Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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CHAPTER ONE: To be seen or not. Is that the question in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison?

 

“I yam what I am!” – Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) attracted a lot of popularity shortly after it was published. Even though Ellison did not publish any other novels, his debut remained as one of the most popular works of the contemporary American novel. Even after over forty years of its publishing, Invisible Man was chosen to be the best postwar era novel in a 1965 Book Week poll (Corry, 1995: 98). Its popularity continues as people use it in their references and publish dozens of literary works to this date (Yaszek, 2005: 298). Despite the novel’s big success and influence, Ellison described his book as “not quite fully achieved attempt at a major novel.” According to him, the most the novel could do was to replace “narrow naturalism” of the popular mainstream American literature with a prose style that was experimental and aimed to “challenge the apparent forms of reality itself” in the 1953 National Book Award speech (Ellison, 1994: 102, 105-106). Ellison’s aim was to reevaluate reality—therefore reevaluate the past and the history that we tell in order to form a coherent and logical reality—through the nonlinear events, times and grounds of an unnamed narrator.

Two of the main themes of black thought that focus on existence and reality are the themes of visibility, or rather invisibility, and ignorance. These terms have almost become one with Ralph Ellison. In Invisible Man, the terms become what Fanon calls “a phobogenic object” which arouses distress and fear (Gordon, 2008: 134). Ellison’ book portrays the conscious of Africans in the United States during the years the book was published (the 1950s). Seen and being seen—or in this case, visibility/invisibility and ignorance are terms that mutually correspond each other, in other words, they complement one another. The whole idea is: “If I am invisible to you, you are blind to me” (Miralles, 2013: 59). This is clearly pointed out in Ellison’s book, Invisible Man:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. (3)

As a bildungsroman, Invisible Man is the portrayal of a young black man who is learning to look at the hidden surface of the assertions and putting them into the correct frames of reference in order to restore his state from invisibility. Ellison points out to the inextricable situation of African-American intellectuals in which the impossibility of becoming visible through individual success was revealed.

The novel portrays the life of the unnamed African-American narrator who becomes disillusioned as he moves from rural South to cosmopolitan North. At the beginning, the narrator is portrayed as a successful yet clueless student then he becomes a naïve worker at a factory in New York, as the novel develops, the readers see a street radical who advocates people of the Harlem and finally becomes disillusioned after a race riot and has no other way out then to flee the community. He realizes there is nowhere that he can flee that is different—and promising for the future—so he ends up fleeing underground of the city where he literally becomes invisible. The narrator is resentful because of poverty—both physical and emotional—racism and hypocrisy that he had been experiencing from the beginning. Ihab Hassan states in Ellison’s Invisible Man the African-American Negro who is portrayed as a victim, an agitator, a stranger, and a deceiver “confronts us, in the darkness of which no man can bleach himself, with the question: Who am I?” (Lane, 1973: 64) Throughout the novel, he was emasculated, received no respect and left without any roots to hold onto by others—both white and black—who never bothered to pass the appearance in order to see the real person behind. He was a symbol. The more he became disillusioned with the reality, the more he alienated himself from the community and himself. Ellison’s use of racism made the invisible man everyman.

In a review, Charles J. Rolo described Invisible Man’s theme as “Its point is that this age, with its passion for categories and its indifference to the uniqueness of the individual, is reducing all of us to a condition of invisibility” (Rolo, 1952: 84). The invisibility of the narrator was originated in the South with its segregation system but it became perpetual in the North which is thought to be a promised land for the African-Americans to fulfill their fullest potentials. With that, Ellison also refers to the deception of so-called American Dream (Lane, 1973: 64). To Ralph Ellison, America was suffering from a psychological illness which will bring his end and he wrote in the hope that he may help to reduce its density. Ellison summaries his ideology in an interview with Richard G. Stern in 1961 as: “I think that the mixture of the marvelous and the terrible is a basic condition of human life and that the persistence of human ideals represents the marvelous pulling itself up out of the chaos of the universe” (Ellison, 1961: 31). His ideas were focusing around the dilemma of African-Americans’ isolation but he was aware that focusing solely on that issue would obstruct constructing one’s own voice and inner sense.

Even though the novel belongs to the bildungsroman genre, in the “Introduction” of the novel’s thirty years anniversary edition, Ellison notes it as a “piece of science fiction” that he thought he would never expect to write (1982, xv).  In fact, if we consider the definition of science fiction by Darko Suvin, the novel fits into the genre to a certain extent. According to Suvin, science fiction is described as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative alternate to the author’s empirical experience” (Suvin, 1979: 7-8). From this partial inclusion, it is clear that even Ellison was not sure how to categorize the novel which included both realist and fictive forms. Only recently, the name coincides with the genre was formed: Afrofuturism.

The scholars that are writing in this genre are generally the fabulists and science fiction writers, however, I believe Ralph Ellison can also be categorized in this genre as a early-Afrofuturist author. It is important to note that Afrofuturist authors, such as Mark Dery, Sheree Thomas, and Alondra Nelson, accepted his part and contributions in the history of early Afrofuturism. Ellison’s writing predicted the principles of modern Afrofuturism that display the need for both black and white Americans to oppose the covering up of every aspect of the future that has been promised to the Americans. At the end, Ellison lets the artists from the future generation form counter futures that are possible to take place. It is at this point that Invisible Man becomes a form of appeal for Afrofuturist thinking that was not feasible at that time.

