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"INVISIBLE MAN": What the Great African-American Novel says about race relations in the USA

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

COLUMBIA, Mo 11/15/15 (Feature) --  "I am an invisible man," wrote the American novelist Ralph Ellison, in the famous opener to Invisible Man.  

You've probably heard of the Great American Novel, a title for which Invisible Man is a contender.   But it is, no doubt, the Great African-American Novel.  

A young, never-named black man, the novel's "invisible man" narrates what critics have called his "nightmare journey across the racial divide" with a "voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white."  

Ellison's man-with-no-name is so likeable, he feels heroic.   He's introspective, always questioning -- himself, his surroundings, the people around him, his place in the larger world.   

He guides us, with grace, humility, and passion, across the heart of an America we would otherwise never see.

An instant hit on its 1952 publication, Invisible Man won the National Book Award with a compelling theme:   that African Americans are often seen, even by one another, as black first, and human beings -- with feelings, thoughts, souls -- second, third, or never.

"I am invisible," the young man-with-no-name explains, "simply because people refuse to see me.   When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me."

When the young man reflects on the condescending gaze of a wealthy, white New Yorker, for instance, he contrasts North with South through the way each looks at a black person.

 "It was not the harsh, uninterested-in-you-as-a-human-being stare that I'd known in the South, the kind that swept over a black man as though he were a horse or an insect;  it was something more, a direct, what-type-of-mere-man-have-we-here kind of look that seemed to go beneath my skin."

Such is the stifling nature of America's dysfunctional relationship with skin color.   Ellison probes that relationship in ways both naked and profound.   

The young man's journey starts after high school.
 
Rich, white benefactors in his hometown demand that he compete in a cage match called a "battle royal" for a scholarship to a historically black college.   Until this wicked twist, the funds had been his based on academic performance, not the ability to pummel other men. 

The bloody fight is a harsh image of a person reduced, and a knock at the black-man-as-football player-boxer-athlete stereotype just taking shape in Ellison's day. 

"It was a beautiful college," the young man observes, reward finally in hand.   "The buildings were old and covered with vines and the roads gracefully winding....Honeysuckle and purple wisteria hung heavy from the trees...." 

The language soars with hope, but the halcyon interlude is not to last.   

After following orders to chauffeur one of the college's wealthy trustees -- a well-meaning but paternalistic white man -- to the poor side of town near the old slave quarters, the young man runs afoul of A. Hebert Bledsoe, the college president who is also black. 

Their encounter in Dr. Bledsoe's office is one of the most harrowing, chilling, and eye-opening in all literature.   I was even withered by it, brought low by memories of similar verbal viciousness inflicted on me by my father.   

Bledsoe -- the older, much-revered father figure -- insists that by showing this white man the truth of the community's impoverishment, Ellison's young protagonist has committed the gravest sin of all. 

"And here you are a junior in college!" Bledsoe snarls.  "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie!"   

Herein a lesson:  That between white and black, there is so little truth. 

The chapter-long dressing down is also an indelible glimpse at the power of the word that must not be named, the N-word.    But named it is. 

"It was as though he'd struck me," the young man reflects, after Bledsoe uses it on him.  "I stared across the desk thinking, He called me that...."  

"He called me that."  
 
Bledsoe expels the young man and tries to sabotage his future, acts which sink to pure evil.  

But he rises above, traveling to NYC and Harlem seeking work, first in a paint factory that specializes in white paint for the government under the motto "White Makes Right," a satirical symbol of race in America.   

Later, the young man joins a social justice group called "The Brotherhood" after witnessing the eviction of an old black couple, freed slaves, from their Harlem apartment.    

And though he tries and tries to succeed and move ahead based on the person he is -- brilliant, introspective, sensitive, a wonderful orator people want to follow -- he is continually held in check by the color of his skin, even by his own allies, white and black.  


Called "one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century," Invisible Man is one of many arguments that what America -- and Mizzou -- needs by way of "diversity training" is education. 

Where, in our English courses, is Invisible Man even mentioned, much less read?   Or the novel Native Son?  Or the non-fiction Black Like Me?   

Where is the rest of black history taught, that doesn't just focus on slavery and Civil Rights, but also the Harlem Renaissance?  The great black intellectuals:  WEB Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Ralph Ellison?  The great educators such as Mary McLeod Bethune?   And so on. 

"When I discover who I am," the young man explains, "I’ll be free." 

So will we all. 


-- Mike Martin

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