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This paper, with the title "What Drove Invisible Man Into His Underground Hole?", aims to analyze the roles that history, society and the modern city played in the life story of the nameless protagonist. It will try to show how these factors influenced the decision of the protagonist to live an underground life. Questions like "Did Invisible Man decide to be invisible?" and " Did the incidents of his past push him into his present situation?" will be answered in the course of the analysis.
A novel like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, containing about 470 pages, does not seem to be the most attractive option to become the subject of a literary term paper, at first glance. However, after reading Invisible Man the complexity of the novel (e.g. its starting in ultimas res), the many crucial topics it deals with (such as Racial Segregation, class-society, alienation) and all the partly hidden symbols and motives (such as the theme of the American Adam), that wait to be discovered and analyzed, just have to amaze everyone interested in literature.
Of course, the "stunned" reader may not be stunned before completing the novel, because at the beginning it is difficult to understand the author's purpose. The reader asks himself questions like "What's he driving at?" while reading from the prologue to the epilogue of the novel, in which the protagonist, a young African-American man from the South of the USA, completes a circle - the journey of his life. A nameless character who has been searching for an identity all his life, eventually drops out of society and finds himself in an underground hole in New York City telling his own life story. The story of the "invisible man", living an underground life because his former "normal" life was not acknowledged by the ruling class - the white society of the 1940s and 50s.
His story begins with his childhood in a southern town, he later is offered the chance to go to college, but he gets expelled and hopes to find a job in New York City. The protagonist's former headmaster provides him with letters of recommendation, but he eventually finds out, that they do not contain the request to offer him a job, his headmaster Dr. Bledsoe has betrayed him. In New York the protagonist denies his heritage. He is asked to join the Brotherhood (an organization that officially fights for the rights of colored people, unofficially is just a tool for the white bosses to control them) and become a spokesperson for them. When he finds out that they only manipulate him and his people, he is angry, wants revenge, but doesn't get it. At the end of the story, he falls into a manhole, burns all the paper definitions of his life (e.g. his high school diploma), collapses and dreams of his past. When he awakes he feels whole and starts to write down his own story.
At the beginning of the paper, the historical background will be explored and some key factors of history such as Racial Segregation, the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance will be explained that the reader is able to understand the political and social situation in 1952 when Invisible Man was published.
Furthermore, an analysis of the significance of the city for the novel and the development of the protagonist will be provided. A special focus will lie on Harlem, the city's residents and their relations and the question why the city is a hostile force.
The last part will serve as a connection between the ideas that have been expressed before and the ones that are crucial for the whole novel and the personality of the invisible man, namely his search for identity, the main metaphor of invisibility, his underground existence and his telling of his own story.
2. Historical Background
It is common knowledge, that it hasn't always been easy to be a colored person in the United States of America, or anywhere else outside of Africa. As this novel deals with colorism and its problems, the reader has to know the historical backgrounds of the time when it was written, the late 1940s. There are two major historical themes involved, namely Racial Segregation and the Great Migration.
2.1 Racial Segregation
In the US of the 40s and 50s Racial Segregation was a topic every African-American had to experience every day. The message of the government was clear: "Separate but equal". Obviously, such a situation cannot last long before protest rises, the evidence is provided by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. However, at the time when Ellison was writing Invisible Man, Segregation was still deep-seated. What "Racial Segregation" actually means is described by Britannica Online as follows:
the practice of restricting people to certain circumscribed areas of residence or to separate institutions (e.g., schools, churches) and facilities (parks, playgrounds, restaurants, restrooms) on the basis of race or alleged race. Racial segregation provides a means of maintaining the economic advantages and superior social status of the politically dominant group, and in recent times it has been employed primarily by white populations to maintain their ascendancy over other groups by means of legal and social colour bars (Britannica Online 2010).
This means, that colored people were not treated the same as the white "ruling class". They were excluded from everyday life and cultural events - and therefore went on building their own cultural life and following their own traditions. The protagonist grows up in the conservative South, where the whites "rule" and where people who are colored are only endured.