Even though Ellison thought himself solely as an American writer, his way of thinking about past, identity and artistic ability put him in the parallel line with the Afrofuturists that come after him. In the chapter titled “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” in Shadow and Act, he asserts:

the white American has charged the Negro American with being without a past or tradition (something that strikes the white man with a nameless horror), just as he himself has been so charged by European and American critics with a nostalgia for the stability once typical of European cultures. [But] the Negro knows that both were ‘mammy-made’ right here at home (Ellison, 1994: 54).

Ellison observes the themes homelessness and alienation—which stem from Afrodiasporic encounter—as covering a more common aspect of the modern Americans. He also persists on the idea of the experiences of Africans in the modern world mean more than physical and psychological wounds. In addition, he connects the thinking of modern blackness with the factual practices—that include the usage of reason and arguments—in the futures industry. In an interview in Harper’s Magazine (1967):

If a Negro writer is going to listen to sociologists…he is in trouble because he will have abandoned his task before he begins. If he accepts the cliche´ to the effect that the Negro family is usually a broken family…if he believes that Negro males are having all these alleged troubles with their sexuality, or that Harlem is a ‘negro ghetto’…well, he’ll never see the people of whom he wishes to write…our lives, since slavery, have been described mainly in terms of our political, economic, and social conditions as measured by outside norms, seldom in terms of our own sense of life or our own sense of values gained from our own unique experience. (Ellison, 1995: 113)

In this quotation, Ellison argues that sociologists or other analyzers of Afrodiasporic history have stereotypical assumptions that include an objection to the development of blackness. Because they have these bias assumptions, their analyses leave out the positive and satisfying sides of African-Americans. He believes it is the duty of the Africans along with the intellectuals to rewrite the already written narratives so the readers can find the truth without being too attached to them.

From one point of view, Ralph Ellison praise “Negro American consciousness that is not a product…of a will to historical forgetfulness, [but] a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events” (Ellison,  1994: 124). From another one, he is a promoter of the idea that “the United States is an international country and its conscious character makes it possible for us to abandon the mistakes of the past” (Ellison, 1994: 231). It is not about African Americans having an innate awareness that helps them to reconsider the history and the present separated from the formal image of their past, rather, it is about having the awareness to help them become a part of modernity and progress towards to new possible futures. Just like Afrofuturists, Ellison’s main interest is about opening an area for Afrodiasporic individuals in the future that will be heavily technology driven. In “Some Questions and Some Answers”, he asserts that Africans and their laboring images have been used for the benefit of the others and technology and science was used to carry the old traditions. He asserts that now things are different:

It is precisely technology which promises [Africans] release from the brutalizing effects of over three hundred years of racism and European domination. Men cannot unmake history, thus it is not a question of reincarnating those cultural traditions which were destroyed, but a matter of using industrialization, modern medicine, modern science generally to work in the interest of these peoples rather than against them. Nor is the disruption of the past a totally negative phenomenon; sometimes it makes possible a modulation in a people’s way of life that allows for a more creative use of its energies. (1994: 264-65)

Ellison’s claim can be called “technoscientific humanism” that recognizes the technological changes of today can prepare the way for a more altered, democratic and impartial future (Yaszek, 2005: 304). In a debate titled “What’s Wrong with the American Novel” (1955), Ellison astonished everyone—including the participant at the panel—by declaring the real problem with modern American novel was not that it was unsuccessful because it couldn’t present a fresh outlook of an ordinary experience like many white scholars have concluded, but rather it became unsuccessful because it could not succeed at representing the real innovations, such as the social and technological—or rather industrial—developments, within the modern era. He commented, “in the early days when the novel came into being…society had begun to shift, and the novel was about these new things which were happening so fast that men needed to get an idea of what was simply temporary and what was abiding.” He believes the reality changes quickly and the writers need to be updated because if they are not, they “are apt to fall into writing the same book or the book that is expected of you” (Ellison, 1995: 27, 49). He considered the goal for the writers should be about persuading readers to have “a sense of wonder” that includes the awareness of multiple realities in American culture and acceleration of these realities turning into the possible futures (25). This is exactly what he did in his novel. In Invisible Man, the readers are given a “a helter-skelter world” in which the unnamed narrator “lived by guile and guise, confronting ever-expanding horizons of experience without adequate armor and with imperfect vision” (O’Daniel, 1967: 279-280). The passage on “Battle Royal”, as Ellison puts it, assumes the role of introducing the unnamed narrator’s illusioned state as described above.

  1.       The Battle of Royals

In terms of invisibility and ignorance, the passage of Battle Royal possesses a good model of the reality of the narrator’s former state. The passage depicts the mutual blindness of the nameless narrator and the audience he refers to. At the beginning of the passage, the narrator’s aim of attending the gathering is to present his valedictory speech in front of a crowd constituted of white elites of the town, however, it is too late when he becomes aware of his delusion. The course of action forces him to perform in a racist show blindfolded where he has to fight with fellow African-Americans and the result is the simple humiliation of their race. The ignorance of the depicted black boys at the Battle Royal is also the cause for their own humiliation and the proofs of their inferiority in the view of the whites. They are not even aware of their embarrassment. Their ignorance comes from how low they view themselves and how others asses them. Ellison uses visibility and ignorance or in this case, it can be called blindness, in the paragraph where he portrays the whites blindfolding the African-American boys. As a critic, Muyumba states: “Ellison blindfolds the boys to play his themes of blindness and invisibility in the context of White viewership” (Muyumba, 2009: 60). Both metaphoric and literal folding takes place as the boys “allowed [them]selves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth” (21). The symbols, motifs, the selected language Ellison uses all support his ideas on the depiction of invisibility and ignorance. All of these help us best understand Ellison’s approach to these concepts in regard to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. The usage of the white cloth represents the mutual blindness, thus invisibilities, of the both parties.

