7.28.2012

what i'm reading: further thoughts on ralph ellison's invisible man

Before reading Invisible Man, I thought the book's title referred to the invisibility of black men in white society, but it turns out I was mistaken.

Ellison didn't call his masterpiece "Invisible Men". The titular Man refers to a man - an individual, a person, a human being with a unique identity. The man in question realizes he is invisible because he is always seen as a Black Man, always slotted into one of the ways black people are perceived in American society - not just by white people, but by black people, too, and all the time. Indeed, the people most despised by the narrator are not the ignorant Southern rednecks who thrive on humiliating their black neighbours, but the hypocritical, duplicitous black leaders who in public are "a credit to the race," but in private are greedy for power, ready to betray and vanquish any black brother one who stands in their way.

As the nameless narrator's world expands, he begins to realize that he has only a limited number of identities to choose from, and based on his appearance, demeanour and speech, he will be slotted into one of those types - and this is what he rebels against. He yearns to know not which slot he fits into, which uniform he can wear, but who he is underneath the uniform.

Invisible Man is a journey of a search for identity - not just identity as an African-American, but an identity that transcends such a description, the identity of self - of self-definition. In this sense, the book resonates universally.

Consider this. A man wants to eat some food - food he loves, food suffused with pleasant memories of his childhood. But that food is a brand, a mark. Only "country niggers" eat that food, not sophisticated Harlem men. When he says, essentially, "fuck it," throws off convention and judgement, and eats that food, he feels free and alive, because he's made his own choice. And because the food is delicious, and he enjoys it! A simple pleasure he would be denied by social conventions.

The man imagines the director of his former school - the two-faced man who has betrayed him - and what would happen if he ate this country Southern food.
I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I'd ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control. I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom -- simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper.

To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought. If only someone who had known me at school or at home would come along and see me now. How shocked they'd be! I'd push them into a side street and smear their faces with the peel.

What a group of people we were, I thought. Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked. Not all of us, but so many. Simply by walking up and shaking a set of chitterlings or a well-boiled hog maw at them during the clear light of day! What consternation it would cause! And I saw myself advancing upon Bledsoe, standing bare of his false humility in the crowded lobby of Men's House, and seeing him there and him seeing me and ignoring me and me enraged and suddenly whipping out a foot or two of chitterlings, raw, uncleaned and dripping sticky circles on the floor as I shake them in his face, shouting: "Bledsoe, you're a shameless chitterling eater! I accuse you of relishing hog bowels! Ha! And not only do you eat them, you sneak and eat them in private when you think you're unobserved! You're a sneaking chitterling lover! I accuse you of indulging in a filthy habit, Bledsoe! Lug them out of there, Bledsoe! Lug them out so we can see! I accuse you before the eyes of the world!" And he lugs them out, yards of them, with mustard greens, and racks of pigs' ears, and pork chops and black-eyed peas with dull accusing eyes.

I let out a wild laugh, almost choking over the yam as the scene spun before me. Why, with others present, it would be worse than if I had accused him of raping an old woman of ninety-nine years, weighing ninety pounds . . . blind in one eye and lame in the hip! Bledsoe would disintegrate, disinflate! With a profound sigh he'd drop his head in shame. He'd lose caste. The weekly newspapers would attack him. The captions over his picture: Prominent Educator Reverts to Field Niggerism! His rivals would denounce him as a bad example for the South. Editorials would demand that he either recant or retire from public life. In the South his white folks would desert him; he would be discussed far and wide, and all of the trustees' money couldn't prop up his sagging prestige. He'd end up an exile washing dishes at the Automat. For down South he'd be unable to get a job on the honey wagon.

This is all very wild and childish, I thought, but to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am! I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old man and handed him twenty cents, "Give me two more," I said.

"Sho, all you want, long as I got 'em. I can see you a serious yam eater, young fellow. You eating them right away?"

"As soon as you give them to me," I said.

"You want 'em buttered?"

"Please."

"Sho, that way you can get the most out of 'em. Yessuh," he said, handing over the yams, "I can see you one of these old-fashioned yam eaters."

"They're my birthmark," I said. "I yam what I am!"
Can you remember feeling that way as a young person? The first glimmer of your own autonomy, the feeling of being free to stand on your own, to make your own choices? To say, "fuck it," just in your own mind, to the people whose judgements held you back?

Later on, at his first political gathering, a drunken party-goer asks the narrator to sing a spiritual. The request is suffused with racism, and it embarrasses the other guests, who are modern, sophisticated, and steeped in egalitarianism. He helps everyone out of the awkward moment by laughing it off as the harmless foolishness of someone who's had too much to drink. But then he wonders, why should being asked to sing be such a problem?
"Oh, he was only tipsy," I said, looking into her thin, New England face.

"Yes, I know, and revealingly so. I would never ask our colored brothers to sing, even though I love to hear them. Because I know that it would be a very backward thing. You are here to fight along with us, not to entertain. I think you understand me, don't you, Brother?"

I gave her a silent smile.

"Of course you do. I must go now, good-bye," she said, extending her little white-gloved hand and leaving.

I was puzzled. Just what did she mean? Was it that she understood that we resented having others think that we were all entertainers and natural singers? But now after the mutual laughter something disturbed me: Shouldn't there be some way for us to be asked to sing? Shouldn't the short man have the right to make a mistake without his motives being considered consciously or unconsciously malicious? After all, he was singing, or trying to. What if I asked him to sing?
I related to these passages, thinking of what most of us experience as we grow up. As we figure out who we are, as we become more secure in our own identities, we realize we can move beyond the stifling labels we bumped against in junior high or high school. (Are you a freak, a jock, or a nerd? What if you're none of those, or a little bit of all?) Perhaps it's easier these days, with the culture more fractionated, less monolithic, easier to mix-and-match to find your true self. Or perhaps that's just my distorted view as someone whose identity struggles are long behind her.

Ralph Ellison's narrator struggles to achieve full personhood, because no one will see him as himself. His identity is always bound up in the roles that other people project on The Black Man. Certainly this is specific to the African-American experience. And surely it is also universal to the human experience. That's part of what makes this a Great Book.

* * * *

In my earlier post about this novel, I noticed certain parallels between Invisible Man and Colson Whitehead's Zone One, which I recently read and loved. I noted that both novels are narrated in the first person by a man whose name we never learn. Shortly after writing that post, I learned that the similarity goes further. The narrator of Zone One goes by an alias given to him by others - and about halfway through Invisible Man, its narrator is re-named by a group of people. I'm wondering if Whitehead consciously drew this parallel, and if I'll notice any others.

1 comment:

laura k said...

Later on, the narrator - now with a new name and a new identity - contemplated Frederick Douglass:

Douglass came north to escape and find work in the shipyards; a big fellow in a sailor's suit who, like me, had taken another name. What had his true name been? What it was, it was as Douglass that he became himself, defined himself. And not as a boatwright as he'd expected, but as an orator. Perhaps the sense of magic lay in the unexpected transformations.

Ellison plays with the idea that a new name equals a new identity. But he never gives his narrator a name.