Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Tragicomedy of race and class in America
Any discussion of the most important works in African American literature is sure to include Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, first published in 1952. The novel depicts and comments upon the racial and social climate of its era, including the black nationalist movement, the American Communist party, and social conditions in the American South. This groundbreaking work of modern literature, however, goes beyond social realism to address more existential issues of black identity. While it often deals with heavy themes, Ellison eloquently mixes tragedy and humor to deliver an engaging and thought-provoking read.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who grew up in a small town in the American South. He wins a school contest in speech-making, for which he earns a scholarship to a black college. Before he can collect his prize, however, he must first undergo a harrowing and brutal racist hazing ritual for the amusement of the town’s leading white men. As a college student, he is assigned to act as chauffeur and guide to one of the school’s wealthy white donors. When, at the donor’s request, he ushers the white man to some unseemly sites that display the harsher realities of black life in the town, he draws the ire of the college’s president, who expels him from the school. He then heads to New York, where he is recruited by a socialist group called the Brotherhood that ostensibly advocates reforms for the poor and working classes of all races. Due to his prowess as a public speaker, the narrator is assigned to be the Brotherhood’s spokesman in Harlem.

At least half of the novel is devoted to the protagonist’s career with the Brotherhood, which is easily the narrative’s biggest fault. Way too much time is spent on the internal politics and behind-the-scenes strategies of this organization. The reader sits through a series of protracted dialogues in which members of the group’s hierarchy accost each other in accusatory tones without ever really saying what they mean. In the end this yields some interesting conclusions, but Ellison sure takes a long and circuitous route in getting there. Just as in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a novel about labor organizers among oppressed white farm workers, focusing so much on the supposed reformers often leaves the reader feeling one step removed from the problems they’re trying to reform. In both cases, the author is critical of these purported saviors and exposes the self-interested exploitation behind their agendas. Ellison’s criticisms of the Communists and their treatment of black Americans may be valid, but the 21st century reader finds himself wishing more time had been spent focusing on the realities of black life in Harlem. The beginning and end of the novel—the narrator’s life in the South, his time at college, the frenzied climax, and the thoughtful epilogue—are superior to what’s in between.

Those who prefer a more traditionally naturalistic social realism will find that Ellison ventures a little too much into a verbose, Faulknerian stream-of-conscious style that obscures his arguments more than it elucidates them. Thankfully, only portions of the novel are written in this manner. Despite my few reservations, Invisible Man is still a great novel and an enlightening read. Though published almost seven decades ago, many of the issues Ellison raises have proven regrettably timeless, thus Invisible Man still retains its relevance. For those receptive to what it has to say, this book still has the power to change one’s views on race in America.

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