The ignorance of the narrator is different than the rest of the boys in terms of his being uninformed of the fight. His naivety gets the best of him and he is illusioned to think he will become a part of the society if he yields to whites. At that point of the book, he still believes once he gives his valedictory speech, the white townsmen will realize that he is a “potential Booker T. Washington” and then he will become visible to them (17). The boys’ ignorance is, on the other hand, presented differently because the rest of the boys, besides the narrator, are actually aware of what is really going on. They allow the whites to cover their eyes and show no resistance thus submitting to the racial stereotyping of African Americans. With the folds, they can “no longer control [their] motions. [They] had no dignity. [They] stumbled about like a baby or a drunken man” (22). They can neither see nor be seen by the whites because of the white piece of cloth. The inhumane treatment is represented as:

Everyone fought hysterically.  It was complete anarchy.  Everybody fought everyone else.  No group fought together for long.  Two, three, four, fought one, then turned to fight each other, were themselves attacked.  Blows landed below the belt and in the kidneys with the gloves open as well as closed […] (23).

The boys are not aware whom they are actually fighting against. They are not fighting against whites or fellow blacks, they are fighting with their own race. They symbolize how whites treat blacks without actually seeing, knowing or caring in the real world of 1950s in the United States’ south. With the blindfolds, they only focus on to knock down the other, the personality or the characteristic or even the identity do not matter. It is Darwin’s famous survival of the fittest. At the end of the fight, the money, coins and other stuff are thrown on the ring floor as a payment for the boys. Even the way that the boys are paid shows white townsmen’s view of African Americans as savages. And the blacks do not seem to mind being treated as such due to their financial deprivation.[1]

The language used by the white crowd also present the racist approach of the whites. Their remarks are very discriminatory and show how superficial their actual thoughts are. During the fighting, the narrator hears the comments of the men, like “I don’t like his looks”, “[L]et me at those black sonsabitches!”, “I want to get that ginger-colored nigger” and “Kill that big boy!” (21). All of this hateful language proves their refusal to see African Americans as real humans. Even after the narrator succeeds at giving his speech, the president of the all-black college congratulates him and says sentences such as “he’ll lead his people in the proper paths” and “the destiny of your people” (32). The use of discriminatory language that includes expressions like “your people” or “his people” clearly suggests the soul of segregation. It shows whites do not see African-Americans as capable of being their equal. To them, they can never fully integrate and possess a part in their white community. And if you do not treat someone as an equal, you can never really see them as a part of your society which makes them invisible.

In Invisible Man, Ellison’s main conjecture was on the fact that how blacks scraped up their own selves and yield to the whites’ superficial and ignorant imagery in order to become visible in the eyes of the community. The ideas of white Americans of the blacks draw a lot of parallels with the Orientalists that Edward Said mentions in his book Orientalism (2004). James B. Lane explains the psyche of the whites as defining “black men as violence-prone yet childlike, docile yet unpredictable, oppressed yet happy, impulsive yet stoic, primitive yet religious, and super masculine yet impotent in contact with whites” (Lane, 1973: 65). After the humiliation, the wealthy white folks of the town rewarded the invisible man with a scholarship to a segregated college for blacks. The narrator accepted this scholarship with great enthusiasm and worked very hard to endear himself to the president of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, who was nothing more than the Negro servant of the whites.

The scene of Battle Royal is important in terms of the narrator’s experience of absolute physical visibility and powerlessness at the same time as well as the illustration of the signification system’s mutually dependence aspect. In the passage, the male power and white power intercross by the visibility system that is constructed and dictated by the concept of whiteness. The narrator and the other African Americans as well as the white female are desubjectified and constrained to perform certain actions under the orders of white male abuse. The abuse under the gazing of the whites includes performing the black man’s “primitivism” and exploiting female sexuality. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s interpretation of “male homo-social desire” in the “presence of female bodies” increases the possibility that this scene promotes the complete visibility of the white female to display the invisibility of the blacks in front of the white man (Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1992: 64). Ellison describes the crowd as “the men on the other side were waiting, red faces swollen as though from apoplexy as they bent forward in their chairs” to watch the show (28). This description is a representation of the releasing of tension that is built up from maybe not sexual desires but certainly from the disguised appeal and fear. The provocative behavior of the white man breaks from his complexity toward sexuality of the black man: “Let me at that big nigger!”, “Get going black boy!”, “Kill that big boy!” (21-3) Their emphasizing of the color and the size of the black man over and over again indicates their view as seeing the blacks as solely genital objects. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues:

Since [the white man’s] ideal is infinite virility is there not a phenomenon of diminution in relation to the Negro, who is viewed as a penis symbol? […] Is the Negro’s superiority real? Everyone knows it is not. But the prelogical thought of the phobic has decided that such is the case (Fanon, 2008: 123).

