Home > Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal > Issue 1 >
Racism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
Racism in Ralph Ellison's
Invisible Man

Carol Fosse

Critics generally agree that Ralph Ellison's award winning novel, Invisible Man, is a work of genius, broad in its appeal and universal in its meaning. Its various themes have been stated as: "the geography of hell . . . the real brotherhood of man" (Morris 5), the emergence of Negro personality from the "fixed boundaries of southern life" (Bone 46), and "the search for human and national identity" (Major 17). Rich in symbolism and cleverly interwoven, the product of seven years work, Invisible Man's linear plot structure, told from the first-person, limited point of view, and framed by the Everyman protagonist from his subterranean home, follows the narrator in his search for identity in a color-conscious society whose constricting social and cultural bigotry produces an accelerated pattern of violence and oppression which attempts to efface the narrator of his individuality, thus assigning him an "invisible" non-identity within America.

The underlying force in Invisible Man is the atmosphere of America that begins in the early 1900's of the segregated deep south, and ends in the North's predominately black neighborhood of Harlem during the 1930's. As critic Marcus Klein states, "Everything in the novel has clarified this point: that the bizarre accident that has led [the Invisible Man] to take up residence in an abandoned coal cellar is no accident at all, that the underworld is his inevitable home, that given the social facts of America, both invisibility and what he calls his 'hibernation' are his permanent condition" (109).

Ellison's protagonist, the effaced narrator, is a young African-American male from the segregated deep south, who believes himself to be an "invisible man," a black man whose identity is, was and always will remain unseen and, therefore, unappreciated in American society unless something is done (3). Critic Todd Libber points out that invisibility results from a perception each society holds to be true. What does not fit into that idea of “reality” is therefore assigned to “chaos” and is invisible (90).

The rising action takes root at the time when, on his death bed, the narrator's grandfather reveals to the family that the life of a black person living in a foreign "white" America has always been and still is a life of war and opposition, and to keep up the fight. This puzzles the young impressionable narrator, for his grandfather has been "the meekest of men" who, as is further revealed, believes himself to have been "a traitor and a spy" all these years, and that his meekness has, in actuality, been "a dangerous activity." The tactics of "agree 'em to death" and "undermine 'em with grins" (15,16) are the tools that enable the Negro to survive, in essence agreeing to invisibility, until blindness strikes down white society (Margolies 135). Thus, Grandfather's words establish and foreshadow the cultural beliefs, such as racism and bigotry that the young narrator will encounter in a prejudicial society as he navigates his way through the social mine fields of America.

Further, the surreal circus-like atmosphere that envelopes race relations in our country is no laughing matter. Indeed, as the narrator tucks away enough experiences for a gradual dawning to unfold within himself, he sees the atrocities that have been committed, based upon race as a very serious matter. It is this circus clown act that strives to keep people of color oppressed and running, stripping all who fall under its big-tent canopy of their dignity, humanity, and their rights to be free individuals of a multi-faceted society. All the participants, including the audience members, contribute or in some way are inter-connected to the act. The narrator's indoctrination into the social facts of the time begins upon his high school graduation when he is invited by the school superintendent to give his valedictorian speech at a gathering of the "town's leading white citizens" (17). The circus act continues as the thrill of attending the event gives way to the terror of demoralization when the group of drunken, buffoons that the town leaders have become immediately cage and pit the narrator against his fellow man in a sadistic boxing match, the battle royal: the evening's star entertainment.

The battle royal reinforces "the caste system of a Southern town" (Klein 113). He eventually gives the speech, but at a price. The narrator loses some of his naivete when the feather on the intellectual cap he wears into the occasion becomes frayed in the process of "moral insight gained" (Langman 122). The society is overt in its aim to maintain the caste system so the narrator is rewarded with a scholarship, courtesy of the town's leaders, to the state college for Negroes. "Overjoyed," he is filled with gratitude (32), although the true significance of this action is, at first, lost on the naive narrator. Thus, the circus-like atmosphere provides the surreal background from which the characters emerge, and whose catalytic properties accelerate the pattern of racial violence.

Social prejudice and injury follow the narrator as he attends the southern state college for Negroes. His new home is like "Eden" (109), and scholastically he excels. However, the education he thought he would receive is much different than the education he ultimately receives after chauffeuring Mr. Norton, one of the college's white founding fathers, for a day. During the day's drive, they meet Jim Trueblood, a poor Negro tenant farmer, whose story of incest and poverty serves as a reminder of the African-American experience, while simultaneously resulting in a state of shock to Mr. Norton's system. This suggests that the Northern white liberal philanthropist insists on the invisibility of the Negro as much as his Southern racist counterpart, so that his ancestors' complicity in slavery is concealed from himself (Margolies 136).

When Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, finds out about the day's activities, it also results in a confrontation between black president and black student. The narrator's life lesson is a contortionist’s act of adherence to the southern realities of life. His mask of power threatened, Bledsoe reasons that the narrator has shirked his responsibility of showing a white man "only what [the black man wants him] to see" (100). Further, he should have lied to Mr. Norton for "to please a white man is to tell him a lie" (137). Because he has endangered the school, the narrator is expelled. Bledsoe also gives him twisted letters of recommendation for white employers, an act foreshadowed in his grandfather's "Keep This Nigger Boy Running" dream (33).

Violence and oppression continue as the narrator moves north to New York and secures a factory job at Liberty Paints. He works in a boiler-type room alongside Lucius, an old black man, in the heart of the factory mixing the chemicals that make up the fundamental bases of the paints produced, symbolic of the underlying unseen fabric of American society (Klein 119). Threatened by the younger person's presence, and unable to see eye to eye, they get into a fistfight. While their attention is diverted, the boilers explode, and the narrator regains consciousness in the factory's hospital. A bizarre series of experiments are performed on the young man's body, aimed at determining what kind of animal a black person is. The “doctors” hope to replace his essence with something more subdued, more fitting, and less threatening to society. Satisfactorily altered, he is released, given severance pay, and sent home.

Wandering the streets of Harlem, the narrator is taken in by Mary Rambo, a maternal figure, who strengthens and nourishes him. His new career is launched when the narrator witnesses the eviction of an elderly couple (Holland, 64). Reminded of his past, he is moved, and gives an impromptu speech, inciting those gathered in the crowd to take demonstrative action. A red-headed man, Brother Jack, witnesses this phenomenon, and offers the narrator a job as speaker for and leader of the people of Harlem with his organization, The Brotherhood. The narrator accepts his offer, but in the process is given a new identity, new home, and indoctrination into the organization's secret agenda for equality. The narrator is taken under Brother Jack's wing, and slowly but methodically instructed in the ways of the Brotherhood. The narrator's job is to hear the grievances of his people and then to articulate them according to the ideals of the underground Brotherhood. But little is made known to him of the true forces behind The Brotherhood, and of the true nature in which the movement is heading. In time, philosophical differences arise as well as the clash of egos, and the hopes of suppressed African-Americans living in Harlem take a back seat, as do the narrator's, when he discovers that he, too, has been duped by the fundamental white forces whose brainchild of equality the organization has feigned to champion.

The climax of Invisible Man occurs when the microcosmic world of Harlem erupts in a shower of fire, gunshots, looting and terror; the narrator barely escapes with his life, but not before he silences his alter-ego, the black nationalist Ras the Destroyer. Beneath the city's streets in an underground coal shoot, "dimensionless" and without time (559), the denouement occurs when the narrator loses himself upon the realization that Brother Jack has set him up only to knock him down; he becomes lost in a sea of angry darkness. In a dream-like state, the narrator recognizes the same transgressions committed by others of the past, including the school superintendent, Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Norton, Ras and Jack. Each has tried "to run him"; all have oppressed him (559-560).

The narrator frees himself of illusions, which results in his belief of being "invisible." He no longer idealizes the people from his past. His identity and uniqueness have been claimed by others and what they dictated it to be, for "[they do] not see a person, as you or I are persons; [they see] a member of a race" (Brennan 170). Additionally, his fate and the fate of all Americans are intertwined. Until this is recognized, he remains an “invisible man."

Works Cited

  • Bone, Robert. "Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination." Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. M. G. Cooke. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971. 45-63.
  • Brennan, Timothy. "Ellison and Ellison: The Solipsism of Invisible Man." CLA Journal XXV (Dec 1981): 162-81.
  • Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: The Modern Library, 1994.
  • Holland, Laurence B. "Ellison in Black and White: Confession, Violence and Rhetoric in 'Invisible Man'." Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel since 1945. Ed. A. Robert Lee. London: Vision Press, 1980. 54-73.
  • Klein, Marcus. "Ralph Ellison." After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century. Cleveland: World Pub., 1964. 71-146.
  • Langman, F.H. "Reconsidering Invisible Man." The Critical Review. 18 (1976) 114-27.
  • Lieber, Todd M. "Ralph Ellison and the Metaphor of Invisibility in Black Literary Tradition." American Quarterly. Mar. 1972: 86-100.
  • Major, Clarence. American Poetry Review. Nov/Dec. (1973) 17.
  • Margolies, Edward. "History as Blues: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man" Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1968. 127-48.
  • Morris, Wright. "The World Below." The New York Times Book Review 13 Apr.1952: 5.

Home  |  Contact Us  |  Who We Are  |  Establishing A Greatbooks Curriculum  |  Great Books Course Modules And Teaching Resources
Assessment  |  Awards And Media Recognition  |  Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal  |  Core Author List
Great Books And The Crisis In Underserved Student Education  |  Forum  |  Site Map
National Great Books Curriculum