What made me pick up Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man? Had I ever even read it before? I don’t think so, and when I recently noticed a reference to it somewhere, I immediately thought: now is the time.
To refresh your memories: the novel is narrated by a nameless protagonist, a young black man, who at the story’s start is living literally underground in a cellar. The question driving the plot of the novel is how he got there: how he chose to become literally invisible. Recounting his youth and early adulthood in the 1930s—from a southern college for promising black kids (promising to the white trustees), through adventures in Harlem, first working in a paint factory specializing in “pure white” paint, then adopted by the quasi-Communist “Brotherhood” that proclaims race to be irrelevant—the novel takes the protagonist through comic-tragic-surreal experiences that finally land him at the bottom of a manhole where he decides to remain.
But the point of the novel is not the plot. (Is plot ever the point of a great novel?)
Rather, Ellison’s interest is in ringing every conceivable change on the concept of “invisibility.” Leaving the protagonist nameless is one form of invisibility: if we have no name, do we have an identity?
And throughout the story, the narrator experiences invisibility in various forms.
The black president of his southern college, referring to blacks in general, tells him “You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist”—because it’s a white world.
When he gets to New York, the whites seemed as if “they never saw me.”
At a Brotherhood party: “I felt extremely uncomfortable, although after brief glances no one paid me any special attention. It was as though they hadn’t seen me, as though I were here, and yet not here.”
When he challenges the Brotherhood ideology, a Brother “looked as though I were not there” and continued espousing the ideology.
Later, the narrator muses on his relation to the Brotherhood:
My ambition and integrity were nothing to them.… I was and yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen.… It was all a swindle, an obscene swindle. They had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us? They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their own voices.… I laughed. Here I had thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men.
—that is, all they see is their ideology.
During the race riot that climaxes the book, the narrator is running from the Black Nationalist leader who wants to hang him:
…running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and the Nortons [characters, white and black, who’ve tried to make him in their image], but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.… I was invisible, and hanging would not bring me to visibility, even to their eyes, since they wanted my death not for myself alone but for the chase I’d been on all my life; because of the way I’d run, been run, chased, operated, purged—although to a great extent I could have done nothing else, given their blindness and my invisibility.
In the Epilogue’s final lines, after the narrator decides to end his hibernation, he explains:
Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?
Being “looked through”: it’s this novel’s motif. If I look through you, I’m not seeing you.
I’d wondered who the “you” of the novel’s final words is (all people? all Americans?) until I came across Ellison’s notes while writing this novel (in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan, Modern Library, 1995):
Sometimes in responding to the conflict between their place in life as Negroes and the opportunities of America which are denied them, [Negroes] act out their wildest fantasies… because whites tend to regard Negroes in the spirit of the old song “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” seldom looking past the abstraction “Negro” to the specific “man.”
As a white person, I don’t pretend to have experienced anything as degrading as the complex invisibility of Invisible Man. But as a woman beginning my academic career in the 1970s, I did experience invisibility of a sort. In graduate school, a grant was awarded to a male student whose grades were lower than mine; the director told me it was because “women are supported by their husbands.” Then when I began publishing articles, I hid my female identity in a pseudonym. This was demeaning, but nothing like what American blacks have suffered.
Today, for blacks, the nature of their invisibility has changed since the publication of Ellison’s novel. On the one hand, black men are made literally invisible by their mass incarceration. On the other hand, to the police, black men on the streets or in cars are too visible: “Driving while Black” is likely to get you killed. But this hyper-visibility is a form of invisibility: individual identity gets erased in the stereotype of “being black.”
Taking a walk in my neighborhood this morning, I passed a black man searching everyone’s recycle bins for bottles and cans he could take to the supermarket to redeem the few cents’ deposit. I made sure to say “Good morning,” looking him in the eye and smiling. It was a small way that I could, I hoped, restore the man’s individual identity and hence his visibility.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Peggy Rosenthal
Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.