During the Battle Royal, the African-Americans’ racial visibility is displayed as a phobic object in which it sends the signals to the signifier that they should be emasculated before his own Ego is. This enables to reinterpret the illusive completeness of Whiteness concept while under the intimidation of approaching dispersion from the raced body. The naked white female was exploited as a sexual object in order to promote “theft of agency from” the boys and put them into their inferior places. (Jilani, 2014). By allowing this scene to be performed, the white man desires to achieve the continuation of the black man’s perception as a phobic object and his condition as the decisive authority on the alliance of whiteness and masculinity. In accordance with Lacan’s theory, blacks as the phobic objects operate as a signifier because they embody some corresponding components in the subject’s—meaning the white man’s—world that needs clarification. Even though the state of being a phobic object actually only exist in the Imaginary, it still becomes Symbolic to the subject. (Evans, 2007) In fact, the Battle Royal marks, likely to occur, the visual demonstration that prepares the scene for the blending of the races. Blackness and femininity then represent the object-status relationship that forms the subjectivity of the white man from its accordance to the objectification of the former ones. Sheshadri-Crooks asserts, “the subject’s corporeality is itself constituted as a coherent image through the intervention of the signifier” (Sheshadri-Crooks, 2000: 35). In this complex and significant scene, there is an effort at a “pre-symbolic” level by whiteness to make a connection between racial visibility and state of being a subject/object. The unnamed character comes to a conclusion that if he wants visibility, the way to go is to achieve signification under white man.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon stresses around this issue. The book displays not only the ideological chain of command of colonialism but also it dwells on the issues of how the concept of race and racism is constructed psychologically in the individual’s unconscious mind as well as the society’s social and cultural practices. According to Fanon, to the extent the blacks think and appear like the whites, they are more likely to be confronted as phobic objects. He asserts the beginning of this situation comes from Lacanian mirror-stage. He gives the example of the Antillean and the white children: “for the Antillean the mirror hallucination is always neutral […] I always ask them, ‘What colour were you?’ Invariably they reply, ‘I had no colour’” (Fanon, 2008: 125). While the Antillean child denies having a color, the white child was not able to incorporate the image of the Other’s within. Homi K. Bhabha asserted in his foreword to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks that the mirror image of “the Other must be seen as the necessary negation of a primordial identity­­—cultural or psychic—that introduces the system of differentiation which enables the ‘cultural’ to be signified as linguistic, symbolic, historic reality” (Bhabha, 1986: xxx). It is clear when Fanon talks about the Other, he uses the Lacanian definition and refers to the black man in accordance to the white man. The denial of Antillean’s skin color is actually a concealed demonstration for rejection. He rejects his own color and concentrates on the idea of completion upon the Other that is considered to be having “no colour”. Dreams and displays throughout the novel help the unnamed narrator change his mind about seeking visibility through white recognition.

1.2     Use of Dreams and Displays

The theme of blacks’ blindness to racism as well as the whites was demonstrated through the use of dreams and displays in the novel. The initiator of this train of thought, even though not realized at the time, was the narrator’s grandfather. He was an unaware and unappreciated character in the novel. His family thought he lost his sanity toward the end of his life. On his deathbed, he informed the narrator’s father and the rest of his family:

‘Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’ (16)

He advised his family “to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” while they engage in contact with whites. However, his words are disregarded by his own family thinking he is not in a fully conscious state. It is too soon for the narrator to fully comprehend the true meaning of his grandfather’s last words. In fact, it is going to take a lot of time and abrasive experience to understand his word’s true meaning.

In another occasion related to the grandfather, the narrator sees a dream in which he is in a circus with his grandfather. While they are watching the show, the grandfather tells him to open an official letter from the briefcase. When he opens the letter it says: “To Whom It May Concern… Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (33). He doesn’t understand what it all means until he goes off to college and things start to get real. In college, there is a statue of the Founder who is holding a veil over a kneeling slave. The problem with the statue is that it is not certain whether the founder is lifting the veil or putting it on to cover the slave. While he was trying not to think much about these kinds of subjects, the school held an assembly which corresponded to the same time with Mr. Norton’s visit. In the assembly, Minister Homer A. Barbee gave a speech about the extraordinary accomplishments and achievements of the owner of the statue, the Founder. After his long and passionate speech, he trips and everyone realizes that the minister is actually blind. He literally does not have a vision. Along these lines, the readers also witness a deranged doctor speaking to Mr. Norton and telling him the black youth were “negative mechanical zombies who behaved like transparent sleepwalkers” (Lane, 1973: 66). Ellison presents cues but the narrator’s illusionment is not effected until he leaves the college. After his expulsion, the invisible man finds out that he was betrayed by Bledsoe with the so-called letters of introduction which supposedly was going to help him get a job in New York City. After everything that he had witnessed, the letters were the last drop that made him realize the righteousness of his grandfather’s last words and experience the prophecy of his dream: “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

