How Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man Retold the Story of the Black American Experience for the Cultural Mainstream

By Luke D. Mahoney
2015, Vol. 7 No. 10 | pg. 2/3 |

Black American Culture as Witnessed in Invisible Man

Ellison’s powerful use of accurate and detailed imagery depicting the many aspects of black American life and culture in Invisible Man are the hallmarks of its success and widespread acclaim. Many scholars attest to this fact. Irving Howe (1952), critic for the New York Times writes that Invisible Man is, “drenched in Negro life, talk, music.” Thomas Jarrett (1954), noteworthy English scholar, writes that the novel is, “skillfully enmeshed with an effective treatment of southern rural life, a phase of Negro college life and a pointed… view of life in Harlem” (p. 422).

Locke (1953) takes a bold stand by saying that, “[Invisible Man] is in fact one of the best integrated accounts of interaction between whites and Negroes in American society that had yet been presented” (p. 35). And author and scholar Therman B. Odaniel writes that, “[Invisible Man is] perhaps the best balanced and most complete and comprehensive image of the American Negro that has yet been presented by any contemporary writer” (as cited in Reilly, 1970, p. 94). These voices demonstrate the breadth and depth of Ellison’s incorporation of accurate cultural detail into his novel. He writes with a perspective born from not only his heritage, but his research into the daily lives of black Americans.

One of Ellison’s research endeavors was employment as a writer and scholar for the Federal Writers Project under the Works Progress Administration enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This gave Ellison first-hand experience and insight into the various elements of black American culture. So much so that, according to Eric J. Sundquist (1995), professor of American Literature at John Hopkins University, “Ellison became the foremost literary chronicler of the cultural transformation of black New York in the first half of the 20th century” (p. 104). Ellison delved into the lives of black Americans living in Harlem, and personally witnessed the effects that migration, slavery, industrialization, racism and segregation had on his culture.

A prominent cultural theme present in Invisible Man is that of the black American migration from the South to the North. The protagonist himself makes this journey, just as Ellison had done, and countless black Americans before him. “The migration of African Americans out of the agricultural South to the urban areas of the industrial North is among the most significant events in black American history” (Sundquist, 1995, p. 101).

Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man comes upon a scene in which an old black American couple is being evicted from their apartment in Harlem, and he describes their belongings. “My eyes fell upon a pair of crudely carved and polished bones, ‘knocking bones,’ used to accompany music at country dances” (Ellison, 1952, p. 271). In the same scene, the narrator comes across a set of Free Papers originating from Macon, Georgia, and begins to reminisce so strongly that he becomes nauseous, because he is filled with images of black American history. He identifies with and cherishes his history the way one suffers, “a rotted tooth that one would rather suffer indefinitely than endure the short violent eruption of pain that would mark its removal” (Ellison, 1952, p. 271).

Ellison points to two phenomena here in this passage; 1) that cultural remnants of southern rural black American life remain from the migration of black Americans to places like Harlem, and 2) that these pieces of culture are so intrinsic in the identity of the black American psyche that they, even though painful, are cherished and strongly influence who black American people are.

Ellison’s protagonist held inseparable ties to rural black American identity, but those ties also caused him pain, and the pain brought about by holding back from embracing black American culture surfaces multiple times in Invisible Man. For example, the protagonist encounters the sweet potato vendor in Harlem and describes a, “a thin spiral of smoke that drifted the odor of baking yams slowly to me, bringing a stab of swift nostalgia. I stopped as though struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering, my mind surging back,” and it is back home in the South that the narrator's mind is brought back to (Ellison, 1952, p. 262). Ellison often reminds the reader of the ties to Southern life that many black Americans have. He also underlines their attempts to shed those ties.

For example, let us go back to the school days depicted in Invisible Man. It is important to witness Ellison’s depiction of Booker T. Washington and his persona in the novel. Sundquist (1995) writes that, “The chapters devoted to black college life are… a means for Ellison to anatomize...the racial and class hierarchy, assimilative pressure, disdain for folk culture, and personal aggrandizement that might also be found at a black college founded by Booker T. Washington” (p. 18).

Present at Tuskegee, and witnessed by his protagonist in the fictional university, is the famous statue of Washington and his slave counterpart. The statue depicts Washington lifting a veil from the eyes and back of a slave person, but Ellison’s narrator wonders if in fact the veil is not being drawn back down upon the unsuspecting person’s eyes (Ellison, 1952, p. 36).

