January 13, 2010
A Message To All Americans
“Invisible Man” is a novel by Ralph Ellison. It tells the story of an unnamed black narrator who goes in search of an identity despite dominant white society’s baffling manner, motives and rituals (VIII, Ellison). It is an allegorical work which refers to people’s inability to accept individual black Americans as real human beings with particular lives and interests and personalities.
Ellison’s intent was to cast light upon the shadows of the invisible existence of black American men and women. His novel serves to be a pretext for Americans to approach the nation’s ever vacillating course of realization of the principal which our founding fathers built the country on: that all men are created equal.
The Great Migration was the Diaspora of black people fleeing from the segregation that was passed after the Reconstruction in the South (954, AAL). The segregationist rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court passed the Plessy vs. Ferguson case in 1896, a landmark segregation law which endorsed transportation. The legal treatment of segregation made living conditions for black people in the South increasingly intolerable. The threat of lynchings was enough to increase migration to the North. Another of the social injustices black people faced in the South was the injustice done to them in the courts. Therefore, it was necessary for black people in search of a better life to migrate North. Many black people chose New York City as their first destination choice. Harlem was built originally for middle class and upper middle class white people. The housing conditions in Harlem were significantly better than that of the South. The neighborhood of Harlem became available to black people when economic hardship struck the real estate owners there. Langston Hughes’ “The Ballad of the Landlord” describes the difficult day-to-day situation black migrants found as they lived in housing.* The black tenant’s unfortunate fate highlights that court injustice happens in the North as well. The newspaper headlines fail to mention any wrongdoing upon the landlord’s shameful neglect of his property. The tone is that of a courageous tenant who stands unflinchingly in the gaze of plain unfairness, refusing to pay the ten dollars demanded of the white landlord until the dilapidated state of the housing is fixed. He haughtily retorts to the landlord, concerning the broken stair steps, “When you come up yourself / It’s a wonder you don’t fall down” (7-8, Hughes). The strength and pride in the tenant’s words clearly angers the landlord. He finds an excuse to send the tenant to the police, under verbal threats. Mary Rambo shares her difficulties in managing to care for the narrator and pay for her housing rent in “Invisible Man.” Mary finds out that the narrator is from the South. She tells the narrator to find a goal that will improve the conditions of the black people, because he remembers the hardships black people faced in the South, and “ain’t forgot how it burns” (255, Ellison). It is as W.E.B. Du Bois wanted to step within the veil of invisibility, and to tell all and remind his black brothers of how it felt being invisible and seeing others step over his face of uniqueness as an individual to enter the threshold of painfully searing, highly-visible, racial stereotypes. Mary serves as both a mother and spiritual advisor to the narrator. The narrator remembers her kindness, reflecting upon Mary’s previous words, as he remarks “Sure, we all burned in the same oven, ” as a joke to Brother Jack on why he helped the evicted elderly black couple (292, Ellison). As the narrator notices that Mary is short of money, he hears her voice from down the hall. She is stumbling upon hard times, where money is short and on the danger of being evicted for not paying her rent on time, yet her voice is untroubled singing a troubled song, “Back Water Blues.” The conditions for black people in Harlem during the Great Migration are gritty, rough, and unfair. Society in Harlem’s white population treat black people less than equals. Their ignorance affects the living conditions and morale of many black people, especially of those living in housing under a racial white landlord.
