Ralph Ellison always insisted that his classic protest novel Invisible Man was neither a protest novel nor autobiographical. Still, it’s difficult to miss the parallels of the narrator’s and Ellison’s lives, and it’s even more difficult to miss that Invisible Man is clearly a protest novel. The question isn’t whether the book is a protest, rather; it’s what the book is protesting. The story’s narrator, who is never referred to by name, is a young man that begins by telling us his story from his subterranean home. Originally from the South…
Ralph Ellison always insisted that his classic protest novel Invisible Man was neither a protest novel nor autobiographical. Still, it’s difficult to miss the parallels of the narrator’s and Ellison’s lives, and it’s even more difficult to miss that Invisible Man is clearly a protest novel. The question isn’t whether the book is a protest, rather; it’s what the book is protesting.
On one hand, one can read Invisible Man through a lens shaded by racial politics in the American 1940’s and 1950’s. The story’s narrator, who is never referred to by name, is a young man that begins by telling us his story from his subterranean home. Originally from the South, he made his way to New York City where he hoped to earn enough money to eventually return to college but instead quickly fell in with an organization calling itself “The Brotherhood”. This Brotherhood, an obvious critique of the American Communist Party (of which Ellison was a member), uses the narrator as both an orator and a spokesperson in its supposed fight for civil rights centered in the city’s Harlem neighborhood. It’s precisely in the aftermath of the Brotherhood’s political implosion in Harlem that the narrator develops his unique understanding of invisibility.
The idea of social invisibility is thrust upon the reader early on, providing a sort of framework in which to read the rest of the text. The first page begins:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
In other words, the narrator isn’t invisible because he is literally transparent; he is invisible because he is a black man living on the margins of a whitewashed America. In the narrator’s world, there is no such thing as an individual black man, rather; all black men are interchangeable and expendable—seen by others as a type of person rather than as individual people. All the narrator needs to do to change his identity is to put on a hat and a cheap pair of drugstore sunglasses and he is transformed into a different person. In fact, this racialized notion of identity and invisibility is so pervasive in 1950’s American culture that even the black community is not immune from it. Even in Harlem, in which the narrator is a bit of a celebrity, he disappears as just another black face among many similar others.
Another concept that Ellison explores often is “passing”. In a racialized sense, the idea of passing is that if one is light enough in complexion then he may be able pass as white and reap the benefits of white social privilege. This is a powerful tool for a black man living in a society that’s already highly prejudiced against him. Ellison creates a brilliant metaphor of passing for his readers during the narrator’s brief stint working at a Long Island paint factory famous for its “Optic White” paint—this paint is allegedly the whitest paint in the world. The foreman, Lucius Brockway, explains to the narrator “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through!” This is a troubling commentary on America’s cultural obsession with whiteness and its desire to paint over and conceal the “blackness” of its minorities.
Passing isn’t a concept limited only to racialization, however; passing also remains at the forefront of Invisible Man when one reads it through a lens of homoeroticism. This way of reading the novel provides a strong critique by Ellison of both homophobia in America and, more specifically, in the black community. To begin with, The Brotherhood is an organization that falls quite neatly into the category of the homosocial. It is composed almost exclusively of men and the women that are associated with it are not directly involved in any of its work. In fact, women do not appear in Invisible Man much at all, and when they do the male characters in the novel usually objectify them. Furthermore, Ellison also illuminates an embedded homophobia within the black social world of Harlem. Some scholars argue that he’s illustrating how black men—particularly large, strong, and handsome black men—are forced to lead dual lives if they are homosexuals because the community doesn’t want to lose their good genes. These men are expected to sleep with black women, not black men, and thus produce more strong black bodies through procreation. In this light, one can read passing in the novel as both a racialized and sexualized concept, and one can also read Invisible Man as a critique of homophobia and the politics of sex.
The novel only has one explicitly homosexual character, young Emerson, but the interaction between this character and the narrator certainly contains hints of homoeroticism. There seems to be a subtext of sexual advance by Emerson and a certain curiosity on behalf of the narrator. However, the most charged homoerotic scene in the book is definitely when Mr. Norton listens to Jim Trueblood explain his incest with his daughter. Trueblood clearly serves as a sort of vessel for Norton who appears to have an unnatural affection for his own deceased daughter. Lastly, there is also a particular focus throughout the novel on the physical beauty of the black male body that lends itself to a homoerotic reading of the text.
In the end, whether one reads Invisible Man as a book about racial or sexual politics, it remains a tremendous work of literary expertise. Throughout Invisible Man Ellison provides commentary and critiques on a wide range of social institutions in American culture during the 1950’s. Perhaps his own toughest critic, Ellison once said in an interview with The Paris Review that his book would cease to be read within twenty years. He explained, “It’s not an important novel, I failed of eloquence and many of the immediate issues are rapidly fading away.” However, Ellison was mistaken on both counts, because Invisible Man not only remains a shining example of American fiction, but its social and political commentary remain incredibly relevant, poignant, and above all necessary.