Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison: The Consciousness Of Racism

May 18, 2022 by Essay Writer

Invisible Man, a novel written by Ralph Ellison, proclaims the social issues brought upon African Americans and their struggle with personal individuality, racial standards, and the invisibility of black identity in the narrator’s life. The novel begins with the narrator’s description of him living in the basement of a building, free of charge, that was limited for rent to whites only. This area was his secret place, “a place forgotten about and shut off during the nineteenth century” (5). He was also stealing his source of electricity from the Monopolated Light and Power Company enabling him to illuminate his space with 1,369 lightbulbs. Light is essential to the narrator because it “confirms [his] reality and gives birth to [his] form (6). His living condition is a reminder to him of his complications with his social invisibility of trying to be an established black man in a white empowered society. His proclamation of “being invisible, simply because people refuse to see [him]” (3) is not due to him living underground away from the rest of the world, but because as a black man, he bestows very little to no importance. He explains that his invisibility is the result of other people refusing to see him, and he has lived his life without knowing who he is to himself. History has a way of boomeranging itself as it seems to be progressing, yet it comes back and unknowingly hits you. An example is the existence of institutionalized racism reigning heavy in this novel as well as in American society. This form of racism is identified by the attitudes and racial bias of people because of systematic laws being evident providing racially characterized disadvantages to the Black community and other minorities. Although the physical act of slavery was lawfully put to an end in 1865, the mental effects of it have never fully been eradicated for we have truly been free when we discover who we are. This idea is proven today by the unlawful incarcerations, denial to property and residence, and mistreatment from those who still do not consider the black community to be people because of their skin color.

The narrator speaks of his grandfather as “a quiet old man” and the “meekest of men” (16). He remembers his grandfather’s words as they were more alarming than his death was. It appears the grandfather only experienced physical death as his words became attached inside of the narrator’s mind as a representation of his grandfather’s spirit continuing to linger on. Upon the grandfather being on his deathbed, he stated some words of advice to the narrator’s father saying “Son, I want you to keep up the good fight. Our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. Overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, and agree ‘em to death and destruction” (16). This statement was to encourage the narrator’s father and family to conform to the surface, but always resist underneath. He advised them to appear to be obedient and servile when, yet they should be revolting right in the faces of the white men.

I sought out irony in the words of the narrator as he said “He was seen as a man of desirable conduct and when being praised for his conduct, [he] felt a guilt that in some way [he] was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folk” (17). The narrator believes that his expected role as a black man should have been to portray his anger and rage towards the white people. He bestowed a sense of guilt that he was doing the white people an injustice as he was conveying an inauthentic persona, when historically the white community was doing an injustice to him because of their treatment due to his racial identity. The narrator finds that the role he pretends to play restricts him from being free spirited as he states, “the nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are” (156). Although he was not motivated to act any differently towards them, he felt they should have been given the response they were expecting but were not looking to receive…a fight for justice and equality.

At the narrator’s high school graduation, he gives a speech on how humility was the essence of progress. Due to the speech being so well received, he was invited to deliver a speech at a gathering of the town’s most prominent white citizens. Before the narrator delivers his speech, he is herded into a group of his schoolmates and told to fight in battle royal. The setting of the event was sophisticatedly described as the “room was large with high ceilings and the chairs were arranged in neat rows…revealing a gleaming space on the polished floor” (17). But the bizarre nature of what took place was a representation of the blinded black versus black chaos for the amusement of the white people. The group of men are given a reward of fake gold coins, otherwise known as brass tokens, that are pitched onto an electrified rug. They must jostle, like bloodthirsty animals, to pick up the coins while the white men are entertained by their suffering of being electrocuted symbolizing that the “power” the narrator stole from the light and power company has now come back to shock him proving the white man’s superiority. The young black men are made to look at a young white woman dancing “a slow sensuous movement” (19) who displays an American flag tattoo upon which amounts to liberty, freedom, and justice. These are the values that this novel suggest are out of reach of the black man just as the white woman is dancing before them. After the narrator delivers his speech, he receives a briefcase and a scholarship to an all-black institution. That same night, he dreams that the letter inside of the briefcase says “To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” which haunts him just as his grandfather’s advice did. The narrator’s dream prompts him to believe he must embody two identities: his authentic character that must be concealed if he desires to advance and a replicated identity of his grandfather as a meek, compliant man that white society calls for him to be.

The narrator is working for Liberty Paints Plant in New York, a successful company that sabotages blackness to manufacture its bestselling final product, optic white. He realizes that he is amongst a company that depends on the concept of blackness as it is the composition of the work force and the basis of the paint because of its mixing of the “milky brown substance” (199) and “ten drops of another black chemical” (200) stirred vigorously until the paint becomes glossy white. The company’s strict production of just white paint symbolizes their racist views as they advertise to “Keep America pure with Liberty Paints” (196). Liberty Paint’s slogan, “If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White” (218) reminds the narrator of a childhood jingle, “If you’re white, you’re right” (218). He sees how this slogan is evident in his work experience as people believe that the machinery behind the creation of the paint is all there is to it, seizing away the credit of the black man’s work. There is nothing that goes into the perfection of the paint, that the narrator has not put his black, hardworking hands on.

Blindness is an important theme in this novel as it is in the form of racial prejudice. In the beginning of the novel, when the narrator is blindfolded in the battle royal, the white men who are in attendance are blinded by their impression of black people. The men are viewed as savages who are fighting to survive in the ring symbolizing a black man’s fight to be successful in American society. The narrator addresses this predicament at a brotherhood rally saying, They think we’re blind–un-commonly blind. And I don’t wonder. Think about it, they’ve dispossessed us each of one eye from the day we’re born. So now we can only see in straight white lines. We’re a nation of one-eyed mice’ (343). His speech strives to inform society of the dispossession of black Americans. African Americans are blinded by the desires of the white men by being deceived into fighting one another when they should be countering the treatment, they are receiving from the white men themselves. Blindness in this novel is capturing the reason behind and incapacity to put inequality to an end. Discernment in Invisible Man is warped depicted by the lack of vision form the characters: the white men, the blacks, and the rest of society. This inability to see the racial prejudices is what leads to invisibility, but the narrator believes that realizing your invisibility is a vital part of identity for once you are aware of it, you can comprehend how you contribute to society and use your knowledge to your advantage. The narrator has honored his individuality and recognizes that he must not sacrifice himself to the white community in order to confidently arise from being underground.


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