Nonetheless, he realizes he can achieve visibility with the service of ideology after he moves to Harlem and becomes involved with the Brotherhood. Brotherhood’s aim seems to be Fanon’s ideology.               Fanon asserts if national consciousness stays only at the local level than it would cause a “representation of national reality which is flat, untroubled, motionless, reminiscent of death rather than life.” The national culture should be viewed as a country’s gateway that opens to the international arena for global conflict with movements that are anti-imperial and aim for liberation: “it is its national character that will make such a culture open to other cultures and which will enable it to influence and permeate other cultures” (Fanon, 1963: 245). National culture, in fact, is one of the most important keys to encounter neo-imperialism’s cultural aspect and help to build a mutual cultural relationship in the global arena. Fanon stresses on: “A non-existent culture can hardly be expected to have bearing on reality, or to influence reality” (Fanon, 1963: 245).  He stresses upon re-building a nation in order to give life to the national culture within the solely biological direction. Fanon reminds the readers the continuation of culture is always partial and globalization, too, brings along some of the nation’s values and pressures. According to him, only an entirely developed national consciousness can strengthen the hand in terms of challenging and claiming compensation from Europe while continue to be against neo-imperial developments.

After his eviction speech, he is accepted by the Brotherhood to become a representative figure for the Harlem’s black residents. He sides with the Brotherhood while opposing to Ras the Exhorter’s black nationalist movement but he is worn out with time by the Brotherhood’s scientific adaptation of socialism that see the ordinary blacks only as figures in history and declare to know what the collective will desires. At the beginning, the narrator was enjoying the class-based aspect of the Brotherhood’s ideology. Following his first speech, he felt as if “possibilities had suddenly broadened. As a Brotherhood spokesman [he] would not only represent [his] group but one that was much larger. The audience was mixed, their claims broader than race” (353). Nonetheless, other members of the group were unhappy and thought the narrator’s speech arouse mob psychology. It is hinted that the other members are expecting to use the methods that are approved by the Brotherhood only in order for the narrator to be able to achieve the possibilities that he thought to be broadened. After he is denounced to be self-promoting himself by Brother Westrum, the narrator starts to realize the individuals, within the Brotherhood, act in favor of their own authority struggles instead of servicing the residents of Harlem: “‘Brother, you were not hired to think.’ He was speaking very deliberately and I thought, So… So here it is, naked and old and rotten. So now it’s out in the open…” (469) The narrator slowly comes to the consciousness that before he thought he needed to please the white and wealthy men in order to achieve visibility but now it turned out he is in a system that promotes certain black individuals over others and he is a part of it because of his desire of visibility. During his time with the group, he starts to realize “racial unconsciousness may not exist as a bedrock or foundation but rather as a technology. Moreover, it is a technology that must be disguised as nontechnical and internal” (Cheng, 2001: 167). This is valid even for the ones who claim dedication to social development in the sense that evidently discard racial discourse.

The collective socio-cultural customs, therefore, denies the subjecthood as well. Toni Morrison describes this as “the age-old ontological utility of race” (Morrison, 1992: 63). In order to focus on this area, we need the Jacques Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that focus on the symbolic order and works that focus on the race relationships’ psychological level along with the visibility/invisibility of the black identity. Psychoanalysis can be helpful for interrogating the system’s implications in terms of examining how race is incorporated in this book, how it is expressed and made visible/invisible and considering its components in regards with subjecthood. The questioning of the subject should include how and why the lack of whiteness bring along the desubjectification both in social and psychological levels and the role invisibility plays in ensuring the continuation of this desubjectified status and also claiming back the subjecthood for the colored self.

In Invisible Man, “history, memory, toleration, hatred and racism are inscribed on the bodies and minds of the characters, and in this, they ‘become’” (McKittrick, 2000: 129). The characters include black individuals or corporal Others who see and engage the dominant discourses and codes of conduct. Before starting to unravel the subtle occurrences between adaptation and resistance, there is a need to form a vocabulary that problematizes the descriptive domination of race for the racially classified scene that they are working within. In order for the other to be whole in terms of his visibility and race needs a signification system that permits the existing power of race. It can be interpreted with the help of the psychoanalytical theory. Lacan’s consideration of “the unconscious as an entity that bridges the subject to the general economy of signification” can supply the above-mentioned vocabulary instead of a Freudian interpretation of it as “an inchoate inner space of repressed libidinal energies and instincts.” (Jilani, 2014) His symbolic order—especially the Symbolic and the Real dimensions—are essential in providing the framework for the indication of the function of whiteness concept to make race seen. In addition, Sheshadri-Crooks offers an insightful groundwork in order to apprehend the role the concept of whiteness plays during the construction of the race visibility. To Lacan, it is “something into which [the individual] integrates himself, which through its combinations already governs” (Lacan, 1991: 307) Sheshadri-Crooks justifies that “’Man’ must find confirmation of his place in the chain of signifiers, but paradoxically he is ‘man’ because it is unavailable to him… in relation to ‘race’, we can assume the prevalence of a master-signifier that we identify within our unconscious, and which gives us our sense of having a racial identity” (Sheshadri-Crooks, 2000: 27).

