detail, and vibrancy.
The settings of the novels set up an environment that is restrictive for the black protagonists. Although Native Son is set in the relatively northern city of Chicago, Bigger Thomas still experiences repressive discrimination because he is black and perceived as inferior. Even though he lives in a place where race relations are better than race relations in the South, white supremacy and division are rampant. African Americans in the novel were restricted to living in the Black Belt, a neighborhood restricted to African Americans: “The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life” (Wright 70). African Americans may have lived in the same city as white people, but they were not equal and still had to live in separate areas and neighborhoods. Similarly, in Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator experiences racism even after he moves to the North in New York. Initially he is taken aback by all the freedoms of African Americans when he first arrives in Harlem; his treatment here is so different from how he was treated at his black university in the South. He is in awe: “Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic—and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world” (Ellison 159). The simple scene shows such a contrast to what the South must be like since he is so shocked about what he sees, and it gives the reader an idea about the conditions of the South. This initial scene of the unnamed narrator describing Harlem makes it seem like such a great place full of freedom and equality for African Americans; in reality, it ends up being just as oppressive, because white people still control his life through their power and influence. While the physical location influences the black protagonists’ restrictions in both novels, the time period plays the more important role because of how race relations were in the early to mid-twentieth century. No matter where the African American characters go, they were going to experience racism and discrimination because of how widespread it was at the time.
As aforementioned, the setting traps the black protagonist in a limiting environment, which strongly contributes to the theme of an individual in a restricted society. This theme manifests itself throughout both novels as the racism the protagonists are constantly subjected to traps them in an internal struggle for identity. The setting, especially the time period of the novels lays the groundwork for the restricted society, but it is the vivid depictions of racism that both authors employ that paints the picture of a restrictive society. The racism that the protagonists face isolates them from other people and essentially society because they are divided from the white characters. As a result of the division and discrimination, they are kept from equal opportunities, further isolating them and fostering their individual struggles for identity.
Racism is a prominent feature in both novels that continually serves to raise internal conflict for the black protagonists because it restricts them by leaving them without identities. The restrictive society turns Bigger Thomas to a life of crime in pursuit of an identity; he reflects the racism and discrimination that he feels from white people back to them, “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet” (Wright 114). He expresses that white people are not even humans, just as white people felt like him and other African Americans are not even humans. Wright strengthens this idea through a simile comparing white people to an ambiguous natural power. This “natural force” is what restricts Bigger and makes him feel like he has no other option than to commit crime as both a way of finding an identity and overcoming the white power by breaking the rules set forth in their restrictive society. Similarly, Ellison shows how the unnamed narrator was trapped by society because he always experienced being told who he was, mainly by white people of power, and was never able to figure it out for himself: “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too… I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (Ellison 15). In reflection on his life, the unnamed narrator discovers how he was so trapped by society and the only way he could become free was by declaring himself an invisible man. His only escape from the chains of society was by retreating to the underground. Wright and Ellison show how white power oppresses their black protagonists, mainly through striking depictions of racism.
Wright and Ellison both use color imagery wherever possible in their novels as a way to describe and identify people; as a result, the white society attempts to force chosen identities on the protagonists based on the color of their skin. Wright uses color to describe everyone in the novel, even the most insignificant and irrelevant characters that appear. Furthermore, he applies this same tactic to not only people but objects as well. For example, the description of a young girl includes, “She looked like a doll in a show window: black eyes, white face, red lips” (Wright 62). Indeed, just in a simple simile depicting a doll Wright used three different color words. By doing this, Wright emphasizes the significance of color by repeating it in the descriptions of everything; indeed, he develops color as an important symbol throughout the novel. Through the manifestation of color, he represents the division in America at the time and is able to emphasize the intolerance of whites. Wright’s steadfast repetition and emphasis on color mirrors the biased and intolerant vision of whites. By weaving all of the colors together, Wright develops color imagery; however, it is ironic how even though he places such an emphasis on color through the repeated imagery, he fails to paint a colorful world. He establishes a two-toned world of black and white; moreover, only rarely does he include colors other than black or white in descriptions (Faulkner 3592). The emphasis on color imagery helps the reader to understand how Bigger felt trapped and lose his identity in the overwhelming sea of colors that seemed to control his life.
Ellison also develops a strong pattern of color imagery in Invisible Man, but in a different way. While Wright throws it in the reader’s face by making sure to use color diction in nearly every sentence, Ellison uses it in a more subtle but equally effective way by employing color imagery but often more for symbolic purposes. For example, when the unnamed narrator is mixing paints in the paint factory, he only works with white paint because it is the most important one to the company, “‘White! It’s the purest white that can be found. Nobody makes a paint any whiter. This batch right here is heading for a national monument!’” (Ellison 202). His boss shows such enthusiasm for the white paint by repeating ‘white’ three times, which he follows up by showing its prestige since it will be used for a national monument. This emphasis is meant to mirror and be symbolic of the prestige of white people. Ellison is trying to convey that just as the white paint is superior to all other paints, white people are superior to all other people. He furthers his point in this scene when the unnamed narrator mixes the paint wrong, “The paint was not as white and glossy as before; it had a gray tinge” (Ellison 203). Even the slightest imperfection in the paint that makes it no longer the purest white yields this reaction from his boss, “‘What the hell, you trying to sabotage the company?’” (203-204). This is significant because it shows that something that is not the purest white is no good and unworthy. The smallest deviation from the color white in one batch of paint was hyperbolically able to sabotage the entire paint company. Ellison translates this idea to how white people felt about colored people at the time, and how even the slightest bit of color in someone makes them inferior. Ellison develops color imagery carefully in Invisible Man through repetition of color diction with underlying messages. Color imagery is an effective tool for emphasizing race relations since the issues surrounding racism and discrimination revolved around something as seemingly trivial as the color of someone’s skin. It is an overt way of showing the power of race over changing the protagonists’ identity.
Wright and Ellison also use a light and dark motif in order to emphasize the racial tensions in Native Son and Invisible Man. In Native Son, Wright uses snow as a recurring symbol throughout the novel. The snow begins to fall once Bigger kills Mary and burns her body, and it is often at night when the falling snow is mentioned. Wright creates a picture of the light, white flakes mixing and juxtaposes it with the dark, night sky: “Around him were silence and night and snow falling, falling as though it had fallen from the beginning of time and would always fall till the end of the world” (Wright 184). This shows the interaction between light and dark, white and black. The white overpowers all the darkness throughout the novel, covering the city and burying Bigger as he tries to evade the authorities. Ultimately, it is the whiteness that wins out as the snow finally stops falling once Bigger is arrested. Wright is trying to point out that he light presents obstacles for the dark; just as, the white people in society present obstacles for the black people.