Colorism and Racial Segregation are closely connected. Colorism means that people are treated differently because of their skin-color. In Invisible Man Ellison expresses that there was a difference between being colored in the South of the US and being colored in the North.
The first time the unnamed narrator (the protagonist) comes in touch with the North is when he gets to know the white and wealthy college-trustee Mr. Norton from Boston during his studies. Norton is a perfect example of what the narrator supposes Northern white people to be like. Not only has he achieved everything that is worth achieving for a human being, he also is polite to African-Americans and is aware of their intelligence and abilities. To a modern reader this sounds as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but as already mentioned above, equality was not reality back then.
The novel points out that people in the South have a certain imagination of what it is like to live in the North. Some colored Southerners even associate it with a new "Eden" (Busby 60) although most of them never actually have been to the North. However, they tell each other stories of what they've heard the North to be like and they dream about the things they connect with it, such as the notion of freedom: "Deep down you're thinking about the freedom you've heard about up North, and you'll try it once, just to see if what you've heard is true" (Invisible Man 127). So when the narrator leaves for the North he is excited to explore all the good things the stories of the North contain. For the narrator the North just has to be a such better place.
During his first few weeks in New York he can't acknowledge that the North has its own problems, of different nature than the problems in the South, but still problems. The reader can feel his ongoing positive belief in the scene where he gets pressed against a women in the subway in chapter seven. It is no nice experience and the narrator feels horrible. To encourage himself he says: "But you're up North now, up North" (Invisible Man 131). This shows that the narrator still pursuits his naÃ¯ve belief that everything will work out when he's just in the North.
One scene that shows the North-South difference clearly is the one where African-Americans are demonstrating and two white policemen are only watching, right after the narrator's arrival in New York. The right to demonstrate peacefully is used in New York every day, as the narrator will later encounter, but in the South a peaceful demonstration by colored people would have been unimaginable. The fact, that the policemen don't care as long as it doesn't come to a riot unsettles the narrator even more.
I had never seen so many black men angry in public before, and yet others passed the gathering by without even a glance. And as I came alongside, I saw two white policemen talking quietly with one another, their backs turned as they laughed at some joke. Even when the shirt-sleeved crowd cried out in angry affirmation of some remark of the speaker, they paid no attention. I was stunned (Invisible Man 133).
When distributing the "letters of recommendation", the narrator receives strange looks from the secretaries. He thinks: "Perhaps they're surprised to see someone like me with introductions to such important men. Well, there were unseen lines that ran from North to South" (Invisible Man 138). At this moment, he doesn't know the letter's contents yet. However, his statement emphasizes that there used to be an invisible boundary between the North and the South. The fact that 'lines' are necessary makes it clear that exchange only took place between a few persons. Even if the US was united officially since the end of the Civil War in 1865, it wasn't in people's minds.
2.3 The Great Migration
When the protagonist comes to New York, Harlem is already populated by African-Americans in huge numbers. This is due to the historical development of the Great Migration. Britannica Online gives a short overview of what the term "Great Migration" in the US refers to:
in U.S. history, the widespread migration of African Americans in the 20th century from rural communities in the South to large cities in the North and West. At the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of black Americans lived in the Southern states. From 1916 to 1970, during this Great Migration, it is estimated that some six million black Southerners relocated to urban areas in the North and West (Britannica Online 2010).
The reader has to understand that the narrator is not used to seeing colored people in large numbers. In his hometown were only a few African-American families. When he comes to New York he is almost shocked to see so many people of his ethnicity at one place, especially when he enters Harlem: "I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings [...] They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn't sure whether they were about to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight" (Invisible Man 132). He usually connects the fact that many colored people are on the same spot with problems.
3. The City
After the young protagonist is thrown out of university for "trying-to-do-everything-right", he decides to go to New York City to work there. As mentioned above, he is expecting a lot, but doesn't have the faintest idea of what reality in the city is like.
