Becoming Visible: Ralph Ellison’s Classic in the era of Black Lives Matter

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” – Henry David Thoreau.

I used to believe that racism was a thing of the past, a relic of a bygone era. Like polio or child labor, it had vanished into the pages of history. I imagined that as we marched forward together into the future to build our Great Society, we would remember with a shudder and a prayer how backward our nation once was.

But like many Americans, over the last few decades, I have become increasingly and uncomfortably aware of the role that race and racism still plays in our civil life. Bigotry, far from being dead, has metastasized and continues to claim new victims from those slain in the Charleston Church Massacre to George Floyd.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I recently returned to the pages of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man. Written shortly after the Second World War, the text remains a landmark of American literature and as painful and relevant today as at the time of its publication.

The novel opens with a prologue reminiscent of Dostoyevski’s Notes from Underground as the unnamed African American narrator speaks to us from his alienation and disillusionment. He tells us that he lives in an abandoned cellar, siphoning off power from New York City’s electric grid, and his subterranean lair blazes with light bulbs from floor to ceiling. But no illumination proves enough to dispel the protagonist’s gloom over the insoluble dilemmas of his people and the intractable evils of racial injustice. He is invisible, not because he cannot be seen, but because society refuses to see him.

Thoreau once asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” The remainder of the novel forms an extended flashback in which we are invited to do just that. As we read, we begin to understand his viewpoint and the depths of his despair. As he says, “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 contradictory and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone but myself questions that I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: that I am nobody but myself. But first, I had to discover that I am an invisible man!”

He writes how as a young man, he was awarded a scholarship for his oratorical skills. He is elated to be asked to read his prize-winning speech before the leaders of the town. But his moment of triumph turns bitter as he is forced to watch a stripper perform a degrading erotic dance and then fight blindfolded with his fellow students for the drunken amusement of the rich men who are present.

Later at a black college, he takes a wealthy donor on a disastrous tour, culminating in a melee at a local dive. In the bar, a disabled veteran accosts this patron. He speaks of the narrator, saying, “Behold! A walking zombie. Already he has learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!” The ensuing chaos causes the wealthy philanthropist to faint with shock.

As punishment for this debacle, the young man is expelled and sent to New York. In a striking passage, the master of the college tells him, “These white folks have newspapers, radios, spokesmen to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they can tell it so well that it becomes the truth.”

In New York, when the letters he presumes will introduce him fail to give him entre, the protagonist’s situation becomes desperate, and he must earn a living any way he can. After an injury sustained in a Kafkaesque paint factory, he falls in with communist organizers. He spends his time honing his oratorical skills and motivating his fellow African Americans for the party. However, it soon becomes clear that his comrades in arms are interested merely in using his community as disposable pawns and foot soldiers in their struggle. That the novel culminates with the killing of an unarmed black man by police shows how little has changed in America since its publication in 1952.

Many works of literature achieve greatness through style or technical prowess. Others illuminate and investigate some aspect of the human condition in a unique way. Ellison’s novel possesses all these qualities in abundance. His prose crackles with energy, and his story unfolds before us, revealing what it is like to endure and survive racial injustice.

But Invisible Man rises above average fictions for another reason. It is not every book that challenges us so forcefully to consider how we should live. It asks the painful and unanswerable questions of the American conscience. What kind of society do we want to be? What kind of people are we? When will we see those who are now invisible?

Fiction offers us a unique opportunity to pretend to be someone else for a time, or, as Thoreau put it, to see through another’s eyes. I can think of no more necessary and vital role for literature than to lead us away from racism by helping us to see the world as others see it. And I can think of no better book to illustrate this potential than Invisible Man.

I still dream of an American where racism has indeed vanished from our culture. And it remains my hope that one day we will live according to the words of our founding documents that all are equal. But until then, we must struggle, we must warn, and we must learn to see. We must learn to see the systemic racism of our society that Ellison’s novel illustrates so clearly and with such tragic force. And we must learn to see the common humanity of others regardless of their race. It is we who must change if they are to become visible. These things are vital to the American experiment. They matter for our future, just as black lives matter.

Becoming Visible, copyright Jonathan Golding, 2021. All rights reserved.

Artwork: Detail from a stamp commemorating the lifetime achievement of Ralph Ellison.

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