It is the apparent labeling on the being that enables whiteness to operate as a signifier for the completeness. However, it tries to engage an absence about its unavailability for the reason that the biological appearance is not capable of initiating a classification for meaning on the symbolic meaning level. This keeps the concept of race in the Lacan’s symbolic realm instead of the Real one, but, of course, it nonetheless feels the disturbing reactions of the Real as well.  Race only exists symbolically, however, the artificial assurance of whiteness being the Real ambushes the blackness into being an “object” which a pretentious authority decides what it is capable of signifying or not. Therefore, Sheshadri-Crooks explains: “whiteness, by attempting to signify that which is excluded in subject constitution, the more-than-symbolic aspect of the subject, produces anxiety. There is a lack of the lack as [it] appears in that place that should have remained empty” (Sheshadri-Crooks, 2000: 27). She makes use of the ideas of Jacques Lacan to give a meaning to anxiety under the concept of race. Even though it tries to change what it signifies symbolically, whiteness comes heavier in terms of generating what it signifies. It desires to signify completeness and human whereas it currently signifies—fragmentation and non-human. It wants to become a subject instead of an object. The cause of the anxiety is the black man’s attempts to point out to the racial difference as extra-symbolic. Its failure to do so eventually rearticulates the idea that “race is captured and produced by language” (Sheshadri-Crooks, 2000: 44). It is not free from the past or assures to achieve the signification of a whole or human. These racist discourse and structures happen before the unnamed narrator in Invisible Man moved to Harlem from the South and continue afterward as well. His comprehension of these forms of structures and engagement in the “regime of visibility” take different approaches as he attempts to explore subjectivity with high-visibility and, later, impermanent resorting to invisibility. The narrator describes his young self before he moved to North as naïve and full of guilty emotions in terms of “racial” integrities. Interestingly, there are not many critics who dwelled upon the invisible man’s lack of imagination and delimited rhetorical comprehension that are powerful elements that add up to the condition of invisibility of the African-Americans.

1.3     Need for Oratory Skills

From the start, the readers witness the unnamed narrator’s limited oratory skills along with the lack of his imagination and commonsense. As one of the critics, Robert O’Meally comments the narrator is simply “dumb, or more accurately, he is exaggeratedly naïve, hilariously so” (O’Meally, 1988: 15). On the other hand, H. William Rice argues “understanding the role of language, in terms of speech and writing, plays a major role in understanding Ellison’s work as a whole.” One of the shortcomings of his claim is the fact that he focuses mostly on the contrasting parts between dialect and writing (Rice, 2003: 10). Yet another critic, Gerald Gordon focuses on the novel’s use of rhetorical approaches but he does not focus on the narrator’s own shortcomings in this area (Gordon, 1987: 199-210). John Callahan and Robert Stepto are the two significant critics to consider on Ralph Ellison. The former has written a lot about and for Ellison. He edited some of his essays, letters and even published Ellison’s manuscript, which was unfinished, with two different titles: Juneteenth (1999) and Three Days Before the Shooting… (2010). In the article entitled “Frequencies of Eloquence,” Callahan characterized the invisible man as a “failed orator…unable to communicate directly with those he meets in American society” (Callahan, 1988: 55). According to him, the main aspect for this was the fact that he “misjudges the explosiveness of language” when making an effort for expression (Callahan, 1988: 55). Callahan concentrates on how the narrator’s speech affects the audience or the bond in between while this dissertation focuses more on the effects on the narrator and his awareness which increases with the course of the novel.

As presenting a completely different point of view, the African-American critic Robert Stepto also stresses on the shortcomings of the narrator’s literal-mindedness. He examines the narrator according to two articulation of “the Afro-American pregeneric myth of the quest for freedom and literacy”: “ascent and immersion” narratives (Stepto, 1999: 18). The first one includes an “enslaved” character to start off with. After following the travel to figurative North— in Invisible Man’s case the real North—opens a whole new world for the character’s realization. Finally, he learns how to correctly interpret the signs including the signs of language and ends up as an “articulate survivor” who has to break his relations with the community and move from the most oppressive social structure to a least oppressed one. This later environment can be either in solitude or alienation forms. This aspect of the ascent narrative gives a rise to the second narrative type (Stepto, 1999: 18). In the second “immersion” narrative, the character is sent to figurative South to explore the aspects of “tribal literacy that ameliorate, if not obliterate, the conditions imposed by solitude.” Still, the character can find himself in the oppressive environments, but he is already equipped enough “to assume the mantle of an articulate kinsman,” even though he continues to be restricted by the group identity that he has recently acquired (Stepto, 1999: 19). According to Robert Stepto, Ellison takes these two narrative expressions and creates a brand new strategy using especially the prologues and epilogues that he uses in his story to “formalize in the art the ‘fiction’ of history expounded primarily in its frame” (Stepto, 1999: 22). By using this frame, the invisible man accomplishes “expressions of group consciousness and self-consciousness that respectively transcend tribal literacy and resist the infecting germs of heroic self-portraiture.” This also taught the narrator “his personal tale is but an arc of the parabola of human history, and that his personal tale is only a finite particle in the infinity of tale-telling” (Stepto, 1999: 23). By solving the endless dilemma of self-representation or group representation as the aim of the narrative, the narrator announces: “The hibernation is over.  I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath” (580). However, Stepto focuses more on the author’s oratory strategies than the narrator’s tale by thinking the rhetorical strategies of the author lead to a comprehension of the environment including the meaning of the symbolic and literal acts. The critic mentions the narrator’s increase in awareness in terms of both the present condition and the history of his people. His strategy of narrating his own story leads him to gain self and group literacy. However, there are obvious rhetorical gaps relating to the events that lead to the victorious stage of the narrator due to Ralph Ellison’s literary strategies.

