Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
Race is a topic I’m reluctant to even approach here on the blog. I’m mindful of my privileged status and hesitant to make any pronouncements about people whose experience I cannot truly share or comprehend. However, I do not think it’s helpful to isolate ourselves in separate racial camps and decide we can never understand each other. So through reading, I do try to understand, bit by bit. It’s one of the main benefits of reading for me — to be able to enter into the experience of another person who is profoundly different from me, and find our common humanity.
Today more than ever, were are confronted with the profoundly American dilemma of how the rise of one group of people to freedom and dominance has been intrinsically linked with the subjugation of another group. Complacent liberal “colorblindness” does not address this fundamental inequality, nor its persistent hold on our psyche. I’m so grateful for some of the books written out of the black experience that have helped me to have insight into this phenomenon and its implications for our present and future. It’s something we must all wrestle with in our own way, I feel.
Invisible Man is a novel that powerfully explores the rage and dismay and strange triumph that can arise out of such wrestling, making it a key text for our time. I never encountered it in school, somehow, though I saw lots of my friends reading it. To be honest, I would not have gotten much out of it as an adolescent, so I’m glad I waited until now, when it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin. I found it a highly suitable book to read at this time of questioning and searching for how our country’s racial wounds might finally, someday, find healing.
As he travels from his home in the South to New York City, Ellison’s unnamed narrator goes through a mythic, archetypal journey, from unguarded innocence to bitter experience to a hard-won, tenuous sense of integrity. But this modern hero has a harder foe than the dragons and monsters of old. The people around him, both black and white, create an ever-shifting panorama of idealism, deception, promise, betrayal, compassion, violence, suffering, and potential transformation that causes him to question the very nature of reality and of his own self. To all these other people he seems to be “invisible,” merely a function of their own wishes and desires — but can he discover some ground of reality within himself? What is lasting, what is true? And how can he live in a world that seems to only want to manipulate and destroy?
Though Ellison vividly describes many horrific scenes (a wrestling match pitting black boys against one another for the amusement of white men; experiments done on the narrator while in the hospital; the culminating race riot in Harlem) it’s the inner quest for meaning and wholeness that draws us through the nightmare. This is a universal experience, whether we find it in outer trials of segregation and discrimination, or in the inner struggle against such forces in our own being.
There may seem to be little hope or gentle, natural light in the book, which the narrator writes from a basement bunker he’s illuminated for himself with stolen electric power. But as he prepares to return to the world, he shares with us some extraordinary insights: “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description.”
And nearly at the end, this:
The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes, and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness. I’m a desperate man — but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.
This divided consciousness is our modern heritage, and so is the truth that the only way through despair is love. Our fate indeed is to become one, and yet many. By such contradictory, baffling paths as that traveled by Ellison’s invisible man, we may approach this distant goal and find that it is already here.