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Ellison’s Influences and Inspirations for the Invisible Man
Symposium: Great Books Student Scholarly Journal
Issue One
Ellison’s Influences and Inspirations for the
Invisible Man

Barbara Sherman

All authors draw upon past experiences, people they have known, places they have been, as well as their own philosophy of life to write. Ralph Ellison, in his book Shadow and Act refers to this process when he writes, “The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike” (xix). In preparing to write his novel he notes that, “[d]etails of old photographs and rhymes and riddles and children’s games, church services and college ceremonies, practical jokes and political activities observed during my prewar days in Harlem-all fell into place” (xxvii). While the novel Invisible Man is not autobiographical, the plot, settings, characters, themes, and point of view show the influence of people, places, and stories from his childhood.

A case in point is the plot of Invisible Man. The plot is divided into three main divisions: Invisible Man’s school days, his involvement with the Brotherhood, and what happens to him during the Harlem race riot. Ellison draws heavily on his years spent at the Tuskeegee Institute for the first part of the novel. Jack Bishop, in his book Ralph Ellison maintains that all of Invisible Man’s college days are based on Ellison’s own days at Tuskeegee (45).

Most critics agree that the Brotherhood is a euphemism for the Communist Party which was active in the US from the beginning of the 1920s. In an article entitled “Communist Party of the United States” in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Robin D. G. Kelly reports that the popularity of the party among Blacks was due to its work to end racism and its support of Blacks in the courts (626). Ellison was not immune to this; he writes in the introduction to his novel that his brief involvement with the Communist Party was in reaction to white society’s classification of him and all Negroes as inferior (xxi). He no doubt used his own reaction to the party as a basis for the Invisible Man’s attraction to the Brotherhood. Robert G. O’Meally in an article for the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History entitled “Ellison, Ralph” notes that his introduction to the party was by way of the writer Richard Wright who was editing New Challenge, a leftist magazine, and who asked Ellison to write for the magazine (885). Ellison’s eventual disillusionment with the party is reflected in the Invisible Man’s rejection of the Brotherhood as self-serving and not actually interested in the rights of Black Americans.

The last section of the novel concerns the race riot that ends with the Invisible Man escaping into his hole in the ground to think about what has happened to him and what he is going to do about it. This episode was based on the Harlem race riots of 1943. In an article entitled “Harlem Riots of 1935 and 1943” in the Encyclopedia of African- American Culture and History, Gayle T. Tate relates that the Harlem riots of August 1943 started as a result of built up tensions between the people of Harlem and the police. The riots were touched off by an incident between a woman and the management of the Bradock Hotel. When the police arrested this person, another woman and her son attempted to defend her, and the police shot the son. The rumor quickly spread that the son was shot for defending his mother (1217-1218). Ellison used a similar incident to start the riot in the novel.

Another example of Ellison’s use of real life experiences is in the novel’s setting. The settings for his book came directly from his experiences in Alabama at the Tuskeegee Institute and in Harlem. Bishop confirms that the Tuskeegee Institute was Ellison’s model for the Invisible Man’s college (46). In Shadow and Act Ellison discusses graduation week at Tuskeegee. He relates how dignitaries would come to give speeches in the gym or in the chapel, while the “Negro farm people” would come to picnic, play baseball, and square dance on the athletic field of the school (20). This is most likely where he got his inspiration for Reverend Barbee’s speech in the chapel on the day Dr. Bledsoe kicks Invisible Man out of the college.

The inspiration for Invisible Man’s life in Harlem also comes from Ellison’s own life. When he came to Harlem in 1936, he lived at the YMCA for the first few months, because the rent was cheap (Bishop 19). Most of the jobs he had during this time did not last long, and were low paying. He worked in several factories where the pay was so low that he could not afford to pay rent and often had to sleep on park benches (Bishop 20). In the introduction to Invisible Man, Ellison relates that “...most of the novel still managed to get itself written in Harlem, where it drew much of its substance from the voices, idioms, folklore, traditions and political concerns of those whose racial and cultural origins I share” (xxi).

Political activism was something Ralph Ellison knew about first hand. In the introduction of the novel, he reports: “I had reported the riot of 1943 for the New York Post and had agitated for the release of Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro Boys, had marched behind Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in his effort to desegregate the stores along 125th Street.... Everything and anything appeared as grist for my fictional mill. Some speaking up clearly saying, ‘use me right here’ while others were disturbingly mysterious” (xxvii).

