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. 1/3 |

People love a good story. A good story can be intriguingly informative, a good story can well up deep emotions and a good story can carry culture, history and tradition. It was through storytelling that many ancient cultures preserved and passed down their understanding of the world, their rites and their rituals. It was, and still is, through stories that children become familiar with cultural and societal norms and mores. Stories are important to people, are one of the most important forms of verbal and written communication. People learn about each other through storytelling, solve problems by telling stories and pass on their most important insights about the world through stories. A good story can persuade masses to follow an ideal, or an individual to join a cause.

But there has always been a catch: stories, it is assumed, cannot be scientific, cannot generate new knowledge; the possibility of bias is too inherent in the nature of a personal narrative, and bias is anathema to the scientific community. However, scientists have started to think differently about the relationship between personal narratives and their scientific rigor — to think differently about the sources of our knowledge about culture and community.

Autoethnography allows individuals from a specific culture, community or group of people to take a scientific approach to studying in-depth cultural phenomena that only their informed insider perspective can reveal.

In recent history, it has become more and more important to develop understanding, to create new knowledge, about cultures and ethnic groups from diverse perspectives. No longer is it wholeheartedly acceptable to conduct ethnographic studies from an outsider's perspective alone. In the past, scientists would descend upon a community, make their observations and head back to their ‘ivory towers’ in academia to write about their observations in a ‘non-biased’ and sterile way. While ethnography still remains an effective way to conduct science and learn about cultures, organizations and people in some cases, it is not the only way, and it is often not the best way; and the scientific community is awakening to this fact.

Reliable and valid science is supposed to support change. Change in the form of new technology, new medical procedures, new policies, new laws, new relationships amongst people through new understanding, and new horizons for mankind. The goal of the scientific community is not to perform science in a bubble-few are motivated to bring new knowledge to no one. How then does storytelling come into the picture? Stories can be agents of change, and told through the right perspective, stories can enlighten the reader to the nuances of a culture, a group of people or perhaps portray a problem in a novel way that empowers people to make decisions that positively affect people in a community. It is because of these strengths that the scientific community is beginning to embrace the power of a specific form of ethnography, one which shares more with a good story than with traditional ethnography.

What has changed the most to allow for a “new” form of scientific inquiry is the definition of what constitutes reliable and valid research, specifically with regards to studying human phenomena. In the past, in order to reduce the likelihood of bias while conducting research on a group of people, the researchers were required to stand removed from the community under study. More and more, researchers and professionals in the academic community are coming to realize that when you study people, you can’t get the whole story if you did not grow up in, or have substantial immersion in, the culture of the people you wish to study and understand.

Sociologists, community psychologists, social psychologists and others in the scientific community are beginning to appreciate, and even realize the utter necessity of, the power of the personal narrative to inform quality research; and as more individuals from minority cultures become academic professionals, many of them are applying their knowledge of scientific inquiry to inform the world at large about their cultures and communities in a way that has never been understood from the pure ethnographic approach.

Therefore, much as an autobiography allows a person to write about their personal experiences in life through their own eyes, an autoethnography allows individuals from a specific culture, community or group of people to take a scientific approach to studying in-depth, and disclosing to the public, cultural phenomena that only their informed insider perspective can reveal.

But here is a bit of truth: autoethnographies have been written for centuries. How can that be you might ask, considering that autoethnographies are relatively new to the scientific community? It appears to begin with an artistic movement called realism, and we will get there, but for now it is important to understand this: the hallmark of the autoethnography is its ability to transcend cultural barriers existing between members of the author’s intended audience. Autoethnographies bridge cultural gaps of understanding.

Invisible Man stands as one of the most impeccable examples of the power of autoethnography to present authentic, reliable and valid insights into a minority culture.

Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison

Cultural phenomena that might confound the minds of intellectuals, academics and laypersons all the same, are often depicted in such eloquent ways by autoethnographers that an entire society may take note and begin to see to the heart of a cultural issue, or an experience held by members of a certain community.