Ellison presents the light and dark motif in another interesting way through his invisible unnamed narrator. Instead of being lost in the darkness that the white society has put him in, the narrator embraces the light in order to confirm his invisibility, which is the identity he has searched for his entire life: “I now can see the darkness of lightness. And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form” (Ellison 6). He learned to embrace the light, which represents the white society, in order to make his own identity of invisibility. Instead of trying to overcome the light with his own darkness, he faded into the light so that his new identity of invisibility could be confirmed, “Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well” (Ellison 7). Although he has managed to acquire an identity by his own means, he was still driven to it by the power of light. Ellison does this to show the unnamed narrator’s struggle for identity was able to come to an end by not only embracing his blackness but light as well to secure an identity. The light and dark motif used by Wright and Ellison accentuates the power struggle between African Americans and the white society.
Wright and Ellison also investigate the implications of racism in their novels is by introducing foil characters for the black protagonists. These authors use white characters to create contrasts that are the exact opposites of Bigger and the unnamed narrator. They do this in order to create a stark juxtaposition between characters to mirror the divide in society during the early twentieth century. Wright develops a contrast between Bigger Thomas and Mary Dalton, for example. Obvious differences exist such as race, gender, and wealth. Furthermore, Mary is oblivious and proves to know little about blacks. Although she tries to befriend Bigger, it is insulting because she does not take into account his feelings or wants; she is unable to relate to blacks because of the way society conditioned her to view them. She is a symbol and her ignorance represents the ignorance of whites in the early twentieth century (Bradley 2018). Similarly, Mr. Norton in Invisible Man tries to befriend the unnamed narrator and pretends to understand his situation. While it seems like a nice gesture, in reality, it offends the unnamed narrator because it comes off as condescending and insensitive to his situation. Mr. Norton does not realize that he does not want his pity; he just wants his own freedom and equality. Mary and Mr. Norton’s oblivious ignorance clashing with Bigger and the unnamed narrator’s uneasy and offended responses lead to conflict that highlights the underlying racism of society.
In Native Son, Wright consistently uses animal similes to build and showcase the racism of society. Wright often compares the African American characters in the novel to animals through the use of similes; furthermore, this works to dehumanize blacks by portraying them as subhuman. The comparison is simple but effective because it is repeated so frequently throughout the novel; also, it is powerful because it brings to the readers’ attention the main idea that white Americans think less of African Americans, which is the source and drive for racism, segregation, and discriminatory acts. For example, a bystander describes Bigger, “‘He looks exactly like an ape!’ exclaimed a terrified young white girl who watched the black slayer” (Wright 279). In this simile, by comparing Bigger to an ape, he becomes less human because of the association with an animal. Specifically, it draws a comparison to a primitive ancestor of the human species, which makes it seem like he is an underdeveloped human. This strengthens the idea of white supremacy as this exact simile and other similar ones are repeated multiple times throughout the novel. It burns the idea into Bigger’s mind that he truly is lesser than the white people verbally attacking him. Wright is able to stress racism through his use of literary features.
While Wright develops a focus on animal similes to put emphasis on racism, Ellison develops the symbolism of the Sambo doll. The Sambo dolls are little black dolls made out of paper and appear in the novel when they are being sold on the street. Clifton, the man selling them, is dancing them around like puppets, “A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper…which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face” (Ellison 431). Ellison uses the Sambo dolls as a symbol for African Americans, and the strings that are making the dolls dance and move around are representative of the white society, who has a hold and control over African Americans at the time (Jarenski). This showcases the situation of the individual restricted by society because it takes it to such an extreme since the puppeteer has sole control; all movements are controlled and restricted by the one in charge. This adds to the idea that African Americans are oppressed by white people.
The racist environments that Wright and Ellison create have a negative impact on their black protagonists. The segregation and persistent discrimination that they are surrounded by oppresses them. They are kept down by the racist society and not given the same chances. For example, Bigger acknowledges his unequal opportunity because of his race, “‘I could fly a plane if I had a chance,’ Bigger said. ‘If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane,’ Gus said” (Wright 17). This shows how the racist society oppresses not only Bigger, but all African Americans because of their lowered social standing on account of their race. The unnamed narrator in Invisible Man finds himself in similar situations as well. For example, throughout the novel his various jobs include servicing white men as their driver and being restricted from higher level office jobs and forced to take a job in a paint factory. His opportunities are limited. Owing to the racism and discrimination that the black protagonists are consistently battered by because of their environment, they become oppressed and have little to no freedom or equality.
As a result of these feelings of oppression, a common theme of fear arises in both Native Son and Invisible Man. Indeed, fear begins to consume the lives of the oppressed black protagonists. Wright describes the fear and oppression of African Americans, “They hate because they fear, and they fear because they feel that the deepest feelings of their lives are being assaulted and outraged. And they do not know why; they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces” (Wright 390). He shows here how their fear comes about as a result of their oppression since their lives are violated by the intervention by white people. They have no say in their own lives and identity. In turn, it is the fear that Bigger felt that turned him to violence to gain an identity. In Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator’s eventual realization of his fear is what sets him free to find his identity. He realized that everything he ever did was in reaction to the fear he felt; it controlled his life, “I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear” (Ellison 47). Nonetheless, it is the fear he constantly felt that came from his oppression and always held a grip over his life. Once he became aware of it, he became his own person and broke free from the identity given to him.
The culmination of the racist environment that oppresses and instills fear in the black protagonists rests in the struggle for an individual in a restricted society to develop an identity. Wright develops this through Bigger, who searches for an identity. He feels lost in a sea of white since he is unable to be recognized by any white people in society. Throughout Native Son, Bigger struggles with his only identity being black, “It made him live again in that hard and sharp consciousness of his color and feel the shame and fear that went with it, and at the same time it made him hate himself for feeling it” (Wright 347). The only recognition he ever received from anyone was about his race, and it is not until he accidentally finds himself on a spree of criminal activity that he gains notoriety and along with that, an identity. On his path as a criminal, he feels liberated from the chains he was always trapped in, “never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight” (Wright 239). Although it is not the identity Bigger wanted, he is happy and satisfied because he is finally noticed by white people; indeed, he feels pride at the fact that white people are paying attention to him, “The papers ought to be full of him now. It did not seem strange that they should be, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story” (222). It is then when Bigger feels he has gained an identity because of the fact that he is recognized. This recognition from the white community that now fears and hates him gives Bigger the satisfaction of having his own identity.