In cultural history there is a time in the 1920s that is referred to as the "Harlem Renaissance". It is "the flowering in literature and art of the New negro movement of the 1920s" (Britannica Online 2010). Although the narrator enters Harlem almost 20 years after the Harlem Renaissance, the feeling of cultural creativity is still noticeable.
Harlem is a place where the colored community of New York can live out their cultural traditions and where they don't have to hide their identities. Therefore, it can be called a 'paradise' for Afro-American culture. This goes together with the idea of the 'new Eden' that the Southerners connect with living in the North. In the case of the novel Invisible Man this is New York City, Harlem. Furthermore, the idea of the city as a jungle (again connected to paradise and Eden) is expressed, when the narrator first mentions it in the prologue, already talking from out of his underground hole: "... a hell of a lot of free current is disappearing somewhere into the jungle of Harlem. The joke, of course, is that I don't live in Harlem but in a border area" (Invisible Man 9).
Big cities are often referred to as a 'jungle' because there are so many different people and everybody is running around like they were wild animals, some with a special purpose, some with none at all.
Another notion that can be seen in relation to the idea of the city as a 'jungle', is the one of "organized chaos". Again, big cities seem to depict organized chaos the best. Especially cities in the US are totally organized according to architecture (e.g. the New York grid). However, when people are standing on a square in New York they experience it as a total chaos without any notion of order.
Due to the way colored people are treated in his hometown and even college, the narrator is used to the situation of being a second-class citizen and is very astonished when he discovers that the dream of equality is almost real in the New York City. After his arrival in Harlem the narrator sees colored people doing jobs, that would be restricted to white persons in the South:
There were even black girls behind the counters of the Five and Ten as I passed. Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic - and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure I had heard of it, but this was real. My courage returned. This really was Harlem, and now all the stories which I had heard of the city-within-a-city leaped alive in my mind. [...] For me this was not a city of realities, but of dreams; perhaps because I had always thought my life as being confined to the South.(Invisible Man 132).
He realizes how well integrated colored people are (e.g. the policeman) and he is astonished, but at the same time the situation encourages him. To the reader it seems that he cannot believe that he is really in Harlem now and he interprets the theme of a city-within-a-city as something positive.
Today this is usually perceived as a negative thing, because in many larger cities immigrants shut themselves and their culture off in certain parts of the cities, so that they do not have any contact to the local population and their culture. The fact that the cultures do not interchange ideas leads to the problem of xenophobia, because the local population doesn't know and understand the culture and lifestyle of the immigrants and therefore, and most unfortunately, experiences it as something negative.
For the narrator the situation of colored people in Harlem is at first sight even better than expected. He never imagined himself being a free person and being able to pursue every possible dream. Yet he likes thinking of himself as a member of this colored Harlem community.
3.2 Residents and Relations
The narrator feels a certain relation to the Afro-American community of Harlem. The white persons however, are still not on equal terms with the colored ones, a fact that he has to discover after spending some time in New York. He admits that he has always regarded white people as superiors and not as individuals.
For the first time, as I swung along the streets I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn't worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in the crowd. (Invisible Man 138/39)
This shows that the characters of the whites are disguised as well as those of the colored people. In addition to that, the narrator thinks that he has to be the way the whites want him to be, to please them and he forgets to be himself. What counts are status symbols such as education and money. The opinion of white people about colored people is included in the scene where the narrator struggles to get rid of a package in some garbage cans of wealthy white people:
"'Come on back an' get your trash [...] We keep our place clean and respectable and we don't want you field niggers coming up here form the South and ruining things,' she shouted with a blazing hate. People were stopping to look. [...] 'What does it matter, Miss?' I called up to her. [...] I didn't know that some kinds of garbage were better than others.'" (Invisible Man 264/65)
At this point the narrator is already used to that people don't have problems with his ethnicity and he feels too secure. This scene shows that there are white people in the North as well who discriminate African-Americans. The narrator then takes his package out of the garbage can again, which is a symbol for the white's ruling over the colored people. He does what the white persons tell him to do, he doesn't fight but retreats.