The narrator’s unique original potentiality is hidden under the stifling layers of pre-racial judgment. The Battle Royal at the beginning of the “Invisible*Man” places the narrator in a boxing match with other blindfolded black youth for the purposes of entertaining the rich white men of his town. The narrator admits that dominant society affects his life and mind. (15, Ellison), He struggles with feelings of inferiority and the search to find his place. The naked white woman dances at the battle royal.The black men want to look but they fear the white men for stepping out of line. The narrator likens the dancer as tempting yet deadly siren, “a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea.” As the narrator is shoved into the ring, he blindly throws punches, blows landing punches, seeing streaks of blue light filling the black world behind the blindfold (22, Ellison). The narrator is invisible, because the white men refuse to accept a black person as an equal, unique individual, but at times, the narrator is hyper-visible, however, only through the white men’s ignorance of accepting only morally demeaning racial stereotypes. He is hyper-visible when his skin is called ginger-colored, because he is recognized by his color, not by the actions and words he says and the thoughts he wants to express (21, Ellison). The blindfolds prevent him from seeing the blood and sweat. The battle royale is bloody, fearful experience for the narrator and the young black men, juxtaposed with the tense white faces, their roars of mockery and laughter. The white men use blindfolds on the narrator and the young black men to control their blindness. A t the end of the fight, the narrator is shaken, with blood filling his mouth from boxing injuries, yet he is determined to complete the speech he was called to deliver. He quotes Booker T. Washington, alluding to the image of casting down bucket to make friends in any possible way with all races. The white men question his use of the phrase, “social responsibility,” mocking because they consider black people be incapable of carrying out social responsibility (30, Ellison). When the narrator decides to mention equality, the white men do not want to hear his speech anymore. They do not want to consider equality as a right for black people to assume the same social responsibilities. The narrator, like W.E.B Du Bois, voices the need for the black people to fight everyday for freedom, for broad-minded, honest criticism on the inadvertent concessions Booker T. Washington made on behalf of his race on black people’s rights for three important needs for them to progress and improve their social condition: equal education, suffragist rights, and civil rights.
The narrator’s search for his place in society brings him back to the same goals that he started with. After the narrator has gone through the disappointment with Mr. Norton and his college expulsion by Bledsoe, the narrator proceeds to deliver seven letters to friends of Bledsoe’s. Upon arriving in Harlem, the narrator is surprised that white people entrust black people to transfer large valuable qualities of goods, and aspires to work as a trusted messenger for a millionaire. He imagines himself as a more sophisticated influential figure than Bledsoe. Bledsoe is a black man who mastered the dominant language of society, the white customs and mannerisms that are directed towards blacks. From what the narrator observes, Bledsoe is treated as an equal amongst the college trust members. The narrator is assigned to take Norton on a tour of the campus. Norton makes the narrator promise to tell him of the narrator’s outcome, because the narrator is Norton’s fate, because like the Founder, he has the power of a king, and the outcomes of all the students in their future jobs are important. He labels the narrator as a cog in a machine, as an asset to be watched over and controlled. The vet from the Golden Day describes the narrator as an invisible mechanical man (94, Ellison). Langston Hughes’s “Merry-Go-Round” uses the merry-go-round as a metaphor for racism: the ride is going around and around in circles, just like racism. There is a Jim Crow section on the merry-go-round, which points to racism. The merry-go-round is a kid amusement ride which deals with the early exposure to racism.
Throughout the “Invisible man,” the narrator is used as a “material, a natural resource to be used” This realization, his declaration is a way of throwing out the old self, who was too blind to notice the myth of the savage nature of black people. He failed to notice that the dominated society is pleased at the tales of Trueblood that can reinforce this myth. In the end, the narrator learns to experience the possibilities that the world holds by embracing his individuality and unique potential originality. The more the narrator embraces his freedom, he draws farther away from racial identity and the complications that come with it. The Brotherhood’s Communist ideology saw the narrator as a pawn and uses him to give speeches while deceiving him and manipulating him. He is wanted for his skillful rhetoric, but the Brotherhood molds him to say what they envision to be right, in the name of their ideology. The Brotherhood sacrifices groups of people to make an impact on history. Brother Jack tries to turn the narrator away from considering the evicted black elderly couple, degrading them as lost in the past, of no use to further society (291). In the end, the narrator steps out of the darkness that blinded him and enters the light, because now he can see the world around him in a new light. In the end, the narrator has a heightened self awareness. Before, the narrator adopts the roles that other people expect him to be. As he puts it: “my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself” (560).