Ellison explores the same search for identity through the unnamed narrator. The protagonist is so lacking in an identity that his name is not ever told. This dissociates himself from the reader as well as from himself. The reader follows him on his journey through life where he is always defined by what people tell him and the identity that other people tell him to take on. When he joins the Brotherhood, he is told, “This is your new identity” (Ellison 309) as he is given a new name and a new person to become and act as. He never had the chance to be his own person and claim his own identity. His environment kept him down. It was not until he was able to embrace his invisibility and realize its power that he found an identity that he was comfortable with in the underground, “I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning” (Ellison 571). He managed to find peace and happiness away from all the people who tried to control his life; indeed, they could not reach him in the underground. Ellison shows the extreme lengths that the unnamed narrator had to take in order to escape. He emphasizes how letting go of what society was telling him and embracing invisibility allowed him to find an identity as an invisible man, “So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man” (573). It is important to recognize how the unnamed narrator reached a point of finding an identity, and Ellison even takes it to such an extreme point when he writes, “I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility” (6). This shows the true power of identity by equating identity with life.
Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison expose through their respective novels, Native Son and Invisible Man, the struggles that African Americans face in the discriminatory society of the twentieth century United States. Furthermore, they demonstrate the adverse effects of such prejudice, including a loss of identity and the inability to find one. Through their protagonists, these authors show the dangers of racism; society as a whole is able to have such a negative impact even on determined individuals by taking away something as simple, personal, and natural as an identity.
Bradley, David. “Richard Wright.” Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 2018-2020. Print. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Faulkner, Howard. “Richard Wright.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Ed. Carl Rollyson. Vol. 7. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2000. 3588-3596. Print. Jarenski, Shelly. “Invisibility embraced: the abject as a site of agency in Ellison’s Invisible Man.” MELUS 35.4 (2010): 85+. General OneFile. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Ed. Nellie Mckay and Henry Gates Jr. New York: Norton, 1997. 1515-1518. Print. “Richard Wright.” American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Biography in Context. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper & Bros., 1940. Print.
The Metaphysics of Sight and Sound
Throughout Invisible Man there are recurring images of waves and rhythms, which create a reality in which everything has its own frequency and wavelength. This concept operates as an underlying theme, which once examined is revealed to play into the idea of the narrator’s invisibility, and to help compose the overall metaphysical structure of the novel. This notion of frequencies appears many times in both visual and auditory contexts, eventually revealing the nature of the narrator’s invisibility: living on a different wavelength.
The narrator begins simply with: “I am an invisible man.”(Ellison 3) Immediately this claim sparks thoughts in the mind of the reader about what this invisibility means: “I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see… everything and anything except me.”(Ellison 3) Mirrors create images, which are exclusively visual. The simplicity of the sentence’s structure contributes to its mysterious nature and even though in the next lines the narrator gives an abstract explanation as to what his invisibility is, the reader never attains a literal explanation simply because the narrator’s invisibility is not literal. The narrator goes on to provide a more detailed description“[I am not] one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.”(Ellison 3) The ironic tone of this passage, shown by his sarcastic and satirical statements convey a sardonic awareness of his situation.
There is a lot of optic imagery in the novel, which makes sense when one considers how central the idea of invisibility is. A vital theme to the novel is of course race, and civil rights, and it can be argued that the Invisible Man acts as a symbol of black struggle in an oppressive society. As Richard Kostelanetz puts it: “Ralph Ellison defines the purpose of novelistic writing as ‘converting experience into symbolic action,’ and this phrase incidentally captures the particular achievement of his novel, Invisible Man, in which he creates a nameless narrator… [who]represent[s] in symbolic form the overall historical experience of the most politically active element of the American Negro people.” (Kostelanetz 5) The novel ties these two themes of race and optics together, for instance: “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.” (Ellison 168) Not only does the word optic appear, but this phrase is strongly reminiscent of the racist phrase “white is right.” The notion of race is largely an optic idea (the whole idea of skin color), and is completely socially constructed. The importance of color is emphasized here, and when tying this into the proposed metaphysics of the novel, one can connect these ideas of race and color by considering that color is simply the reflection of different wavelengths of light, and so the idea of frequencies once again plays a crucial part in the composition of the novel and the concepts it creates.
In addition to the prevalent optic imagery, an acoustic theme is also present. The last line of the novel, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” both connects to and creates a contradiction with the first line. The idea of invisibility is a purely visual phenomenon, however, the idea of speaking on a “lower frequency” (Ellison 450) produces an auditory impression, which suggests that the invisibility is more than just visual. Creating the themes of both optic and otic invisibility suggests that invisibility is not exclusively being unseen, but is also being unheard. The idea and language of acoustics, including music, extends throughout the length of the novel to give insights into the metaphysics of invisibility and time. The narrator uses the ideas of rhythm and waves as an active way to describe the world he is experiencing. “The uptown rhythms were slower and yet were somehow faster; a different tension was in the hot night air.” (Ellison 328) The idea of a place having a rhythm, or even a frequency at which it is vibrating, is apparent here. The idea that it has a faster rhythm (higher frequency) or slower rhythm (lower frequency) creates a dichotomy between rapid and sluggish rhythms .
In addition, there is musical language other than rhythm that is used to reinforce the underlying sense of musical time. “Tension” while having different meanings in different contexts, has a musical sense to it in this case, considering its association with rhythm. Tension is a fundamental idea in Jazz, a musical style which is also a theme in the novel. Often tension is created by dissonance or chords itching to resolve, however, in this case there is a dichotomy between the fast and slow pulses of uptown. Wilfried Raussert, in “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity,” discusses this very idea in a different context: “the short interruption of the flow recalls breaks in jazz through which rhythmic tension is achieved.” (Raussert 532) However instead of an interruption in flow, Ellison uses simultaneity of rhythms to create this tension. Like the optic imagery, otic imagery also brings forth the fundamental theme of race, as Jazz was born out of black culture. These ideas of rhythm, pulse, and music contribute to the metaphysics of the novel to ultimately explain the narrator’s invisibility.