And what rhetorical device autoethnographers have often used to convey their messages is the novel. With this basic understanding, I want to bring into the limelight for the rest of this essay Ralph Waldo Ellison and his novel Invisible Man.

Volumes have been written about Ellison and Invisible Man, but it is my desire to reimagine Invisible Man, and reexamine Ellison’s efforts, from a modern perspective that appreciates the depth of understanding of black American culture that Ellison possessed when he wrote his novel.

I believe that this novel remains today one of the most well written novels of its kind; and since our cultural predicament in the United States is very similar to the era in which it was written, Invisible Man should become prominent in the mainstream American consciousness once more. Here we will take a look at Ellison’s life, and his journey to complete one of the last century’s most exalted novels.

On the surface, Invisible Man is a tale of a young black intellectual and his journey of enlightenment, but looking deeper, it reveals aspects of black American culture in a way that was unprecedented in its time. Invisible Man might be called the first bridge over the literary chasm existing between black American and mainstream American cultures; and to accomplish this, Ellison wrote what might be considered one of the most powerful autoethnographies in black American culture.

A Brief Biography of Ralph Ellison

It must be stated early that Ellison had a vision of himself that was distinguishable from many in the black American literary community. Ellison believed that the identity of the black American community was inherently part of the history and identity of the United States as a whole, rather than a separate entity (Chester & Howard, 1955). This perspective led to a difference between him and many other Black authors of his time. In the extreme, some at the time were calling for a total separation of Black culture from mainstream American culture. In contrast, Ellison envisioned the United States as possessing a history of black American culture that was inseparably intertwined with its own, and he was motivated to put forth this idea boldly.

Ellison began his academic life as a young intellectual, and his diligence studying music led him to receive a scholarship to attend a well-regarded college in the South, none other than Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington. Ellison’s passion for the Arts is encouraged here, and he gains some measure of fame for his ability with the trumpet. Biographer Jack Bishop (1988) notes that from an early age, Ellison participated in the Arts and envisioned himself becoming a Renaissance man, a man who was wise to the ways of the world, well read, and a connoisseur of all of the arts (p. 28).

Additionally, it is at Tuskegee that he is introduced to the power of literature. Steven C. Tracy (2004), professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst , writes that Ellison is strongly inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; Ellison states that his exposure to this iconic poem began his, “transformation (or shall we say, metamorphosis) from a would-be composer into some sort of novelist” (p. 24). This poem serves as a primer to Ellison’s literary career, which would not be fully realized until he makes his move from the South to New York City. This move was prompted by his need to obtain the requisite funds to complete his education.

For a period of time after arriving in NYC, Ellison struggles to earn a living, and soon discovers that he will not be able to both save for his tuition, and meet his financial obligations (Tracy, 2004, p. 25). While in NYC, Ellison is introduced to Richard Wright, and soon begins working as a writer. During this time Ellison is exposed to two very important things that will play an instrumental role in his ability to write Invisible Man the way that he does; 1) he begins to write for the local Communist organization in Harlem, and 2) he performs research into the daily lives of Harlem residents as a paid ethnographer for a federal program put into place by President F. D. Roosevelt (Bishop, 1988, p. 57). These two assignments will resurface as strong influencing factors in Invisible Man, as they are both part of Ellison’s personal history.

Invisible Man in Short

The story in Invisible Man begins with the protagonist, a nameless young man who is talented in speech, and who earns a scholarship for his ability. In the beginning of the novel, when he speaks, his speech borrows from Booker T. Washington’s speech to Congress when he states that black Americans must encourage each other to, “Cast down your bucket where you are,” the bucket symbolizing the labors of black Americans to, in other words, bloom where they are planted in life; and strive for, “friendly relations with the southern white man,” rather than harbor angst (Ellison, 1952, p. 29; Washington, 1895). This historical reference is one of many which surfaces through the narrator's eyes in Invisible Man.