These episodes correspond with Invisible Man’s experiences when he comes to live in Harlem to earn enough money to return to school. He lives at the Men’s House which is modeled after the YMCA. After his letters from Dr. Bledsoe fail to secure him employment, he takes a job at a paint factory where he is injured in an accident. If Invisible Man had not run into Mary Rambo, he too would probably have had to sleep on park benches.

He too gets involved in political activism, which starts with his speech to the people who are standing around watching as an elderly couple is being evicted, and continues with his membership in the Brotherhood. The Epilogue suggests that that might not be the end of his activism; ‘Even hibernations can be overdone come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an Invisible Man has a socially responsible role to play” (Ellison 572).

Just as the plot and setting of Invisible Man show influences from Ellison’s life, so do the themes. Some of the themes of Ellison’s novel can be traced to his struggle to answer questions relating to his true identity as a Black American, and the tradition of oral story telling and folklore of his people. In Shadow and Act, Ellison reveals that writing became his way of asking and working out the question of his own identity. He said,”...Fiction became the agency of my efforts to answer the questions: Who am I, what am I, how did I come to be? What shall I make of the life around me, what celebrate, what reject, how confront the snarl of good and evil which is inevitable”(xxii)?

This is the main conflict for Invisible Man, and at first he is so sure that he knows who he is because, everyone has told him who he is, and what he should become. According to the whites and his teachers, he is supposed to be like Booker T. Washington who knew how to stay in his place, but his grandfather’s words start him on a journey to find who he really is, and slowly layer after layer of false identities come off as he progresses from school boy to a man freed of all false illusions, and ready to find his real identity. Ellison formed the basis for this theme from reading Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon in which the author finds it difficult to know what he really felt rather than what he was supposed to feel, or what he had been taught to feel. Ellison related this statement to his own difficulty in distinguishing his true feelings from those which his experience told him “Negroes were supposed to feel” or were “encouraged to feel” (Ellison-xxii).

Another major influence on theme in Ellison’s writing is the Negro tradition of story telling and folklore. B. A. Botkin in his book A Treasury of American Folklore maintains that Negro folktales such as Brer Rabbit were used by the slaves as parables to show how their native intelligence gave them the ability to stay alive, and outwit their masters (408). These tales evoked secret laughter in the slaves which was a small way for them to defy their masters, and helped them endure slavery (Botkin 408). This secret laughter symbolized an inner resistance to domination by whites. Ellison was aware of this secret way of resisting this domination, because it was part of his heritage that has been handed down from generation to generation. He recalls, “having worked in barbershops where that form of oral art flourished, I knew that I could draw upon the rich culture of the folk tale as well as that of the novel...” (Ellison xxxiii).

In the novel, these sayings, songs, and riddles keep popping up to remind Invisible Man of his heritage, as when he meets the man with the cart of blueprints. At first he does not understand what the man is talking about and is put off, but as his memory is jarred he becomes homesick, and by the end of the exchange Invisible Man is impressed with the man’s ability; “...God damn, I thought, they’re a hell of a people! And I didn’t know whether it was pride or disgust that suddenly flashed over me” (Ellison 174).

The influence of the Brer Rabbit tales show up in the grandfather’s last words which are used as a unifying element of the novel. Like Brer Rabbit, who by use of his natural intelligence over superior strength always manages to escape Brer Fox and Brer Bear, the grandfather wants his family to resist being dominated even while acting as if they are going along and staying in their place. Ellison makes Dr. Bledsoe a master of this subterfuge in his dealings with not only the Whites but also with his own people.

While Ellison turned to folklore and internal questions to formulate his theme, he finds the inspiration for many of his characters in actual historical figures and his personal experience. His model for Invisible Man is not himself, but he uses his experiences as a young man as a foundation for Invisible Man’s character. In an interview with Richard G. Stern, Ellison relates that he left Tuskeegee Institute in his junior year and went to New York to study sculpture. He intended to work for the summer and return to finish his education in the fall, but he could not find a job which would pay enough to support himself and allow him to save for school (Shadow 14).

Ellison also uses his experience with people as a source of inspiration for Invisible Man’s character. In the introduction of Invisible Man Ellison notes, “ Afro-Americans were usually defeated in their bouts with circumstance, there was no reason why they, like Brer Rabbit and his more literary cousins, the great heroes of tragedy and comedy, shouldn’t be allowed to snatch the victory of conscious perception from the forces that overwhelmed them” (xxxi). Invisible Man is a symbol of a Black Everyman in his struggle against the circumstances which limit him. He is limited not by his own inadequacies, but by circumstances beyond his control. No matter what he does, even when he does what he has been taught is right, he is defeated.