The concept of waves is also firmly embedded in the novel’s sense of time, which is a fundamental part of anything’s metaphysical identity. As has been shown above, the idea of rhythm and waves is established as part of the feeling of a place. To further establish this concept, these ideas are present in the perception of time as well. “Great invisible waves of time flowed over me, but that morning never came.” (Ellison 440) The word “waves” connotes a rhythm, beat, and pulse. Great suggests large in breadth, which in turn creates the image of a slow and steady pulse evoking the notion of wavelengths. Slow and steady pulses convey a sense of hypnotism, which contributes to the idea of perpetually waiting for something, in this case, morning. Introducing this conception of pulse into time further suggests a connection to rhythms, and continues to suggest a world described by frequencies. “Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music.” (Ellison 7) This quote packs a lot of substance. Here the narrator is not only breaking the fourth wall as he does in the beginning and the epilogue, but he is also attempting to communicate the concept of his invisibility. He uses the abstraction of having a different sense of time, which has musical connotations. He again introduces the idea of being off beat, suggesting that the the world has a beat, and he is not in the same time signature as the rest of the world. This idea, connected to the previously-established concept of frequencies, creates the idea that he operates on a different wavelength from the rest of the world. Just like a radio and a receiver operating on two different frequencies, neither one exists to the other, so is the narrator’s relationship with the world: creating his invisibility. The construction of frequencies in the novel is symbolic of a core problem in society, that people operate on different “frequencies.” Ellison demonstrates the critical issues created by operating on disparate wavelengths. Living in metaphorically different realities allows people to view others with a sense of disconnect and disregard, which leaves room for discrimination. There should be no separation in frequencies in seeing or hearing, everyone should see and hear each other. Nobody should “refuse to see.” (Ellison 3)
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.Kostelanetz, Richard. Politics of Ellison’s Booker: Invisible Man As Symbolic History. Place of publication not identified: publisher not identified, 1967. Print.Raussert, Wilfried. “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity.” Amerikastudien / American Studies. 45.4 (2000): 519-534. Print.
Invisibility within Invisible Man
Almost all people do battle with the notion that, try as they may, the things they do remain overlooked by others. They feel unseen, as if belonging to a story where they’re just background characters. Or rather, some people care not about their impact, instead simply wishing for the world to notice and acknowledge them for who they really are instead of how they seem from a distance, if even then. Universally, people feel invisible on some level. In his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison explores this idea of invisibility and how it shapes his characters’ actions, thoughts, and motivations. This notion of invisibility spurs the narrator on at many different parts of the book, allowing for him to push forward and do all he can to be seen by the white man, but it also leads to some of his largest pitfalls and holds him back by creating a false identity in him. His choice to mold himself for the white man’s world often hurts him, and he is not enlightened until he truly acknowledges that the only way to be visible, to exist, is to remain true to oneself.
The story begins simply with an introduction by the narrator. Here he explains, in his own terms, that he is invisible. Of course, he does not mean this literally. Instead, he suggests that the fault is not with him by any deformity or defect; instead, it is with the people of society who look at him with a blind eye. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). They perceive the world differently than he does, refusing to look beyond what society proposes they think a black person should be. He does suggest that there are certain advantages to being cloaked from the world; however, that topic must wait to until later, when a more sound idea of the narrator’s situation can be known. Continuing in his prologue, the narrator clarifies that his purpose in writing is to explain to the reader his struggle over the idea of invisibility and what led not only to the spot but also the mindset he is currently at. Wishing to thoroughly illuminate his situation, the narrator promises to fill the reader in on his experience by starting at the very beginning of his journey. And so our story begins.
The narrator is introduced to us a black man who’s caught the eye of some important white men, namely his principal, through a pleasing speech he made. Here, the first glimpse of invisibility directed towards the narrator is shown. Appearing to receive a great honor, the narrator is asked to recite his speech to a group of white men. This thrills the narrator because it seems for the first time that he’s being seen and taken notice of. Unfortunately the night pans out quite differently that the narrator expects. Instead of simply reading his speech, he is forced into a violent spectacle with other black men. Afterwards, they still wish for the narrator to speak, and through mouthfuls of blood, the narrator delivers his speech to a crowd that clearly appears not to care. He is awarded a scholarship when he is finished, and again, the narrator feels visible. He thinks he’s accomplished this on his own: to have earned it, he must have been seen by the white audience. In reality, (the idea itself invisible to the narrator) the white people awarded the scholarship not because they saw his talent and thought he deserved praise. Instead, they forced him to go through a horrid day to amuse them and only awarded him at the end so they could walk away feeling pleased for helping out a black boy. They saw him just as a black person needing help, nothing past that.
Still, this allows for the story to progress forward, and places the reader in the future, where the narrator is attending his junior year of college. The narrator’s thoughts on invisibility here are simple: act the way the white man wishes and you will please white society. He remembers and tries to follow the instruction his grandfather left with him: “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). Essentially, his grandfather said it was best to smile and treat the white men as they wish rather than raising the possibility of angering them and getting injured for it. The narrator’s own hope becomes that, one day, he will gain a position of power, such as the presidency of the college he is attending. He looks up to Dr. Bledsoe, the current president of the college, and assumes that because of Bledsoe’s authority and title, Bledsoe is considered visible. During his college stay, the narrator seeks to please the white men and act properly in order to achieve visibility. This point is emphasized when he speaks with Dr. Bledsoe in the late stages of his stay at the college. After listening to Mr. Norton, a white trustee, and taking him to see a sight that rather shocked and offended this visitor, the narrator is dismisssed. Confused, the narrator asks Dr. Bledsoe what he did wrong. He did exactly was asked of him, he acted properly, and did what was to be expected of a black man such as him. Dr. Bledsoe explains that it is necessary to direct the white man’s thoughts: black men must only show or say things that please white men, and must divert their attentions away from things that won’t. Dr. Bledsoe says, “That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself…But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (140-141). In other words, he is stating that it is possible to achieve great things by being subservient to white demands, even if it means betraying one’s own ideal ethics. This point directly contrasts with the narrator’s future views on invisibility and stands out an amazing reflection of how the narrator changes into the man he becomes in the future.
