The Absence of Identity, the Representation of Oppression: Concepts in Ralph Ellison and Leslie Marmon Silko
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko are entirely different, at least on the surface; they focus on two separate groups of people who progress through distinct journeys. In Invisible Man, the Invisible Man is searching for his identity as a nameless character wandering through life. Tayo, in Ceremony, struggles with his PTSD as well as his Native American lineage. Despite the contrastive plots of both stories, the characters convey the same message by the end: it is their responsibility to represent and speak for the “invisible”, as well as to teach the “blind” to see.
The last line of Invisible Man is an important part of the story because of its ambiguous meaning: “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (Ellison 581). Because it does not have the capacity to hear low sounds, the human ear cannot discern low frequency noise. Therefore, the Invisible Man implies that he speaks for those who cannot be heard, metaphorically. An important aspect of Invisible Man is that the main character has no name. A name represents one’s heritage, which greatly affects the person one becomes later in life. Without a name, the narrator must search for an identity, whether that means recovering his old one or creating a new self. The message of the novel revolves around this character’s lack of identity; without one, he can be a representative for the masses, or for a specific group such as the black citizens of New York. In order for his character to be able to apply to all people, the author leaves out a multitude of events that transpire throughout the Invisible Man’s life, and the emotions he feels. In this way, the narrator can represent an abundance of people “on the lower frequencies.” He wants to be a voice both for people like him, who feel invisible — unseen and unheard — and for those who are blind and deaf to the invisible. He has an epiphany, realizing he must move on towards the future, even if it does not necessarily hold great things for him. The Invisible Man remarks, “I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. There’s a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring — I hope of spring” (580). Though still invisible and not knowing where the next journey will take him, the Invisible Man concludes that he must move on and must continue to live. Even after being ignored for so long, and after seeing so many people whose voices have not been heard, the Invisible Man feels he has a “socially responsible role to play,” (581). His responsibility is to embody the voices of the downtrodden and invisible people of the world.
The responsibility to speak for the repressed is also felt by Tayo in Ceremony. He yearns to accept his Native American lineage. Just like the “lower frequencies” in Invisible Man are ignored, the white people take no notice of the grievances of the Laguna Pueblo. The white people continue to expand and advance their society, while the pueblo people remain silenced and isolated in their own small world. At the story’s end, Tayo completes the ceremony, bettering his PTSD momentarily, and connects with the tradition and ancestry of his tribe. As a result of his partially successful self-healing, Tayo is able to shift his focus to the future. He can now live rather than just exist as the “white smoke” he was before (Silko 14). His whole life, he has known that living is hard; he now understands that living while being dead inside is much worse. Like the Invisible Man, Tayo “is invisible. His words are formed with an invisible tongue, they have no sound” (15). Because he has lost his identity, he cannot be seen or heard. He has no immediate family, like the Invisible Man, and his extended family all look at him with distain and shame because his mother slept with a white man. His skin shows that he is of mixed race and sets him apart from the people of the tribe.
However, by the book’s conclusion, Tayo wants to represent the Laguna Pueblo, despite his tainted genes. He reconnects with the Native American traditions after his ceremony and becomes confident in his past. He includes himself as a part of the tribe and is no longer embarrassed of his people’s ceremonies and rituals. Because of this newfound confidence, he can proceed to find his identity in the present. Just like the Invisible Man, Tayo’s journey’s end is unclear. Tayo completes the ceremony, rendering his PTSD “dead for now” (261), however he has no idea what the future will hold. Yet, the use of the word “sunrise” at the beginning and end of the book implies that Tayo is moving on to something, to a new journey, even not knowing what it is. Sunrises, just like spring, mentioned by the Invisible Man, represent rebirth and a new beginning. Tayo relates to the Invisible Man because, in the end, he is not only able to represent a group larger than himself, but is also able to look to the future rather than his troubled past.
Both the Invisible Man and Tayo advance through journeys to find themselves and end up telling a story that is relatable to other oppressed cultures. Both of their journeys end with confidence in the past, as well as hope for whatever the future may bring them. Divergent though they may seem, these two narratives almost literally circle back to a similar place: a position of worldly, hard-won optimism.
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