My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a coming-of-age tale with a distinct viewpoint: the unnamed narrator is a southern black man who tells us in the prologue that he’s invisible. The rest of the novel shows the narrator’s progression from young, high-achieving high school graduate to a disillusioned man whose dreams of being a tribute to the race are repeatedly dashed. The narrator’s journey is more than just physical and emotional, though—it’s ideological.
In the beginning, the young narrator unthinkingly subscribes to the notion that in order for the race to progress, they must become educated business men and infiltrate the world of white men. There’s a lot of talk of a loosely fictionalized Booker T. Washington, known only as the Founder, who dedicated his life to this idea, setting up a black college in the south and getting rich white donors on his side.
Of course, reading Invisible Man 65 years after its publication, it’s clear just how misguided the narrator is. Despite his passionate attempts to do the right thing—namely, to pander to white people in order to become elevated and live among them—never seem to work out for him, either in the south, or when he moves to New York City. At many points, reading his journey was painful; I knew just how disillusioned he was at many points, and how all his efforts were essentially futile.
In Harlem, the narrator is discovered by a group called the Brotherhood (aka Communism) and upheld as an example, an orator—it’s his dream come true, but this dream is also an illusion, as he’s never actually given any power in the organization. He runs up against black nationalists who call him a traitor to the race, pointing out how the white men of the Brotherhood are controlling him and using him as a tool to get the community of Harlem on its side. He tries to follow his grandfather’s advice, being submissive to the white men’s demands, despite the fact that he knows them to be blind. While the Brotherhood claims to be what we in modern society would call colorblind, it’s clear that they view the citizens of Harlem to be necessary sacrifices for the bigger cause of the Brotherhood.
I could go on and on about this book. I could tell you how I tried to read it at age seventeen and had no idea what any of it meant. I could tell you how I found my battered copy in my parents’ attic where it had been collecting dust for four years. I could tell you that this book made me think about what it means to exist, to be seen, and about the people who are still invisible in 2017, despite our unfettered access to information via the internet. I’ll leave it at this: read this book. Not only is it beautifully written, full of poignant imagery, but this book is an important chance to think about how far we’ve come—and the many ways that race relations have hardly changed, or have come full circle.