After being expelled, the narrator heads off to Harlem. He hopes that after enough time has passed, and if he works up enough money, he will be able to return to college and continue on the path he was pursuing. Even after this huge bump in the road, the narrator stills believes that in order to be visible, he must become someone important, someone who holds a high position. Though he continues to work at his goal for the next few chapters, the narrator is faced with new visual manifestations of invisibility. He is shocked by not only the large numbers of black people gathering up North but also by the interactions he sees between the races. After accidentally running into a white woman, he is surprised by the fact that she apologizes. On many different occasions, he sees white people acting much kinder than he saw them act down South. Yet these events cannot be taken as true signs of progress for black people: they were still just seen by the color of their skin, not as individuals. The people up North just acted more compassionately, an idea the narrator mistakenly assumes for a sign that his race is more visible.
The narrator searches and searches for a job, sending out letters addressed to important contacts of Dr. Bledsoe, with words of recommendation. Time passes until, eventually, he only has one letter left and, knowing this is his last chance, heads out to a Mr. Emerson’s office. Here he speaks to a man, later to be revealed as Mr. Emerson’s son, who exposes a huge secret. The letter, meant to help the narrator, asked the businessmen to turn away the narrator because he had done some terrible crime against the school. Each document explains that the narrator must not be told of this, for his chances of returning to the college were impossible, and the college did not wish to deal with the backlash of him knowing this. This is an essential point for the narrator, for now he knows that there is no chance of him returning to the college and achieving his dream of being an educator or attaining a high position there. Ellison introduces something in this chapter that the narrator is unaware of. Until this point, no one has truly seen the narrator for who he was. In all of his account, contrary to what he might believe, he has been invisible. Not until now, with young Mr. Emerson, is he shown his situation in its true light. Mr. Emerson sees him not as black man in need of a job: he speaks honestly to the narrator, at no gain to himself. They speak person to person, with no preconception or blindness in front of them.
In order to help the narrator, young Emerson sets him up with a job at a paint factory. It is here that the narrator receives the injury that sends him to a hospital. When he emerges from treatment, it is almost as if he is a new person. It is at this moment that his definition of invisibility changes. He no longer believes that pandering to white men is the right way to go. Instead, he must do as he wishes; he will make himself visible some other way. “I am what I am!” he says to himself (266).
Upon seeing an eviction of an older black couple, the narrator gets fired up and gives and impromptu speech to a crowd. It is after this event that, finally, he discovers a way of becoming truly visible by joining a group called The Brotherhood after being approached by an impressed member. The Brotherhood is a group that speaks out for black rights and tries to create better race relations between the white and black people. The narrator agrees to join the group and, though at first skeptical, soon becomes happy with the fact that, by giving these speeches and making a difference, he will force white people to see him. He will be visible to all. However, things don’t go exactly as he plans. During his entire stay with The Brotherhood, he believes that standing up for his people and speaking publicly, where everyone will see him, make him more and more visible. He could not see that he was being used as an icon or for the black people rather than being valued for who he is. He was not important himself: the brotherhood just need a black man who could speak. For instance, when it is seen that he will be making speeches, a woman wonders if he is “dark enough” to be a representative speaker. The Brotherhood members also critique the narrator when he tries to speak outside of what the Brotherhood wishes. He has no true voice for himself. In a sense, he is just a puppet of the Brotherhood. In all accounts, invisible.
Things hit a turning point when, one day, the narrator takes on the identity of a man named Rinehart. It’s clear that Rinehart is his own man, and it seems as if he’s playing no roles others than his own and having a great time with it. This man takes on multiple different roles in society: a pimp, a briber, a priest. “His world was possibility and he knew it” (498). Rinehart holds much power and yet he stays completely himself, not submitting to anyone. This directly contradicts what the narrator assumed in the beginning of the novel, that by being submissive, he would gain power. It slowly becomes more apparent to the narrator that by embracing one’s self and ignoring the urge to be seen, a man can become content. After a while, tensions within the Brotherhood become entirely too much. When a riot breaks out, the narrator flees for his life, moving underground. It is here that our narrator decides to stay for a long while. It is here also that our narrator first addressed us and that he will address us one final time. Reflecting upon the past, the narrator offers up his final views on invisibility. He explains what he hinted at in the prologue, that sometimes invisibility can be an advantage. He can go about his business without anyone noticing him. There is a freedom the narrator has never felt before down in his hole, a freedom to do and say what he wishes, and that, to some extent, makes him feel visible.
In developing his central theme of invisibility, Ellison creates a character who is obsessed with being visible and allows the reader the exciting chance to follow along as that character struggles with this sense of invisibility. At first, the narrator believes that playing into the white man’s world is the best way to become visible, but ultimately he decides that being his own individual is better than trying to avoid invisibility. Ellison addresses this topic with brilliant balance, showing how the definition of invisibility can change not only from person to person, but within the cycles of a single man’s thoughts.
