Term Paper: Invisible Man

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Invisible Man

RAPLH ELLISON- INVISIBLE MAN

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) is a genuine commentary on the psyche of black minority that finds itself in the midst of a cultural and ethnic crisis. Faced with the forces of a much dominant culture, the black community is threatened with subjugation which goes beyond the physical- it threatens their culture, social values and heritage. Ethnicity is thus a major issue raised in Invisible man. Contrary to popular belief, Ralph Ellison did not support the old-fashioned nationalism that had been plaguing the memories and lives of African-Americans in the United States. Instead he advocated multiculturalism and promoted integration which he believed could result in a unique identity for blacks. Most writers in post-slavery world had focused all their energies on separation of cultures by advocating nationalism. However Ellison did not subscribe to such a viewpoint. He believed that the most appropriate way of making a mark in the U.S. would be to extend one's community and self and merge it with the larger culture so this blending of two can result in emergence of an identity that is more complete and wholesome than the one that black community had been adhering to since they left Africa.

Ellison was definitely not a traitor to his own culture and community. But he felt there was a better and healthier way to deal with the issue of identity crisis that had emerged from emancipation and black man's new life as a free citizen of America. This issue is skillfully tackled in the Invisible Man where the author regularly makes use of various culturally-unique music forms such as jazz and blues to highlight the difference between relinquishing one's genuine ethnicity and creating a new one in a foreign climate. The author felt that African-Americans experience in the United States was unique and had helped them discover things that they had previously not known such as forms of music that were exclusive to black community. Ellison felt that instead of blaming a dominant white culture for subjugation of black culture, it is better to carve a niche for one's culture as it emerges from integration of starkly different traditions, cultures and values.

Invisibility in the case of this novel, thus, should not be associated with negative suppression of cultures or identity. Instead it represents a challenge that lack of identity breeds. Anonymity generates an intense desire to be recognized. Invisibility poses the challenge to strive for an identity. And thus invisibility has been used as a positive force that author used to create a sense of national identity in black community -- an identity that recognized and acknowledged the presence of America and its culture and yet remained unique.

In this novel then, the author celebrates the new identity that African-Americans had found amidst a foreign culture and supposedly foreign values. There is a greater and deeper sense of ethnicity in this work than any other emerging in that era. The author has dealt with issue of ethnicity and invisibility from various angles only to conclude that a sense of national identity for African-Americans was the only way they could establish their presence in a more powerful culture. National identity- in this case, was to be based on broader definition of ethnicity encompassing two different set of cultural and social values.

Ethnicity thus serves as a mode of redemption. It gives man a sense of belonging when threatened with obscurity. The author despite his unique ideas about national identity based on life in America was definitely not blind to the ways in which his race was threatened in the U.S. He was fully aware of the numerous problems and ways of victimization that his people had encountered and were still enduring. It was this identification of racial problems that had turned ethnicity into a major force for the author in this novel. The realization that sense of belonging gave a person a dignified existence was what helped author understand the significance of ethnicity.

In the Invisible Man, the author focuses on issues of rape and incest to signify the nihilistic tendencies contained in the white culture. This was a culture devoid of principles and philosophies and this meaninglessness is apparent by the manner in which it treats people of other cultures. Nihilism promotes violence which reaches a boiling point near the end of the novel:

See what?" they said.

That there hang not only my generations wasting upon the water -- " and now the pain welled up and I could no longer see them.

But what? Go on," they said.

But your sun..."

Yes?"

And your moon..."

He's crazy!"

Your world..." knew he was a mystic idealist!" Tobbitt said.

Still," I said, "there's your universe, and that drip-drop upon the water you hear is all the history you've made, all you're going to make. Now laugh, you scientists. Let's hear you laugh!" (459)

But Ellison recognized the significance of his experience as an American black and not an African black. He realized that there was a difference between ethnic and national identity and it was important to merge the two to make one's presence felt in a pre-dominantly white world. This issue is dexterously tackled in the novel and subscribes to the views expressed by the author somewhere else when he said: African-American existence is "an irrevocable part of the basic experience of the United States," since it is "not only worthy but indispensable to any profoundly American depiction of reality" (Hersey 17). Ellison's views were largely based on this belief that man responds in a more effective manner when faced with daunting odds and when threatened with perpetual obscurity.

Much of the rhetorical and political energy of white society went toward proving itself that we were not human and that we had no sense of the refinement of human values. But this in itself pressured you, motivated you, to make even finer distinctions, both as to personality and value. You had to, because your life depended upon it and your sense of your own humanity demanded that you do so. You had to identify those values which were human and preserving of your life and interests as against those which were inhuman and destructive. So we were thrown upon our own resources and sense of life. We were forced to define and act out our own idea of the heights and depths of the human condition. (Hersey 16-17)

Ellison refers to various ways in which black community could understand the power of invisibility and the force of ethnicity that could help them carve a new identity. One such technique is masking and role-playing. The protagonist's skillful use of masking was his way of accepting his invisibility and facing up to the challenge of creating an identity. The shaping of new identity that results from recognition a masked person gains for his dexterity and skills is symbolic of an invisible black man's triumph in a white world. This was a desperate response of a black man to a white man's shallowness and threats. It was in line with the advice given to the protagonist by his grandfather:

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 burst wide open." (17)

These words contained a possibility of a better future. Unhampered by identity and un-intimidated by definite roles, a man could achieve significantly more. He had the whole world at his disposal and unlimited possibilities of what he could be. When there are no pressures, no roles to conform to, no reputation to protection- the protagonist had limitless opportunities in front of him. He realized he could become anyone he wanted to- provided he combined his invisibility with a sense of direction. But where masking is not used for a larger purpose of self-discovery, it can become just another trick. For example while the protagonist views it as a means of self-discovery, Bledsoe and Rinehart are concerned with more mundane things and thus their guise is seen as a trick and nothing more. Thus, while protagonist succeeds in creating an identity, others suffer perpetual anonymity. Trueblood and Peter Wheatstraw were sources of inspiration for those who believed invisibility served a larger purpose. In his attempt to create a better sense of self, the protagonist discovers the beauty of jazz and blues. Boner (1979) quoted Ellison as saying that this form of music can be viewed "an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances whether created by others or by one's human failings. They...[remind] us of our limitations while encouraging us to se how far we can actually go" (Bone: 99). Blues help the protagonist understand his purpose and give him a better sense of direction such as the blues by Louis Armstrong:

I'm white inside but that don't help my case

Cause I can't hide

What's in my… [END OF PREVIEW]

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