Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Blackness

Image Credit: Random House Publishing

Laura Kiely discusses Ralph Ellion’s novel Invisible Man and its connection to Black identity.

“You don’t even know the way things are and the way they’re supposed to be.” This is the accusation under which our young, impressionable, and unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man is introduced to the realm of disillusionment. At the time of this realisation, the narrator is a student in the late 1940s at a historically black college (HBCU) and whose founder mirrors Booker T. Washington. The novel chronicles the life of a young man who aspires to attain status in the aforementioned college. However, he becomes disillusioned by the systems of power around him and has to come to terms with his socially constructed invisibility. Invisible Man is about the representation of African Americans and the stereotypes imposed upon them. It is an insightful exploration of the negative connotations surrounding Black people and their subsequent dehumanisation. Ellison relies on the narrative in the first person to humanise the dehumanised. 

Don’t be fooled by the tour de force prose: Ellison only decided he was a writer in his mid-20s after initially studying music and spent seven years writing his novel. The result is a brutal, unapologetic expose of the African American experience post-Emancipation. In post-slavery America, Black subjects had to find their place among the hostility and rejection of White Americans, who still possessed a colossal amount of power. Upon its release, Ellison’s novel was met with immense praise, winning the 1953 National Book Award and making Ellison the first African American writer to win the award. However, 1950s America had a long way to go. In a 1952 review of Ellison’s novel features in The New Republic, George Mayberry writes: 

“To paraphrase Graham Greene’s already classic remark, ‘I am not a Catholic writer, but a writer who happens to be a Catholic’, it can be said of Ralph Ellison that he is not a Negro writer, but a writer who happens to be a Negro…”

Mayberry certainly missed the entire point: this kind of comparison showcases the conventions surrounding race at this time and reduces it to the framework of a made-up ideology. What is problematic about the review is how, through ignorance, it strives to negate Ellison’s mission to demonstrate how Black people had their own identities outside of being Black. In a 1966 interview discussing his role as a writer, Ellison emphasised how society interpreted his work according to his race: “Any kind of statement I make […] there are a lot of people who are going to be interpreting my face, my statements in terms of my racial identity rather than in terms of the quality of what I have to say.”

Black people had their own identities outside of being Black. 

Ellison was hugely concerned with fiction and its power to influence one’s understanding of others about complex ideas, such as race. He believed that the power of the writer lay in their ability to reveal the complexity of humanity. He was deeply anxious about the literature which represented America. In his 1953 essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”, he doesn’t villainise, but acknowledges the shortcomings of America’s contemporary literary legends such as Hemmingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck for exhibiting flat and extremely limited Black characters. He wrote: 

“It is unfortunate for the Negro that the most powerful formulations of modern American fictional words have been so slanted against him that when he approaches for a glimpse of himself he discovers an image drained of humanity. […] what you’d have the world accept as me isn’t even human.”

He doesn’t villainise, but acknowledges the shortcomings of America’s contemporary literary legends such as Hemmingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck for exhibiting flat and extremely limited Black characters. 

Ellison understood how significant identity was in humanising Black lives in America under a regime of white power that still remained entrenched post-Emancipation. Indeed, the 13th Amendment may have amended the law, but to an extent, merely under symbolic terms. Although legally freed from slavery, Black people went on to experience social displacement and poverty as a result of their identities. American literature at the time was highly associated with Naturalism - literature that is concerned with the portrayal of human experience as realistic and unadorned as possible. 

Ellison and writer Richard Wright moved in the same literary circles and Wright remarked “There is in progress between black and white Americans a struggle over the nature of reality.” This struggle echoed in Ellison’s fiction - which is not really fiction: Invisible Man illuminated how individuality did not pertain to Black people in the eyes of white people. 

If we think of the novel as a machine for communicating experiences and ideas, the Invisible Man achieved this by supporting the Civil Rights Movement between 1954 and 1968. Literature is more often than not overlooked and ridiculed as nothing more than pretty prose and flowery language for mere enjoyment. Ellison primarily saw writing as a means of communication between those who failed to understand each other for centuries over prescribed social boundaries.