Black Existentialism and The Jazz Aesthetic in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Sharon D. Welch, in ““Lush Life”: Foucault’s Analytics of Power and a Jazz Aesthetic,” states:What is seen through a jazz aesthetic is what is seen now by many: conflict, difference, failure, mistakes, suffering, meaning, beauty, commitment to justice, grief, outrage at suffering and injustice. The form of jazz can provide a modality of critique, of social engagement that enables the actualization of Foucault’s dream, his dream of a criticism that “would try not to judge but to bring an idea to life…It would multiply not judgment, but signs of existence.”(Welch, 88)In this context, jazz aesthetic in inherently based in duality: it provides a platform wherein the individual experience is privileged, while simultaneously attempting to encapsulate collective experience. This “modal criticism” is concerned with explicating individual meaning, that is, how an individual should both determine and access an awareness of his or her own subjective reality. A distinctive brand of existentialism accompanies Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, in the form of the nameless protagonist, an African American man who assigns himself the ultimate existentialist task: to realize the he must honor his individual complexity and remain genuine to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. Ellison, in his introduction, introduces his mission statement: “So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both Black and American.”(Ellison, xviii) His literary enterprise resonates directly with W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double-consciousness,” a concept that was inaugurated in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois devotes his text to the reconciliation between an African heritage and European pedagogy; it is, effectively, a theoretical model for understanding the psychological and sociological divisions that are prevalent in American society. An examination of Du Bois’ contribution to Africana critical theory and “black existentialism” in conjunction with 20th century French existentialism provides a theoretical lens through which Ellison’s narrative can be interpreted; the protagonist struggles to procure a conception of his own identity in a predominantly racially oppressive American society. The encounters with various communities, from the Liberty Paints factory to the Brotherhood political group, dictate to the protagonist rigid behavioral standards for the black population. As the protagonist attempts to define himself through the expectations imposed upon him, in each instance, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and pressures him into a state of perpetual inauthenticity. Invisible Man is in essence, an analogy drawn between the “invisibility” that the protagonist applies fastidiously to his experience, and the modal criticism of the jazz aesthetic, which are rigorously applied to the African American social chronicle. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself tends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Ellison asserts himself as an artist and an individual; he is an heir to a distinctive African American literary culture and to the American heritage within the Western European philosophical tradition. Thus, Ellison alludes to a conceivable reality but at the same time contests the validity of the forms we use to give shape to it. Central to Du Bois’ text is “double-consciousness”, the collective mediation of the two cultures that comprise African American identity; early African American populations regarded Africa as a location of origin, whereas America was scrutinized as a place of unwilling enslavement. Though these populations intended to return to Africa, the results of slavery and southern acculturation rendered their identity as distorted. The intentional repression of vernacular speech, the institution of alternative names, and the conversion to Christianity ensured a divergent African cultural legacy. Du Bois compensates for this estrangement in the form of “double-consciousness”:The Negro is a sort if seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois, 32)Duality punctuates Du Bois’ text: contained by Jim Crow America’s color line, within the “Veil of Race,”(Du Bois, 79) black individuals are judged by their skins and not by their souls. But “above the Veil,” in the “kingdom of culture,” souls persist “uncolored,” enjoying “freedom for expansion and self-development.” (Du Bois, 33, 98) Du Bois placates reliance on this freedom, and that it will one day “rend the Veil”; this comprises the very substance of the sorrow songs of the slaves. These ancestral voices, the greatest expression of American art, claims Du Bois, declare “a truer world” where “men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins” (Du Bois, 197). Essentially, Du Bois sets himself a double venture: he operates both within and beyond the Veil, celebrating the “Negro soul” in the former, while preparing black Americans for the opportunity to dominate “above the Veil,” where the commanding human soul multiplies, protected by “the centres of culture.”(Du Bois, 97)In philosophical terms, particularly existential thinking, the work of Jean-Paul Sartre is significant to consider. Existentialism and Human Emotions demonstrates Sartre’s attempt to cultivate a unique brand of existentialism to replace traditional approaches to morality; the result is a faction of ethics dependent on “authenticity”. His brand of ontology is concerned with a combination of “existence precedes essence” and the concept of “bad faith: he claims that an individual’s existence predetermines their essence, that there is virtually nothing to dictate an individual’s character and intentions except for their own self conduct and cultivation. Sartre asserts:The essential consequence…is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. (Sartre, 52)Du Bois endorses a similar doctrine of philosophy in The Souls of Black Folk, however, extends the “individual freedom” to the collective freedom of the African American race. While attesting to the “longing” of the African American to overcome the social and psychic divisions imposed by American society, to “merge his double self into a better and truer self,” Du Bois envisioned that truer self as one in which the doubleness of African and American elements would continue to coexist: In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world (Du Bois, 215) The message that “Negro blood” insists on sending is conveyed through the jazz aesthetic; jazz music is the embodiment of the existential terms outlined by Sartre and Du Bois, as it is a platform for showcasing the individual cultural experience, and by extension, the communal African American narrative. Ellison’s prologue delegates the necessity for musical expression, wherein the narrator states:Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.”(Ellison, 8)Ellison addresses two major thematic concerns that characterize the novel: invisibility and the jazz aesthetic. The narrator is cognizant of the jazz dynamic that occurs in Armstrong’s music; unawareness of one’s invisibility enables the possibility for great artistry, but awareness of invisibility leads to comprehension. This cyclical relationship also characterizes Ellison’s novel more broadly, as it begins and ends in the same situation; it documents the protagonist’s awareness of invisibility to the eventual embrace of a state of invisibility, enabling him access to a larger perspective. Louis Armstrong is frequently considered the most influential soloist in the history of jazz; he is accredited with nearly, single-handedly transforming jazz, which originally evolved as a collective, ensemble-based musical act, into a medium for individual expression in which the soloist occupied the forefront position within a larger band. The reference to Armstrong establishes a “soundtrack” for the novel; Armstrong’s vocation as a soloist mirrors the “double-consciousness” that saturates the content of the novel, as he contends with an individual and collective mode of expression, and Ellison’s inclusion of “Black and Blue” represents one of jazz’s earliest attempts to make an open commentary on the subject of racism.Ellison’s prologue squarely situates the novel within larger literary and philosophical contexts; existentialism, or, the search for salvageable individual meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, has reached the height of its popularity at the time of Invisible Man’s 1952 publication. Ellison proposes to undertake an existentialist examination of individual experience, but through the lens of race relations in postwar America. Sartre’s ontology privileges the process of self-creation and artistic expression, as this acknowledgement of responsibility is crucial in alleviating inauthentic behavior. Sartre endorses “authenticity” when he asserts:He must assume the situation with the proud consciousness of being the author of it, for the very worst disadvantages or the worst threats which can endanger my person have meaning only in and through my project; and it is on the ground of the engagement which I am that they appear. (Sartre, 53)Sartre’s model expresses existentialist thought through the act of “authoring” one’s situation and accumulating individual purpose “in and through one’s project”; his claim for authenticity