When the narrator attends college in South, the school is presented as giving the students education in terms of literacy. However, it is made obvious that the necessary discourses are omitted from their curriculum. David Gold, the author of Rhetoric at the Margins, examined the writing instructions in American colleges between the years of 1873-1947 which also coincides with the time when Ellison was writing his novel. Gold discusses three college types: a public women’s college, a black liberal arts college (in East Texas) and a teacher training school similar to the Tuskegee Institute. By examining the curriculum, Gold detected there was more politically involved and richer curriculum in black liberal arts colleges. On the other hand, having a much weaker and mostly training based education, the training schools were following a curriculum decided by white Eastern schools which led to pushing speech making skills and taking actions for public concerns “to the periphery” (Gold, 2008: 15). Their focus was more on the accurate diction and grammar rather than teaching oratory skills. The grammar instructors in Tuskegee Institute believed lacking “[e]rrors in English, spoken or written, stamp a man at once as being uncultured. They indicate a mental shoddiness that is far from respectable” (Jackson, 2002: 112). As specified earlier in terms of the rhetorical gaps in the narration of Invisible Man, the oratory knowledge of the narrator comes from Ellison’s own consciousness. He also expressed Kenneth Burke as one of his most important theoretical influences while writing Invisible Man (Genter, 2002: 195).After listening to Burke’s speech on “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in which he explained Hitler’s oratory strategies that include scapegoating (Burke, 1969: 406-407). Burke’s Freudian reading of “German anti-Semitism” laid bare the restrictions with Marxist analyzing (it explained Nazism only economically). Ellison used this strategy to focus on “the psychological dynamics underpinning American racism,” (Burke, 1969: 69). Kenneth Burke’s “dramatist pentad”, which includes “the terms Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, Purpose,” could clarify symbolic actions that contribute to all verbal and rhetoric developments which Ralph Ellison connected to the Negro folk tradition of “signifying” (Burke, 1969: 67, 482).

In Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator’s nightmare of lack of self-representation and speech continued in the north, New York. In Harlem, he was staying in a rather comfortable place, Men’s House, where the inmates were very conscious about their appearances and status. After he found out about his betrayal from the former president of the school, he assaulted an Evangelical minister who resembled Dr. Bledsoe and fled the compound. After leaving the place, he got a job at a paint factory which advertised its optic white paint with the slogan “Keep America Pure”. While working there, he had an accident and found himself being subjected to lobotomy by the doctors whose eyes were like the white masters’, “bloodshot”. This unfortunate experience made him take a different path in his journey. He decided to join the radicals, the Brotherhood. The group’s aim was racial equality and justice but the hypocrisy of the group was revealed through the symbolized incident when the leader, Brother Jack, popped out his eyes from its place. Towards the end of the novel, Brother Jack sparked a race riot in the streets of Harlem which ended up splitting the black community among themselves. To the narrator, he became “Marse Jack” who acted like a “great white father” (357). After that, there was nothing more the narrator could do except for fleeing the community through a manhole. However, he decided to be visible in his underground home so he illuminated the place with 1369 filament type light bulbs by using Monopolated Light & Power Company’s energy source unauthorized.

Moving to Harlem was both enslaving and liberating for him at the same time. The narrator lost his innocence through the deceitful experiences and corrupted individuals. The life in Harlem helped to raise his awareness in terms of his place in history and drove the invisible man to the path of social protest. The major stimulant was when the invisible man witnessed the old couple’s eviction from their broken-down apartment which urged him to give a moving speech and inspire the people to protest and illegally reclaim back the apartment. This was the first condition that called for the narrator’s voice in public area. At the beginning, he couldn’t bring the words to come out: “only a bitter spurt of gall filled my mouth and splattered the old folks’ possessions” (273). He couldn’t even see the real belongings anymore but he looked “inwardly-outwardly, around a corner into the dark, far-away-and-long-ago, not so much of my own memory as of remembered words, of linked verbal echoes, images, heard even when not listening at home.” The old couple’s possessions came to represent a timeless and placeless value for all African Americans. The scene caused a similar reaction that triggered the narrator’s racial memory as the scene where the hospital doctor was asking about Buckeye the Rabbit after his lobotomy had caused. When the narrator looks “around corners”, he refers to visiting different time layers looking to the past and future to them and the others. He led people into action by referring to the old man’s life and condition:

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! Should two old folks live in such junk, cooped up in a filthy room?… Old cracked dishes and broken-down chairs… [He is] a day laborer…but look at his stuff strewn like chitterlings in the snow… Where has all his labor gone? (49)

This speech was also emancipating for the narrator in terms of getting rid of his submissive character. The new phase included aggression. He started to believe the path to deliberate change and self-realization was through radical moves. After his speech, he became acquainted with Brotherhood which used the narrator to carry their ideology to the residents of Harlem. He tolerated the patronizing attitudes of the male leaders and harassing of the female followers. He was enjoying the attention and wanted to be useful to the worthy cause but he ended up gaining enemies among the group and was reassigned. After a lot of accomplishments and failings back and forth, he saw that the greater cause was hindered by shortsighted visions of the individuals. Finally, all of the obstacles made him stronger and realize his invisibility was the necessary advancement for his transition to manhood (Tischler, 1969: 129-130; Ellison, 2010: 492-501). When he spoke he was afraid of not being able to moderate “of what the sight of violence might release” (275). His speech was constituted solely on his emotions, “without thought”. He was in a desperate hope that his words would become true and they act like in fact “law-abiding” and “slow-to-anger” people.

