In our digital age we might not think anyone is invisible but if we open our eyes, we will see those that have fallen through the cracks, now think about how it was 70 years ago for those who knew they were second class citizens. Invisible Man is the only novel that Ralph Ellison published in his lifetime, but upon its publication was hailed as a masterpiece.
The narrator, an unnamed black man who lives in an underground room stealing power from the city’s electric grid, reflects on the various ways in which he has experienced social invisibility during his life beginning in his teenage years in the South. Graduating from high school, he wins a scholarship to an all-black college but to receive it, he must first take part in a brutal, humiliating battle royal for the entertainment of the town’s rich white dignitaries. After years later during his junior year, he chauffeurs a visiting rich white trustee for the afternoon but goes beyond the campus resulting with horrifying encounters for the trustee upon seeing the underside of black life beyond the campus. Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, excoriates the narrator and expels him through giving him false hope of re-enrolling by giving him recommendation letters to trustees in New York. After learning this, the narrator attempts to get a job at a paint factory but finds everyone suspicious of him which leads to him getting injured. While hospitalized, he is given shock therapy based on misinformation that he purposely caused the accident that injured him. After leaving the hospital, the narrator faints on the streets of Harlem and is taken in by a kindly old-fashioned woman. He later happens across the eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech that incites the crowd to attack the law enforcement officials in charge of the proceedings. After the narrator escapes, he is confronted by Brother Jack, the leader of a group known as “the Brotherhood” that professes its commitment to bettering conditions in Harlem and the rest of the world. At Jack’s urging, the narrator agrees to join and speak at rallies to spread the word among the black community. The narrator is successful but is then called before a meeting of the Brotherhood and accused of putting his own ambitions ahead of the group, resulting in him being reassigned to another part of the city to address issues concerning women. Eventually he is told to return since his replacement has disappeared and to find him, which he does only to find him disillusioned then shot by a police officer. At the funeral, he gives a rousing speech that rallies the crowd but upsets the Brotherhood leaders due to them not having an interest in the black community’s problems. Without the narrator to help focus the community, other’s take advantage causing a riot. Getting caught up with looters, the narrator navigates the neighborhoods until he falls into an underground coal bin that he is eventually sealed in which allows him to contemplate the racism he has experienced. In the epilogue, the narrator decides to return to the world and that he is telling his story to help people see past his own invisibility and provided a voice for those with a similar plight.
I will be honest I will have to reread this book in a few years because I feel that early in the book, I was not connecting well with the narrative but that later changed especially as the narrator arrived in New York. The ‘trials and travails’ of the narrator while attempt to work at the paint factory and his treatment with the faux-Communists were eye opening given my current employment and some of the political events and or trends over the years. Ellison’s critical look at the African American societal and cultural divides in the South and the same in the North with prejudices in full display was eye opening and a reminder that to look at groups monolithically is a mistake both today and looking back at history. If I took away anything from this reading of the book, it is that.
Invisible Man is a book that needs to be read period. Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, while I did not rate it “great” this time, is a book that I need to reread to full grasp everything going on in the narrative and appreciate its impact.