From here our hero begins tutelage at the prominent southern college for which he earned his scholarship. Ellison uses his narrator’s experiences in college to give the reader a glimpse into the lives of local black sharecroppers, campus life and a depiction of the college dean-important because Ellison attempts to capture the image of Booker T. Washington in his portrayal of Dr. Bledsoe (Tracy, 2004). These glimpses are strategically placed to expose parts of the predicament of the black American condition in the United States. After a series of unfortunate events, our “invisible” protagonist is forced to leave the college and seek employment in NYC. Alas, not all begins or ends well for him upon his arrival to NYC, and he will not be returning to the college again.

In NYC, the invisible man never gains sure footing with regards to employment. His first ventures leave him nearly penniless, and he is out of luck and options when he is finally presented with an opportunity to join the Brotherhood. This opportunity begins as exactly the kind of experience that our invisible man is seeking; a use for his passion to speak. He finds himself in the position of operating the Brotherhood’s chapter in Harlem, where he is tasked with organizing the local community to promote the cause of the Brotherhood, and in his mind, by extension, the black American community.

This situation spirals out of control as the protagonist finds himself at odds with members of the committee that direct the operations of the Brotherhood. He soon finds himself under attack from his own organization. Additionally, he is faced with the danger of violence from the group of Harlemites who have decided to follow the “wild man” who vies for the hearts of his people in his aim to separate themselves from mainstream American culture. The novel ends where it begins, in the place of hiding where the narrator is “hibernating,” awaiting the opportune moment to face the world again (Ellison, 1952).

The Similarities Between Ellison's life and the Life of his Protagonist

There are many similarities between the life of Ellison and that of his protagonist in Invisible Man. Many noteworthy scholars have already pointed out that Ellison’s novel is replete with autobiographical elements; Alain Locke (1953), renowned black American writer, philosopher and educator states outright the semi-autobiographical nature of Invisible Man (p. 35). Both Ellison and his protagonist attain a scholarship for a southern college and witness the image and persona of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee depicted in the narrator’s college dean. Each must leave the college to work in NYC; are drawn to the ideals of a political party supporting communist ideals; each feel passionately for the Arts, and each come to similar conclusions about the black American plight (Tracy, 2004, p. 23). These are just a few of many similarities between Ellison’s life and that of his main character.

What would prompt Ellison to write from a personal perspective in his first novel, one that he would use to introduce himself as an author to his desired audience? Fortunately, we have a glimpse into the metacognitive processes that encouraged Ellison to write from a personal place. His thoughts are well developed in his introduction to the version of the novel that is currently published. Ellison reveals to the reader the transformation of his perspective as he searched for the voice with which he would use to write his novel. He alludes to a personal viewpoint while describing “memories” and visions from his past that kept forcing their way into his consciousness. It seems to Ellison (1995) that a specific voice is forming in his mind. In order to capture it he requires an individual, “who had been forged in the underground of American experience” (Ellison, 1995).

We know that Ellison began his own personal academic journey with the aim of becoming a “Renaissance man,” and that from early on he possessed intellectual depth (Tracy, 2004). Ellison was likely to have identified very little with the mainstream black American representations present in literature of his time. Ellison (1995) asks, “the question of why most protagonists of Afro-American fiction… were without intellectual depth.” He also states that, “I conceived of the novel as an account, on the specific level, of a young Negro American’s experience” (Bishop, 1988, p. 82). It is therefore not difficult to conclude that Ellison anticipated that his own journey through the various elements of mainstream American culture at the time would serve as a suitable backdrop from which he would be able to paint a picture of the black American plight in America.

Ellison realized that he had lived life in a way which would allow him to flesh out the black American experience in a powerful way. He had witnessed a wide diversity of black American communities in America, and he realizes that his personal perspective will resonate with black Americans and Mainstream America both. The product of his efforts is a novel in which his protagonist’s journey brings the reader right down into the personal experience of a young intellectual black American. And it is this personal experience that Ellison crafts so artfully in order to capture his audience’s attention, and then make a bold statement about the predicaments of black Americans; this is the power of the novel.

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