Over and over the narrator emphasizes the loneliness in the crowd and the alienation from each other in the city: "Moving into the subway I was pushed along by the milling salt-and-pepper mob [...]. Then the door banged behind me and I was crushed against a huge women [...]. I could neither turn sideways nor back away, nor set down my bags" (Invisible man 131).
This episode emphasizes the fact that people feel alone and empty although they are surrounded by people. Today there are many situations in which human beings are gathered in crowds unintentionally (e.g. subway) and have to share a limited space (mostly not enough space to feel still comfortable) without speaking to each other. This seems unnaturally as human beings are used to talking to each other, especially when being that close to other persons. One could interpret the 'salt-and-pepper mob' as the mixing of white and colored people.
3.3 Hostile Force?
That the city is a place of alienation has already been mentioned above. People are alienated from each other, but even from their own personalities, their identities, their selves, when they try to be the way the ruling class wants them to be. People are also alienated from the control over their lives and their fate. So is the society a hostile force, or is it the city?
In the novel Invisible Man both are actually portrayed as hostile in the cause of the story. At the beginning of his life the protagonist still believes that all human beings are "good". When he gets betrayed by his headmaster and institutions such as the Brotherhood, he learns that humans can be heartless and that most of them only use other people to pursue their own goals.
Concerning the city, the narrator at first conceives of it as something positive only. Later when it comes to the Harlem riots, he understands that it can be a very dangerous place as well. Even before that, the narrator gets a letter from his parents in which they warn him from "the ways of the wicked city" (Invisible Man 139). So the reader finds out, that not all Southern ideas of the North are positive, or at least not the ideas of big cities such as New York. When the narrator describes the city itself he imagines that people are driven by an unseen force:
It was dark with the tallness of the buildings and the narrow streets. Armoured cars with alert guards went past as I looked for the number. The streets were full of hurrying people who walked as though they had been wound up and were directed by some unseen control. [...] They reminded me fleetingly of prisoners carrying their leg irons as they escaped from a chain gang (Invisible Man 135).
In this example, the effect of the city as hostile force is perceivable for the reader. The high skyscrapers seem to threaten the inhabitants and the narrow streets are imagined back-breaking. People always seem to hurry, as if driven by a force that nobody can identify. The hustle and bustle is almost crazy and therefore the connotation to an evil force navigating all of that is coherent. In addition to that, the narrator refers to slavery. His repressed past is replayed metaphorically in the city.
4. The Invisible Man
The invisible man, the nameless narrator, the protagonist - a person that tells his own story from the very bottom of his manhole, the story of a failure in life. A life that begins with an innocent and naÃ¯ve African-American boy who thinks the world is open to him, if he acts right.
He is the personification of the American Adam. The story ends (after a series of disappointments) with the prudent, aware but invisible man. In Ralph Ellison the idea of the American Adam is explained as follows:
[...]Ellison does present an innocent Adam in drastic tension with Adam's counterpointing figure in religious typology: Christ. The conflict between an innocent Adam and an aware Christ is a sustaining part of the narrative pattern in Invisible Man [...]. [...] the main characters begin as American Adams, [...] (characterized by self-centered individuality, denial of the past, desire for simplicity and harmony, recoil from death, materialism, anarchic freedom, and self-righteousness) (Busby 42).
All the features Busby mentions apply to the protagonist. He rises from the innocent Adam to an aware Christ. When he comes to New York he tries to create himself anew, denies his past, he is always looking for harmony, he even recoils from death after an accident at work, he thinks that a good job and money can make him happy and he desires freedom. Eventually, he descents to the underworld which is a symbol for death, but he starts writing his story and getting ready for his rebirth.
4.1 Search For Identity
Throughout this paper, the main character, Invisible Man, had to be called 'the narrator' or 'the protagonist' because Ellison left him nameless. The reader can only guess why. One option is, that Ellison wanted to leave the protagonist nameless so that everybody can identify with him in some way. It might be that Ellison wanted every reader to find a part of himself in the protagonist and therefore avoided giving him a name.
