Teaching is a funny profession. Teaching well is insanely difficult. At this point in the semester, I am usually battling an upper respiratory infection. I don’t want to grade another essay. Students asking for their averages in the middle of class elicit blank stares and a speech balloon above my head that looks like this: $&@*! In other words, I am ready for a break.
However, the end of the semester for my American Literature class is also the point in the semester during which I get to teach and discuss one of my favorite novels – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I believe it is a vastly underappreciated novel. Also, don’t make the mistake one of my students did and download THE Invisible Man.
Invisible Man is a novel of race and identity, but it’s also a bildungsroman, the story of a faceless, nameless narrator and his realization that everyone around him only uses him for his or her own purposes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Epilogue of this novel begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Pie; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.
The narrator is living in a basement in Harlem, a good bit after the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding himself with light bulbs, leeching electricity from the city, desperate to see himself. The proceeding novel is the story of why he can’t see himself. Told in episodic fashion, the novel begins when the narrator is young – school age, in fact. He is intelligent and knows he is intelligent, winning a scholarship to an all-black school, Tuskegee Institute. He is invited to speak before his town’s leading white citizens, which culminates in one of the most anthologized chapters of this or any other book, “The Battle Royale.” The scene, in which other young black males are blindfolded, stripped down to their underwear and told to fight, is brutal and horrifying. The men are taunted by a blonde white woman dressed provocatively, and the fear and scent of that fear is palpable. The men are then tossed coins as payment, but the coins (fake) are tossed onto an electrified rug, and the older white gentlemen see sport in this.
During this humiliation, though, our narrator can only think about his speech. He is proud, and he is focused. My students, when we began discussing the novel last week, were confused by the scene as it is rather chaotic, but even more so because, thankfully, they also saw how disgusting this behavior was and is and couldn’t believe anything like this could or would happen. We also discussed the subtext of the erotic here, and the danger for these men in this scene, particularly as our narrator then goes on to give his speech, slipping up and saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” and the tense moments after before he is basically told to “know his place.” Even as we only discussed half of the book last week, they were already beginning to pick up on one of the key themes of this book – blindness.
The narrator feels invisible, says he is invisible, yet he, too, struggles to see throughout the novel. In the scene depicted above he feels “a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness.” Once he arrives at Tuskegee, again he is blind, but in a different way, believing his intelligence will be his champion; unfortunately, at every turn, he is thwarted. He leaves Tuskegee and the South for New York, a place where he can eat yams if he wants, wide out in the open, and he “no longer ha[s] to worry about who [sees him] or about what was proper.” However, the narrator never fully realizes that even the North has its own racial code, and there are consequences for every action, no matter how you gloss it over.
One day he watches as an old couple is evicted from their walk-up, seeing their possessions dumped into the street, and as he watches the crowd becomes more and more expectant of violence, until he steps up shouting at the people to remain “law abiding” in one of my favorite moments in the book:
Did you hear [the old man]? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk….Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe….Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a wind storm. Look at them, they look like my mama and my papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with the forty-five.
I can in no way do justice to the brilliant journey this spontaneous moment will begin for the narrator or its accompanying symbols of darkness and light, blindness and vision, invisible and visible. Suffice it to say, whether our narrator is working in a paint plant watching “the right white” paint made whiter by a dark black tint or standing on the porch to a small walkup shouting “Dispossessed!” after the old couple is forced out of their home, Invisible Man is an intricate, enthralling read that forces me to think about the ways in which we choose not to see certain people in our society or the ways in which we simply ask (or require) they take on our own comfortable idea of personhood in order to be recognized and seen.
Hm.. this one would also make a great readalong. I’d love to get some discussion going in comments if you have read it. I haven’t heard many bloggers mention it, so I’m wondering – has anyone out there read it? Or am I alone in my love of this book?