Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison

Scan 30The classics, you guys! I am dipping into them once again! I was actually reading this as part of my conscious focus on black writers for Black History Month (as opposed to my general tendency to focus on Japanese writers) (because of my job and everything), but we all know how very not timely I am with these write-ups. (And also how I don’t write up all the books I read. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good! In fact, The Book of Phoenix [which I read in February as well] is phenomenal! I would highly recommend it, and I may write about it here one of these days, when I have sorted my thoughts more.) So if it helps, just save this one for Black History Month next year. It will wait. It has already waited almost seventy years. A few more months won’t kill it.

But whether it’s for Black History Month next year or right damned now, you should probably read this one. Especially if you’re an American because dang! Not much has changed in your country in seventy years, friend. The one thing that really honestly shocked me about Invisible Man—and there is a lot to shock a person in these pages—is how spookily relevant it still is. A book written to reflect black status in America in 1952 should not read like it could have been written last week. Seriously. “His name was [spoiler] and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know?” It probably goes without saying that the “they” in question here are the cops.

Our narrator—unnamed and it is essential to the story that he is—finds himself thrust into the awkward gap in the American understanding of race relations a couple generations after the end of slavery. His grandparents had been slaves, but he has lived his whole life as a supposedly free man. On his deathbed, his grandfather tells him, “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction,” and the narrator feels these words as a curse hanging over his own life, as he tries his best to take advantage of the opportunities he’s given and get ahead in this world. But every opportunity comes at a cost, a little slice of his own self, his own identity, until he is forced to embrace his own invisibility. None of these white men have ever seen him; they simply push the identity they need upon him.

Some of this invisibility is almost heavy-handed, like when our hero is approached by a mysterious “Brotherhood” and literally given a new name and identity to suit the needs of the mostly white organization. But it never feels pushy under Ellison’s skilled pen. It seems more inevitable than anything else. Because at that point, Ellison has already guided us through a series of increasingly implausible events that point to the insanity of the world the narrator finds himself in, an exaggerated vision of the America of a black man under Jim Crow laws. The genius of these implausible events is that they all feel real, they all feel possible, like a shift to the parallel universe next door where everything is basically the same, just way more intense and oddly fast-moving. 

Invisible Man essentially punches you in the face for almost six hundred pages. It might be the most relentless novel I’ve ever read, the only book that actually had me actively wincing the majority of the time I was reading it. The first chapter has the narrator invited to a white business men’s association meeting to give a speech only to be suddenly pushed into a battle royal free-for-all up against nine other young black men not long after his high school graduation. Blindfolded. He pummels and is pummelled before being made to pick up gold coins from an electrified mat with the other boys, while white men drink and smoke and laugh and mock him. The whole time he is worried about when he will get to give his speech! He wants to show he is not like the others, he will not reinforce terrible notions about his people, he is better than that. And finally, he is allowed to give the speech, and he swallows blood as he does, afraid to spit it out into one of the spittoons in the room, (“What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!”) and when he accidentally uses the word “equality”, the white men stop him and he corrects himself. Not “equality”, never “equality”.

This novel is always running flat out, feet pounding the pavement, pushing ahead into more and more uncomfortable places, pushing the narrator to realize that no matter what he does, he will never escape the primary fact of his blackness as long as he stays inside the system. Even after leaving the south and heading to New York where blacks can interact with the world in a superficially different way, at the end of the day, he is objectified and put into boxes of blackness. He never had his own identity, he never will. Toward the middle of the book, faced with the question of his own identity after the first time he is forced to consciously question it (after a bizarre, otherworldly stay in a “factory hospital”), he thinks to himself, “Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements.” And I love this description for the truth it reveals about the narrator and the sheer lyrical science of it. Ellison’s writing is beautiful, practical and song-like in turns.

The prologue and epilogue that bookend this volume are interesting and shine light into dark corners, but are also kind of weird and off-putting. So if you do pick this one up, give Ellison until the end of the first chapter to win you over. And he will win you over.   

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