lies inherently in artistry and authorial intention. “Black and Blue”, a 1929 jazz standard composition by Fats Waller, and improvised distinctly by Louis Armstrong is directly referenced in the prologue, which suggests that Ellison was adherent to notions of “black existentialism”. Armstrong drawls the following lyrics:I’m White inside, but that don’t help my case/That’s life, cant hide, what is in my face/How would it end, ain’t got a friend/My only sin is in my skin/What did I do, to be so black and blue. (Armstrong, “Black and Blue”)The track narrates the question of black suffering as a philosophical problem. Black individuals often faced double standards in their efforts to attain equality in the wake of enslavement, colonialism, and racial apartheid. “Black and Blue” lyrically recognizes the contradictory dichotomy of African American identity; it indicates, “skin color” as the determinant of accessible agency in American society.Ellison’s narrative mimics that of improvisational jazz on both a thematic and stylistic level; the protagonist relates Armstrong’s music to his own desires and self-conceptions. Regarding the message of “Negro blood”, Ellison directly associates invisibility with the jazz aesthetic:Invisibility…gives one a slightly different sense of time; you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music. (Ellison,8)Ellison’s ostensibly pivotal metaphor of “invisibility” adopts an aural dimension when he considers Armstrong’s lyricism and rhythmic dexterity at creating a “slightly different sense of time.” The literary translation and reciprocity of Armstrong’s artistry of swing rhythm permits access into the intellectual context where Ellison intertwines his musical and social thought. Wilfried Raussert, in his article “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity”, explicates the tensions and correlations that arise in jazz composition and the African American social narrative. In reference to Armstrong’s “swing” time signatures, Raussert predicates: While the jazz band usually plays a slow rhythm on the way to the graveyard, a sudden shift to an intensified beat—due to playing double time—characterizes the music performed when the band accompanies the mourning community on its way back. Double time leads to an intensification of the beat. (Raussert, 523)This “doubleness” is reminiscent of the “doubleness” theorized in Du Bois’ text; swing intonation adopts double time to procure the individual and communal dichotomy of aural experience. In applying musical features to his own narrative, such as the shifting, improvisational style, Ellison achieves a literary modality for the jazz aesthetic. As Foucault aspired for a criticism that “would try not to judge but to bring an idea to life…It would multiply not judgment, but signs of existence”, jazz aesthetic, in the particular case of Ellison’s novel, is committed to rendering the existence of the narrator as purposeful. Ellison’s narrator is consistently subjugated by the limitations of ideology in the forms of the Dr. Bledsoe and the university institution, the Liberty Paints plant, and the affiliation with the Brotherhood. Throughout his encounters with these ideological systems, the narrator realizes that the racial prejudice of others causes them to perceive him only as they want to perceive him, and their limitations of vision consequently enforce limitation on his ability to act. Sartre’s entire philosophical doctrine if fundamentally concerned with the individual and his own self-perception; he asserts, “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.”(Sartre, 15) This is, again, the implication of the notion, “existence precedes essence,” wherein an individual’s purpose is dependent on his subjective existence, rather than the external and objective conception that accompanies him.During the protagonist’s trial with Mr. Norton, they are befallen with severe racial segregation at The Golden Day; this is one of the various ideological systems that the protagonist encounters and fails to procure agency within. He engages in a discussion with a clinically insane veteran, who argues the following:He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn’t digest it. Already he is – well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but also his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man! (Ellison, 94)Since the veteran is deemed as mentally insufficient, he cannot participate in the social discourse of which he speaks. His complaint regards the protagonist’ unyielding servitude and dedication to Mr. Norton, however, the passage addresses a distinct philosophical predicament, one for which Sartre can account for:There can be no other truth to take off from than this: I think; therefore, I exist. There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself…Secondly, this theory is the only one, which gives man dignity, the only one, which does not reduce him to an object. (Sartre, 36-7)Since the protagonist “represses his humanity” in a space that “has no meaning”, existentialist thought may prescribe to him a solution; Sartre inherits the model that Descartes formulated, “I think, therefore, I am,” or, “I think; therefore, I exist,” which renders the invisible man as visible, in existentialist terms. Consciousness equates existence; in these terms, the protagonist prevails intellectually, as his thought processes comprise his “dignity” and humanism. As the novel progresses, and the narrator enter into the Brotherhood, he seems to be exhibiting an advancement in the ideological systems that consistently oppressed him in his home community. This advancement, however, is an illusion; rather, the protagonist remains unable to act according to his own existential conduct, and becomes literally incapable of being himself. The Brotherhood advertises opportunities to fight for racial equality by working within the ideology of the organization; yet, the system abuses the narrator as a “token” black man in its abstract project:Becoming aware that there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary; the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself. (Ellison, 380)The narrator becomes aware of his own sense of “double-consciousness” as he makes reference to the duality of his character; the “old self” represents the African origins of Du Bois’ model, while the “new public self” signifies the forced integration into American society. Du Bois accounts for the “illusion” of human equality:Human equality does not even entail, as it is sometimes said, absolute equality of opportunity; for certainly the natural inequalities of inherent genius and varying gift make this a dubious phrase. But there is more and more clearly recognized minimum of opportunity and maximum of freedom to be, to move and to think, which the modern world denies to no being which it recognizes as a real man. (Du Bois, 144)The protagonist’s character corresponds to Du Bois’ theoretical framework; the veteran depreciation of the narrator’s intellectual capacity, and the “invisibility” that distorts him throughout the plot progression coincide to manifest a character that lacks the recognition of being “a man.” It is only through accepting and embracing the invisibility that the narrator may procure a feasible identity with the possibility for agency within the ideological systems that impose on him. Absurdity and meaninglessness are imperative characteristics in existentialist thought, as they aid in conceiving human purpose in a world that exhibits no purpose. Ellison’s narrative style is at times erratic and improvisational, imitating the unpredictable nature of the “solo” in swing and bebop jazz genres. The mode of conveyance borders on the absurd in some instances, such as the protagonist’s confrontation with Ras:I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine. . . . And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others, whether for Ras’s or Jack’s. (Ellison, 418)This excerpt documents the epiphany that the narrator undergoes; it represents a pivotal moment in the narrator’s existential breakthrough, as he realizes that his own identity is the source of meaning in his life and that acting to fulfill the expectations of external forces can only prove destructive. Ras’s threatening to kill the narrator provokes the narrator to perceive the world as meaningless and absurd and the complexity of American life as equally absurd. Ellison borrows the word “absurd” directly from the work of the French existentialists, such as Sartre, who characterized the universe as such and claimed that the only meaning to be found in existence is that with which the individual invests his own life. The only motivation to which the narrator can cling is an affirmation that his own absurdity is more important to him than Jack’s or Ras’s. The action of hurling Ras’s spear back at him demonstrates the narrator’s refusal to be subject any longer to others’ visions and demands—he finally commits himself fully to an attempt to assert his true identity.The novel concludes in the same state at is began: the narrator is situated in the underground housing unit, intricately ornamented in thousands of bright lights. The light may be a mechanism to highlight the humanness of the narrator, as his skin and soul are rendered visible “beyond the Veil” of human existence. The epilogue determines the existential status of the narrator:And my 