This contradiction arises as a result of the kind of cultural cleansing that is occurring at black American universities across the United States, which was promoted by Washington’s doctrine and others of similar thought. Young black Americans in universities around the nation were put into environments where a complete absence of their culture heritage was enforced. black American poet and scholar Langston Hughes writes that, “For years those of us who have read the Negro papers or have had friends teaching in our schools and colleges, have been pretty well aware of the lack of personal freedom that exists on most Negro campuses” (as cited in Sundquist, 1995, p. 58). This lack of freedom was part of a movement to indoctrinate young black Americans into a new way of life, one that aligned them with that of Mainstream America, and pressured them to cast off elements of their cultural identity.

Additionally, Ellison demonstrates the hypocrisy involved with this movement to cull black American culture from Blacks when his narrator, in a moment of hysteria, realizes out how easily Dr. Bledsoe might be undone in front of his white philanthropists if he were simply confronted with elements of his southern past (Ellison, 1952, p. 265). The protagonist imagines that by simply exposing Dr. Bledsoe’s delight for the common fare of black Americans in the south, that all of the white community would realize him to be a fool, and he writes, “I accuse you of indulging in a filthy habit, Bledsoe!,” that habit being the consumption of chitterlings, or pigs gut, “The weekly newspapers would attack him. The captions over his picture: Prominent Educator Reverts to Field-Niggerism! His rivals would denounce him as a bad example for the youth” (Ellison, 1952, p. 265). This passage exposes a little bit of the shame that some black Americans felt about their past, and their belief in the necessity of covering their up cultural heritage.

While this occurred for many reasons, one was certainly that educated black Americans had glimpsed a piece of the larger picture occurring in America, and they knew that those in power did not prescribe to a rural cultural experience. This shame is a recurring theme in Invisible Man. According to Ellison, this should not be, and his narrator asks, “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” (Ellison, 1952, p. 265). What Ellison exposes through his narrator’s moment of insight and clarity, is that not only is it acceptable to possess the history that black Americans have, but that they are lost without it as a people.

Another poignant example of black American culture illustrated in Invisible Man is that of the rural farmer or sharecropper. Ellison portrays this aspect of black American history in the states during the time when the narrator and a prominent white philanthropist are visiting the house of Jim Trueblood. “We were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sang, but since the [white] visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet” (Ellison, 1952, p. 46).

Here Ellison is drawing upon his experience at Tuskegee, and exposing the mentality the students there had for their fellow black Americans who lived a life which they were ashamed of, and he writes, “How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days!” (Ellison, 1952, p. 46). This mentality existed as a result of the efforts of people like Washington, those who wished to strip from black American culture those aspects of rural heritage. Ellison reasons as to why this occurs when he states that, “I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible day that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear” (Ellison, 1952, p. 46). This fear of the history of black Americans was rooted in the belief that if these aspects of black American life were to be witnessed by the public, that they as a whole race would be discredited and reviled more so than they already were.

Finally, we have Ellison’s Brotherhood. This organization arises in Invisible Man while our narrator is in NYC and is seeking an opportunity to recover from his recent setbacks. He is approached by one of the Brotherhood’s members after delivering a powerful speech, one which causes his fellow black Americans to rise to the occasion and take actions-just the kind of man the Brotherhood seems to need. Scholars and critics have made the case that the Brotherhood is symbolic of the Communist movement in Harlem, which Ellison was associated with for a short period of time. Orville Prescott (1952), writing for the New York Times states that, “The Brotherhood is Mr. Ellison’s euphuistic synonym for the Communist Party… Mr. Ellison obviously knows what he is talking about.” Ellison’s work with the Communist Party in Harlem had been a springboard for his writing career, and he uses his experience to depict the nature of the Party through the experiences of his protagonist.

The elements of black American culture that Ralph Ellison chooses to depict in Invisible Man are important, they allude to the struggle that many black Americans were experiencing during this time, and continue to experience today. There is a struggle between cultures here that Ellison desires to bring to the public awareness. During this time in history, many black Americans are faced with what appeared to be a one-way-or-the-other decision: to choose to retain the cultural identity of their past, or shed that and adopt the cultural identity of Mainstream America.

Many might argue that the same existential struggle exists today. Ellison, through his novel, demonstrates that this separation of identities is nigh impossible, and that there is a detrimental impact on the person who attempts to do so. The Hero in his novel begs the question, “now that I no longer felt ashamed of the things I had always loved… What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” (Ellison, 1952, p. 266).

Ellison portrayed conflicting aspects of black American culture during his time. He brought up the emotions of guilt and regret, illustrated his characters attempt to separate aspects of his culture, and his own identity. By doing so, Ellison sews together the previously separate identities of the intellectual and the rural, black Americans from the North and the South. His aim in doing this is to not only challenge the mainstream American opinions of black Americans, but to repair the cultural rift between these two conflicting aspects of culture identity in the black American community.