The second explanation for the namelessness is the lack of identity of the protagonist. Of course, he must have been given a name by his parents, but when he comes to college he is only one of many young African-American boys. He is decided to be the way the white people want him to be because he believes that is what will help him climb the social ladder. He has to fulfill their ideas of a colored man to be accepted.
When following the orders of a white college-trustee he gets expelled from university. He goes to New York and tries to create himself anew, he leaves his old life behind, and also his past. The Brotherhood even changes his name, when he becomes a member of this organization. The narrator himself explains his search for identity in the first chapter:
All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naÃ¯ve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But at first I had to discover that I am an invisible man! (Invisible Man 17)
After falling into the manhole, knowing that he has been betrayed by everybody he once trusted in (such as his former headmaster Dr. Bledsoe and the Brotherhood), he burns the paper definitions of his life, including his college diploma and the piece of paper with his Brotherhood name.
In Visible Ellison the search for identity is described by Edith Schor and she also states that the point where the narrator falls into the manhole is the point of awakening and getting aware:
The journey of this youth, who has no name, is actually a search for his own identity; it is "the classic novelistic theme: the search of the innocent hero for knowledge of reality, self, and society. He does not realize that this is the object of his search until nearly the end of the book, after he has fallen through an open manhole into utter darkness [...] (Schor 54).
The documents he burns are proofs of the various identities other people have given to him, of which none really matched to his inner character. Later he reflects on his past and accepts it in order to become a new person, finally himself. He finds out that no person or amount of money or position defines himself. Eventually, he can decide who he wants to be and now he has to listen to his inner voice to find out who that is.
The constant search for identity, the protagonist's mistakes and disappointments but also his development throughout the end of the novel are the reasons why it falls into the tradition of Bildungsroman.
There is a further explanation for the namelessness of the protagonist. A person whose life is not recognized by other persons doesn't need a name. This leads to the main metaphor of invisibility.
4.2 The Notion of Invisibility
The novel starts with the words: "I am an invisible man. [...] I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me" (Invisible Man 7). The narrator says that people don't see him because they are not interested in seeing him, they are blind for him, so he needs no name, because he is not going to be called by them as they refuse to acknowledge his existence.
Of course, the narrator has not always been invisible. As a student he thinks he is somebody and can become somebody. However, at the end of the story, in the underground hole, he understands that he has always been invisible to those who had the power. As a colored man he is not equal to the white ruling class, thus not important enough to be seen or heard. He has just always been so unimportant that he never got enough attention from society to develop a strong character. This is the reason why he let other persons influence him and control his actions throughout his life. Actually the narrator never had a reason to become an individual because he was always part of a group (e.g. Brotherhood) where some leader told everybody what to do.
Generally, one would think that invisibility deprives a person of power, but for the protagonist the invisibility means freedom. Due to his anonymity he is able to undermine the power of others, for example when he illegally draws off electrical power for his underground hole in the prologue, and although the electric company knows that there is a leak, they are not able to locate it.
However, eventually the narrator acknowledges that being invisible may bring freedom and a certain kind of safety but that one cannot change the world when living in an underground hole, as an outcast of society. At the end of the novel he knows that he will emerge from his hibernation and he decides to face society and try to change the world to make a visible difference:
I'm shaking off the old skin and I'll leave it here in the hole. I'm coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it's damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that's my greatest social crime, I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play (Invisible Man 468).
The narrator's comparison of himself to a bear in hibernation can be explained in a way that the bear and the narrator eventually awake from their sleep and go out into the "real" world again.
4.3 The Underground Existence
The narrator accidentally falls into a manhole, decides to stay underground and builds himself a place to live in a section of the basement of a house that is strictly rented to white persons.