Ellison uses Booker T. Washington for the model for the Founder. In an article entitled “Washington, Booker Taliaferro” in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Raymond W. Smock relates that Washington was born a slave in Alabama in 1856, and after the Civil War ended, his family moved to Maldin, West Virginia where young Washington worked as a house boy for a retired general and his school teacher wife who taught him to read. He went on to finish his education at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. After teaching for several years he founded the Tuskeegee Institute and built it up into the most prestigious African-American college in the country. Washington, in a speech in Atlanta in 1895, urged Negroes to “...accommodate to the segregation and discrimination imposed upon them by custom and by state and local laws”. He advocated that Negroes and Whites should work together to further mutual economic advancement, but that Negroes should put up with segregation in social circumstances. This speech made him famous and gained him the respect of white Americans as well as African-Americans. Smock points out that Washington built Tuskeegee by eliciting donations from wealthy New Englanders and leading industrialists (Smock 2777-2779).

The story told by Reverend Barbee about the Founder is very similar to Washington’s life. The Founder “was born a slave and a son of slaves, knowing only his mother” (Ellison 116). Barbee goes on to say that the Founder “...worked noontime, nights and mornings for the privilege of studying” (Ellison 117). The Reverend Barbee describes the Founder as humble and patient “moving slowly as he surmounts each and every opposition. Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, yes; but steadfastly seeking for you that bright horizon which you now enjoy...” (Ellison 117). The Founder, like Washington, solicits donations from wealthy businessmen. Invisible Man describes how every year on Founders Day the millionaires would arrive to make speeches and leave a big check (Ellison 36).

Ellison has stated that Ras the Exhorted is not based on Marcus Garvey, but there are similarities which are very apparent. Both are foreign born, Black leaders who preached Black unity and the separation of the races. Robert A. Hill, in an article entitled “Garvey, Marcus Mosiah” in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, explains that Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and was considered to be a messiah of his people. He was born in Jamaica in 1887 and came to Harlem to found the American branch of the UNIA (1090-1092). In her book Marcus Garvey, Mary Lawler points out that he emphasized “universal black solidarity”(56). He encouraged blacks to look to their own race for their heroes. He preached that loyalty to members of their race should come before loyalty to their country, and that Black and White societies should remain separate (Lawler 38,56). He would not join with other Black political groups whose ideology was different than his, and engaged in lengthy disputes with them (Lawler 58).

The character of Ras the Exhorter is foreign born, but his country of origin is never mentioned. His political ideology is revealed in the meeting in which Invisible Man meets Tod Clifton for the first time. Brother Jack asks Invisible Man, “Brother, you have heard of Ras? He is the wild man who calls himself a Black Nationalist” (Ellison 357). Ras’ feelings about race relations are revealed by the big woman at the meeting; “He goes wild when he sees black and white people together” (Ellison 358).

Because the point of view is first person and related by the protagonist, who sees things very differently at the beginning of the story than he does at the end, the reader is not able at first to discern what is the truth, because of the narrator’s naiveté. As the story proceeds and Invisible Man learns more about himself through his trials and tribulations, he begins to see things more realistically, and the reader begins to trust his observations more. This point of view is very effective at showing the reader the changes which are slowly taking place inside the main character in a way that gives the novel universal significance.

Works Cited

  • Bishop, Jack. Ralph Ellison. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
  • Botkin, B.A. ed. A Treasury of American Folklore. New York: Bonanza Books, 1983.
  • Ellison Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: The Modern Library, 1994.
  • ---. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.
  • Fabre, Michael. “Wright Richard.” Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History. 1996 ed.
  • Hill, Robert A. “Garvey, Marcus Mosiah.” Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History. 1996 ed.
  • Kelly, Robin D.G. “Communist Party of the United States.” Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History. 1996 ed.
  • Lawler, Mary. Marcus Garvey. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
  • O’Meally, Robert G. “Ellison, Ralph.” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. 1996 ed.
  • Smock, Raymond W. “Washington,Booker Taliaferro.” Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History. 1996 ed.
  • Tate, Gayle T. “Harlem Riots of 1935 and 1943.” Encyclopaedia of African-American Culture and History. 1996 ed.

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