This accurate depiction of elements of black American culture is what separates Invisible Man from an ordinary novel. We cannot say simple that Invisible Man is a great piece of fiction and move on, the novel brings black American existence into a new light, in an accurate manner. This distinction is so important. Ellison is revealing his experience with the relationship between black American culture and mainstream American culture in a way that challenges the stereotypes of the day; for example, that black Americans do not possess the same intellectual and life experiences of Mainstream America. Ellison feels it is his responsibility to write in this manner, for the betterment of his own culture, and the growth of American culture at large. It is this interaction between mainstream and individual perspectives that lies at the heart of autoethnography.

The Literary Conventions at Play in Invisible Man

No art is produced in a vacuum. Therefore, what inspired the style of Invisible Man-its genre, mood and aesthetic feel? Why did Ellison choose to write a novel? The answer to this question lies in analysis of the beginning of Ellison’s writing career, and of his deep fascination with 18th and 19th century poets and authors.

The power of the novel became apparent to Ellison as he began to develop as a writer. His inspiration for literary conventions came from a respect for the most prominent authors and poets in Western culture. Ellison states that, “I became interested in writing through incessant reading,” and that T. S Eliot’s The Waste Land, “moved and intrigued me… and I wondered why I had never read anything of equal intensity and sensibility by an American Negro writer” (Chester & Howard, 1955). Professor Alan Nadel of the University of Kentucky notes that, “Ellison was profoundly concerned with the literary canon and with his relation to it” (as cited in Tracy, 2004, p. 143).

As Ellison began to expand his writing career in Harlem, he recognized that in order to participate in the literary canon of highly esteemed authors, he must adopt the literary conventions of such authors that preceded him. Ellison achieved this through his study of Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Henry James, Twain, Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Dickens, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Malraux; and interestingly, he is noted for his interest in Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx (Tracy, 2004; Bishop, 1988; Chester & Howard, 1955).

Ellison is stunningly well read, and his passion for literature of this stature demonstrates his sincere devotion to the art, and his recognition of the genius of the novel as a platform for interacting with the mindset of a culture. Because of Ellison’s skill and knowledge with literature, he invokes the same strengths of those picaresque novelists. As a result Invisible Man has also risen in a similar measure to achieve a place in the collection of great literary achievements in Western culture.

Ellison’s motivation for adopting the conventions of the Western literary canon is twofold. On a cultural level, it is his desire to produce a novel capable of uplifting the black American body of literature to align more closely with those picaresque novelists. He believes this is an inherent responsibility as an author of black American descent. Coincidentally, he desires to write a novel that transcends his identity as a black American, and he believes that his heritage informs, not weakens, his ability as an author. Ellison downplays the effect that being part of a minority culture has on his writing when he states that, “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority” (Chester & Howard, 1955).

This perspective is part of what allows Ellison to achieve universality in the life of his protagonist; he makes the case that all individuals are minorities, and therefore we all must share aspects of our identities regardless of our cultural background. He states further that, “The universal in the novel… is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance” (Chester & Howard, 1955). This statement really targets the heart of the power behind the ability for Invisible Man to reach the audience that it does. Many readers are able to identify with Ellison’s protagonist because of the inherent draw upon the reader to identify with the protagonist’s specific experiences.

Ellison further makes the case for the magnetic appeal to identify with his narrator when he explains that despite Mainstream America’s reluctance to identify with black Americans in literature, “on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically” (Chester & Howard, 1955). Again, it is Ellison’s adherence to the strengths of the literary canon, the conventions of the novel, that allow him to portray the black American plight in a way that causes his audience to identify and relate to it in a way that they never had before imagined.

Is Ellison successful in his attempt to produce a novel comparable to aforementioned literary greats? Yes, Ellison’s efforts in this are fruitful and accomplished. Nadel writes that, “Invisible Man, is a novel employing richly allusive modernist techniques that refer to major works of the American canon”; Jarrett writes that, “Invisible Man, then, represents a new kind of emphasis in fiction that relates to Negro life, an attempt to find a proper medium rather than to imitate or strike out”; Locke states that, “ Ellison’s philosophy of characterization, incisive, realistic, unsparing of physical and psychological detail… is close to the best European realism.” (as cited in Tracy, 2004; Jarrett, 1954, p. 422; Locke, 1953, p. 35). The opinions of these highly regarded critics reveal the literary accomplishment of Ellison’s Invisible Man, and of his success with the use of the literary conventions that preceded him. They also point to another aspect of the context surrounding Invisible Man, that of the interaction between black American artists and their audience.

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