He informs the reader of this fact and it sounds like a good joke, that the African-American outlaw, who had never been accepted by the white ruling class now lives in a house that is officially restricted to white ones. In addition to that, he claims proudly that he has found himself a home, which would be considered as a hole in the ground by every normal person. However, it is not cold and damp but warm and cozy in his view:
My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. [...] And I love light. Perhaps you'll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. [...] In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I've wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. (Invisible Man 9/10)
The reader notices that the protagonist conceives of his underground hole in very positive terms. He feels secure, he likes his light bulbs, is very proud of them because they make him feel alive. The power to get the electricity secretly also makes him feel good. Remote from the control of society he feels totally free, he is able to do what he wants and doesn't have to take responsibility for anything. The narrator even enjoys the lack of social contacts, because human beings have only disappointed him in his earlier life.
Furthermore, he constructs a parallel world in the dark. He creates his own reality down there, where he decides his fate, fixes the rules and is controlled by himself only. To drop out of the ruling and controlling society is a decision he makes when he falls into the manhole. He knows that he needs time to find out something about himself (to find his own identity) distant from other humans. Before descending he cannot cope with the role(s) he has been put in any longer, so he retreats to this underground hole that becomes more of a home to him, than every apartment (that has been provided for him from University or the Brotherhood) has ever been. Until he figures out what he wants he stays in this hole, creating his own pattern (e.g. arrangement of light bulbs).
Eventually, after reflecting on his past, and after understanding that the outside world has the tendency to make all people conform to a pattern, he is ready accept this and to live his life without letting anyone control it and to join society again:
In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals. Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge.
4.4 Telling His Story
It is important to understand that the protagonist can only tell the story of his own life so freely because he stays nameless and invisible. He has time to think about his past for the first time and stops denying it. Moreover, he reflects on it and he learns from it. He tells his story and the reader finds out that every scene of the life he unfolds distributes to the person he has become.
In Visible Ellison the protagonist's process of writing down his own story is also described as a progress in his personal life:
Using his own mind for the first time, he reviews his experiences and imposes a significant order on a chaotic world. His account is an ironic tale, for he is both narrator and protagonist. As narrator, he tells his tale from the dark underground where he has become newly sighted; as protagonist, he is willfully, if unconsciously blind, a part of the enveloping chaos. The account of his journey is Invisible Man, an affirmation and a first step into his ascent from the underground. (Schor 54)
Telling his story helps him see the things clear, he has to handle the problems, mistakes and failures of his past to be able to go on with his life. Stepto describes the epiphany the narrator gets out of writing as follows: "But finally it is writing or the experience of writing, not speech, that shapes whatever group consciousness invisible man will bring in tow upon his return. Writing has taught him much about himself [...]" (Stepto 367). At the point when he lives in the hole he has no direction in life, but he finds out that there is something he would like to do, he feels that he has the power to change things and therefore decides to leave the underground hole and start a new life.
The question "What drove invisible man into his underground hole?" is answered in this paper but to summarize it in a nutshell it is to say that every incident in the past of the protagonist pushed him into his present situation - as you will, drove him into his underground hole. The actors in the story of the young, colored man with hope, who became an invisible man without a future are history, society and the modern city. History, which decided him to be a second-class citizen, even before he was born. Society, which never acknowledged his existence and made him face the fact that he is invisible to them. And finally the city (and its alienated residents) that distributed to his feeling of loneliness while surrounded by people and worthlessness while holding a good position. Moreover, the city gave him the opportunity to escape from his ruined life full of set-backs, without the chance that everybody could notice his absence.
Fortunately, for the unnamed protagonist, at the end he finds a way out of his misery by writing down his own story. It makes him aware of his mistakes and helps him accept the things that he cannot change. He decides to ascend and give society and the city a new chance and he decides to change history.
Invisible Man is a story that was written more than 50 years ago, but its themes are still relevant in the present. What the reader should learn from the story of the invisible man is that it is important to acknowledge every person's achievements and their qualities. Every human being can make a contribution by saying 'no' to the discrimination people have to suffer due to their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc. We should treat others, the way we want to be treated. This is a step towards equality - an equality that remained out of reach for invisible man.