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. (Ellison, 417)This is the protagonist’s final revelation; it encapsulates the “existence precedes essence” ideal that is intrinsic to Sartre’s doctrine and the “double-consciousness” of Du Bois’ argument. The invisible man adopts a self-perceptive attitude that privileges individual existence, and realizes the dual structure of his imposed identity, to which he ultimately rebels.The prevalence of existential influence in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is not coincidental; rather, in contributing to a discourse that is philosophically, sociologically and psychologically established by figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ellison’s brand of “black existentialism” becomes conceivable. Existentialism, in the three figures considered, has the tendency to focus on the investigation of human existence and the conditions that formulate this existence. Individualism is prevalent in determining human purpose; though this concrete individual existence must ne the primary source of information in the study of man, certain conditions, such as those regarding racial segregation in Du Bois’ text and the ideological systems that saturate Ellison’s narrative, are commonly held to be endemic to human existence. These conditions are frequently related to the inherent meaninglessness or absurdity of experience and its apparent contrast to predetermined progressions, which extensively present themselves as meaningful. Ellison, whether intentionally or not, envelops the theories of African American humanism and French existentialism. Jazz culture, as explicated by Ellison, adopts aspects from African American origin and European societal influence; by extension, the modal jazz aesthetic that conveys the Invisible Man, is the depiction of “jazz existentialism”Invisible Man is in essence, an analogy drawn between the “invisibility” that the protagonist applies fastidiously to his experience, and the modal criticism of the jazz aesthetic, which are rigorously applied to the African American social chronicle. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself tends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Ellison asserts himself as an artist and an individual; he is an heir to a distinctive African American literary culture and to the American heritage within the Western European philosophical tradition. Thus, Ellison alludes to a conceivable reality but at the same time contests the validity of the forms we use to give shape to it.Works CitedDu Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Vintage /Library of America, Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage International, 2010. Print.Raussert, Wilfried. “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity.” Amerikastudien / American Studies45.4 (2000): 519-34. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel, 1985. Print.1990. Print.Welch, Sharon D. “”Lush Life”: Foucault’s Analytics of Power and a Jazz Aesthetic.”The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology. Ed. Graham Ward. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 79-105. Print.
The Values of the Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the story of an educated black man who has been oppressed and controlled by white men throughout his life. As the narrator, he is nameless throughout the novel as he journeys from the South, where he studies at an all-black college, to Harlem where he joins a Communist-like party known as the Brotherhood. Throughout the novel, the narrator is on a search for his true identity. Several letters are given to him by outsiders that provide him with a role: student, patient, and a member of the Brotherhood. One by one he discards these as he continues to grow closer to the sense of his true self. As the novel ends, he decides to hide in an abandoned cellar, plotting to undermine the whites. The entire story can be summed up when the narrator says “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole- or showed me the hole I was in….” During the novel, the narrator values several important things which shape his identity as well as his future. Through his experiences and the people he has met, the narrator discovers the important values of his education, his invisibility, and the meaning of his grandfather’s advice.From the very beginning of the novel the narrator values his education. His education first brings him a calfskin briefcase, when the superintendent rewards him for his success, saying “Take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people.” The narrator treasures the briefcase so much because it symbolizes his education. He carries it throughout the whole novel, and it is the only object he takes into the cellar from his former life. Next, the narrator is overjoyed at what he finds inside the briefcase: “It was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly on the floor.” The narrator could now afford to take his education further. Education is so important to the narrator because it raises his status above the other blacks. It is the difference that literally separates him from his slave ancestors, as well as the multitude of uneducated black men at the time. The narrator values his education from the very beginning of the novel, as it brings him many rewards.Towards the end of the novel, the narrator beings to value his invisibility. The narrator first begins to grasp the value of invisibility when he says “I was and yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen. It was frightening and as I sat there I sensed another frightening world of possibilities.” He says this when he takes on the identity of Rhinehart. He begins to realize that “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen.” Not only is he entertained at people mistaking his identity, but it allows him to slip by Ras the Exhorter unnoticed. Next, invisibility ends up saving his life in the riots, as he thinks “I felt myself plunge down….a long drop that ended upon a load of black coal…..I lay in the black dark upon the black coal no longer running, hiding or concerned.” Men were chasing him with baseball bats, demanding that he hand over his briefcase. The narrator ran away and fell through a manhole, finding himself in a coal cellar. He was now literally invisible to everyone, allowing him to escape. Finally, the narrator’s new found invisibility allows him to live in the coal cellar, where he can “Now, aware of my invisibility…live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites.”Here, the narrator plans his return to society, when he will carry out his plan to fight against whites. As the narrator develops and matures towards the end of the novel, he realizes that the invisibility he once cursed can be highly beneficial to him.The advice that the narrator receives from his grandfather is the final, and perhaps the most significant of his values. The advice of his grandfather states “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight… Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He first grasps this advice in Chapter 24, after Tod Clifton’s funeral and after the Brotherhood betrays him. These words have haunted him his whole life, and now he fully understands and believes this advice. This new understanding leads the narrator to develop a new plan. He decides to follow the advice and become a spy, pretending to be loyal to the Brotherhood, while plotting to overthrow them. The very next day, he begins by seeking to use Sybil as an inside source of information. At last, the advice finally brings the narrator to his purpose in life. This advice brings him closer to his true self, as he realizes what he must do. His grandfather’s advice determines and shapes his future, and it becomes the basis of his plans. The advice of his grandfather has the greatest impact on the narrator, as his understanding of it completes his search for self identity.Everyone has values. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator values his education, as it brings him many rewards. As he develops and matures, he begins to value his invisibility, which resulted from whites refusing to see him. His invisibility allowed him to survive, and it became a key part in his plan to end oppression against blacks. Finally, the advice of his grandfather which disturbed him his whole life ended up being his purpose in life. These values shape the narrator’s identity, as well as his path. Although all these values are extremely important to the narrator, I cannot completely relate to all of them. One value that I share with the narrator is education. Education is a huge part of my life, as it plays a large role in determining where I will go and to what extent I will succeed in my future. A value that I partially share with the narrator is his invisibility. Although my feelings of invisibility are not to the extent of the narrator’s, many times I have felt that people refused to see me and give me the recognition that I deserve. Finally, I cannot relate to the narrator’s valuing of his grandfather’s advice. I have not been through the experiences that he and his grandfather had been, mainly because I have grown up in a different time period. The narrator faced constant oppression throughout the entire novel. He managed to survive and succeed because of his values. Throughout Ellison’s novel, the narrator possessed the strong values of education, invisibility, and his grandfathers advice.