His impediment, pauses, and stops during his speech, is called “spontaneous speech” by cognitive scientists. It is defined as a speech “filled with disfluencies—unwanted pauses, elongated segments, fillers (such as uh and um), editing expressions (such as ‘I mean’ and ‘you know’), word fragments, self corrections, and repeated words” (Clark & Wasow, 1998:1). His weak emotional start turned into a logical address about their communal “dispossession”. And his non-violent, “law abiding” message became the first flame to start a riot. The narrator ended up telling people to move the Provo family’s belongings back to their apartments by ignoring the order of eviction (281). As he runs from the police, he start to become self-conscious and think the “whole thing had gotten out of hand and wondering what he had said to bring all this on” (284). The readers are not notified on the subject of the narrator’s real intentions. It is not even clear to the narrator. His intentions may be to relive the “shock-absorbing phrases” in order to prevent disorder or guide people to take actions like the others, as well as the Brotherhood, believe so. At his first encounter with Brother Jack, he denies his speech at all: “What speech? I made no speech” (288). As Jack insisted on the subject, the narrator confesses that he only talked because the words came to him out of anger. “There was a crowd waiting, so I said a few words. You might not believe it, but I didn’t know what I was going to say…” (289) Jack’s reaction to the sentimentality of the narrator is that he should not waste his feelings on invaluable individuals. To Brother Jack, the Provos are “already dead, defunct. History has passed them by…They’re like dead limbs that must be pruned away so that the tree may bear young fruit…Better the storms should hit them” (291). The narrator lets Jack take the control of the conversation. He only asserts that he likes such old people who remind him the fellows in the South that the narrator has started to associate himself with. At the end, the compliments and money (making 60 dollars a week) counteract the newly discovered commonsense feeling (310). Thus, by accepting to join the Brotherhood, he actually takes a backward step toward actual self-realization.

Brother Jack uses the invisible man’s attraction to be the voice of his race. “The difference between individual and organized indignation is the difference between criminal and political action,” he elaborates. The narrator is not as naïve anymore and thinks: “He only wanted to use me for something. Everybody wanted to use you for some purpose” (294). However, he still cannot resist the thought to be “present at the creation of important events, as though a curtain had been parted and I was being allowed to glimpse how the country operated” (306). Now, he is interested to find out more about the codes of language. Soon he becomes more aware of the real intentions of the Brotherhood when Jack defined the Provos as “dead-in-living …a unity of opposites.” The invisible man questioned himself: “What kind of double talk was this?” (290). Despite, he channels all his energy to his aim which was to master the language and the group’s strategies.

The first speech the narrator bares a lot of resemblance to Frederick Douglass’ first speech for a different kind of brotherhood. It was in Nantucket at an anti-slavery meeting in 1841.[2] In the introduction section of Douglass’ book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, William L. Garrison reflects “the extraordinary emotion [his speech] excited…the powerful impression it created upon a crowded auditory, completely taken by surprise” (Douglass, 1963: x-xi). Garrison describes Douglass’ coming “forward to the platform with a hesitancy and embarrassment, necessarily the attendants of a sensitive mind in such a novel position. After apologizing for his ignorance, and reminding the audience that slavery was a poor school for the intellect and heart.” He gave examples from his own former slave life while giving “utterance to many noble thoughts and thrilling reflections” (Douglass, 1963: v-vii). Both the narrator and Douglass have similarities in their first appearances on the stage including their hesitation and discomposure. Both of them needed white man’s help to substantiate their being in order to achieve a voice in public.

The narrator quickly straightened up his speech as well as confidence with the help from the audience. Even though he had forgotten “the correct words and phrases from the pamphlets,” he resorted “upon tradition”. Using one of the “political techniques” from his past: “The old down-to-earth, I’m-sick-and-tired-of-the-way-they’ve-been-treating-us approach” (342). His “native” tongue came out through the feelings and affected the African-American audience deeply. Even though he made some errors, he was aware of his influence among the audience but then realized he needed to keep the audience engaged: “They were mine, out there, and I couldn’t afford to lose them. Yet I suddenly felt naked, sensing that the words were returning and that something was about to be said that I shouldn’t reveal” (345). While he was about to come forward on something, Brother Jack interfered: “Careful now…Don’t end your usefulness before you’ve begun.” But his warning was not enough to stop the narrator. He felt, as if “the words form themselves, slowly falling into place,” confessing:

I feel suddenly that I have become more human… I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity!… I feel that here, after a long and desperate and uncommonly blind journey, I have come home… feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. I feel that here tonight, in this old arena, the new is being born and the vital old revived. In each of you, in me, in us all.

“SISTERS! BROTHERS!

“WE ARE THE TRUE PATRIOTS! THE CITIZENS OF TOMORROW’S WORLD!

“WE’LL BE DISPOSSESSED NO MORE!” (346)


[1] In terms of the concept of primitivism of Africans that is considered by the colonizers, Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is an important literary work to be considered.

[2] The readers sense the ghost-like presence of Frederick Douglass throughout the novel. Another reference was when the narrator met Brother Jack for the first time. The narrator denied giving a speech and was reluctant to admit the reason of his speech was out of anger. Frederick Douglass was also hesitant to give his first speech at Nantucket convention.

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