The Trope of Invisibility and its Political Stakes
Racial discrimination represents an issue which damages the foundation of any civilized society – it turns people against each other and has no basis except ignorance and thirst for power. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” approaches this problem through the eyes of a young black man, at the beginning of the twentieth century in America, an invisible entity without a voice in a divided society, in which political decisions are made by the white people in power.
The main character is appropriately given no name, being an epitome of all black people in America. After the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, African-Americans were officially freed from slavery, and during the reconstruction period which followed, they gained more influence in political and social circles. Nonetheless, the following years brought drastic changes due to the implementation of certain laws which took away many of their rights. The Invisible Man, as all black people in America, felt the outcome of these laws – although they were supposed to be equal to white people, they were not allowed to use the same facilities as them or to attend the same education institutions, they were prevented from gathering political or social influence and they were constantly disregarded by the upper class. On the whole, they were seen as unimportant and less than human by their white counterparts. This situation is presented in Ralph Ellison’s book through the metaphor of invisibility, which refers to the irrelevance of African-Americans in a society dominated by whites.
The Invisible Man’s not being named is representative for his lack of recognition as an individual in society. Having a name would mean having an identity, a distinct and unique personality, but his being stripped of something so common emphasizes the protagonist’s state of translucence in a world to which he does not matter. Invisibility is not a physical problem, but it is rather the way the others see him. Therefore, it is closely related to blindness, which “is the state of those who refuse them as individual beings [and] these conditions are complementary.” (Lopez Miralles 3) Blindness is not a disease of the body, but a malady of the mind, a problem of the “inner eyes” (Ellison 3). Ignorance and prejudice are, in the end, just matters of convenience to those from the upper layer of society, who are too afraid to lose or even share power, as the narrator noticed: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” (Ellison 3) Consequently, reinforcing racial stereotypes would only strengthen the foundation of their power, at the cost of a divided society.
This discrimination is injurious for both races, since it only turns them against each other. Refusing to acknowledge the equality between the two can only lead to resentment from the discriminated part, often degenerating into violence. The confrontation in the street between the Invisible Man and the white man, after accidentally bumping into each other illustrates the lack of balance between what was expected of black people and what they were given in return. The laws would have made it impossible for a black person to defend themselves in front of a white man, or to stand equal chances in front of a trial – and even in a situation where the African-American was not at fault, “the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all.” (Ellison 12) Living in this reality, where he was to be punished regardless of his actions, the Invisible Man refused to feel responsible what he did, as he noted with irony: “Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!” (Ellison 4) His violence was merely the result of social determinism – since he was not treated like a human being, he did not feel that it was necessary for him to respect any figure of authority, regardless of their power. This violence against white people led, nonetheless, to a more hateful response from the latter, in a continuous war between the races, so “both the Invisible Man and American society share the blame for their mutual invisibility and blindness.” (Morel 6)
The conflict between the two men, at night, is symbolic for the unavoidable confrontation between races. The Invisible Man is a phantom, while the white person is a sleepwalker, so the two cannot coexist in peace as long as they are not part of the same world, of the same reality. There is an imbalance between the impalpable phantom and the physical, but not fully conscious sleepwalker. The phantom is more awake than the sleepwalker, but the latter has an identity which is visible to everyone and, therefore, he has more power to assert.
The clash between races can also be noticed in the Invisible Man’s war with the Monopolated Light & Power, from which he stole energy to make his hole “warm and full of light.” (Ellison 5) It seems indeed “strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light,” (Ellison 6) but it is usually the case that one desires what they are missing. The Monopolated Light & Power represents the supremacy of the white race in social and political issues, while the narrator’s theft is symbolic for his rebellion against his condition and a quiet statement that he deserves equality. Since he cannot gain direct power, or have access to light without stealing, he is “hibernating”, waiting for a chance to fight discrimination and rise to an equal position.
The place which was supposed to be dark, the “hole in the ground” (Ellison 5) is filled with light, so “Ellison’s use of these symbols not only places the light beneath, rather than “above”; it places the light within, though it is important to note that the power for Invisible Man’s light comes from the outside.” (O’Meally 154) The light from within indicates the narrator’s realization of his own importance and value, although actually putting his qualities forward as a member of the society would be impossible without the acceptance of the white race in power.
The discrepancy between the two sides is emphasized in the representative scene of the battle royal, in which the narrator is tricked into joining a bloody and dehumanizing fight with other black people, for the entertainment of “leading white citizens” (Ellison 14). Not only do they have to fight each other, but their eyes are also tied with white cloth, making them blind towards the white spectators, as well as towards their own race and identity. The young black men cannot see each other or their white oppressors, so the two races become “invisible to each other as individuals.” (Lopez Miralles 60) The color of the cloth is symbolic for power exercised by the influential whites – even if the African-Americans wanted to take the cloth off, they were forced to put it back on, being kept in darkness deliberately, so that they could not escape from the shadow of ignorance.
The narrator is also invisible to himself – under the control of the whites, he could not even command his own movements, and he felt that he “had no dignity” and “stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man.” (Ellison 18) He had no power to fight back those who stole his freedom, and this is mainly because of the strategy of his oppressors to keep the black race disorganized and humiliated. Intentionally setting African-Americans against each other, channeling their energy towards the basic instinct of survival made it impossible for them to see their true potential and to realize the downgrading situation they were forced to take part in. Thus, “the blindfolded boys from the battle royal are blind for not recognizing their humiliation” (López Miralles 61), and the white people only directed a show in which the black race was made invisible to itself, unable to escape.
The political implications of the battle royal lie in the struggles of the black race in a capitalist society. Since African-Americans had no political or economic power, they had to endure more than white people, only to earn less than them, and in the process, to “overcome unnecessary hazards, often arbitrarily imposed”, and publicly make fools of themselves. (Kostelanetz 9) This alienation and exploitation of individuals ultimately creates a class division which forces the ones at the bottom to struggle and fight each other, while supporting the ones at the top. (Hill) In much the same way, the opportunist whites who directed the battle royal were “given entertainment and a reaffirmation that their race is the dominant one” (Hill), while the African-Americans had to fight for the little they could get. In the end, the deepest desire of the Invisible Man, as well as the whole black race is general, was simply equal chances in society, but they were kept subdued, in fear, for the benefit of the higher political and social classes, who required them to “know [their] place at all times” (Ellison 25)
In conclusion, invisibility is a metaphor for the social and political situation of black people living in America at the beginning of the 20th century, as they were disregarded and ridiculed by the white race. The Invisible Man is representative for all African-Americans, trying to survive in an adverse society and waiting for the right moment to make their voice heard.
Hill, Jordan Alexander, Symbols of Race, Identity and Politics in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
Kostelanetz, Richard, “The Politics of Ellison’s Booker: “Invisible Man” as Symbolic History”, Chicago Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1967, pp. 5-26
López Miralles, Alejandro, “Invisibility and Blindness in Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s Native Son”, Philologica Urcitana, Vol. 9, September 2013, pp. 57-66
Morel, Lucas E. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man, University Press of Kentucky, Kentucky: 2015
O’Meally, Robert G., New Essays on Invisible Man, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1988
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