A 21st Century Reading of Invisible Man: Why you should read, teach and talk about Ralph Ellison’s canonical novel

Identity and race are the intertwined thematic concerns of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man. The politics of identity and the politics of race continue to be relevant issues in America today, long after Ellison’s novel has been (ironically?) de-toothed by its iconic status –  after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and after the Rodney King riots.

With a history of progress so fraught with obvious contradictions, it’s small wonder that the state of civil rights in America is as barbed an issue now as it has ever been, as far as our national discourse is concerned.

Because progress has been made and Barack Obama has been elected President and because we have collectively adopted a preference for Political Correctness (i.e., not saying certain things), we find ourselves in a place where many want to defend a 21st century status quo (“yay, progress!”) yet feel compelled also to frankly confront the subject of police shootings that result in no punishment of officers who gun down unarmed black men.

For my part, I want no part in the excoriations and anger that could easily become the metier of a discussion on race and racial identity. I do want to talk about race though. And I have to confess that as a bi-racial (and, for me, therefore Black) American I have felt a growing urgency to do so since the shooting of Trayvon Martin. I’ve been unable to avoid thinking about how race shapes the outlines, if not the content, of my identity. And I’ve been looking for help in figuring it all out.

As a writer, naturally I’ve turned to books for help in informing and broadening my personal reflections. This has led me to Black Stats, a stark look at how the numbers stack up when we compare demographic statistics in America, to a reconsideration of Lorraine Hansberry and A Raisin in the Sun and of James Baldwin and his essays, to critical works by Michael Eric Dyson and Paulo Freire and most recently to a re-reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

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Identity is the term that seems best suited to describe the basic issue here, better suited than race because when we talk about race we want, ultimately, to reach a point where we are able to talk about identity, the philosophical base of self.

We want to figure ourselves out in a way that categories can’t touch. Isn’t this the essence of the American Dream — to rise above any and all circumstances of birth and be a self-determined person?

The sugar-coated ethos of self-determination in America is challenged when we look at race questions. But it is here, in the sphere of this very American ethos, that the presumptions of American identity might best be investigated. Maybe I say that because this is the locus of values, implicit and explicit, that animate so many American novels. The place where identity is central – our literature.

And this is where I would prefer to hold a conversation on race, the place where a supposedly universal sense of Americanism-as-self-determination comes into question.

Our great books tell us a divided story when it comes to the question of who gets to choose for themselves when it comes to forming an identity in America.

Identity and the American Literary Canon

A short list of canonical American novels shows the importance of identity as a central theme in our literature. If you are familiar at all with the novels on this list you’ll quickly see that they deal centrally with ideas of identity (not character or personality, but identity – the relationship of an individual to his or her world in terms that are sometimes existential but always also social).

  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • A Light in August – William Faulkner
  • Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  • The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
  • All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

When it comes to American fiction, the question of who we are as individuals is paramount. Of course, identity is a universal theme across all literature. We can say that, in effect, coming to terms with a culturally dominant ideology is the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty core of most novels.

Identity is not an American theme, per se, but it has a special importance in a social context of the United States, a country whose mythology and whose reality emphasizes a history of immigration and integration in unequal parts.

The dominant ideology is commonly seen as expansive and inclusive and individualistic in its bent. To put it idiomatically, the America ethos can be described as a rather forceful belief in the nation as an upwardly-mobile melting pot.

The actual fluidity of American class-based social life is paralleled by a more aspirational faith in upward mobility and egalitarian political representation.

Given this context, it may or may not be a little surprising to reflect on the number of important American novels that speak to ideas of dis-integration, of racially-driven systems of negation and historically-driven challenges to the construction of positive identities across racial and ethnic divides.

The canon of Black American literature is, if anything, more concerned with the issue of socially-derived identity than its white counterpart and in it we see a consistent lack of Horatio Alger positivism. For Black American characters, it is the society around the character that functions as the source of one’s identity – not the innate and unique qualities of the individual himself.

And the Black character’s identity, derived from society, is often schismatic, unstable and burdensome. The American ethos of self-determination is directly called into question by characters like the narrator in Invisible Man and his counter-parts (Bigger Thomas in Native Son, Joe Christmas in A Light in August).

In these works, we encounter the stark absence of any implicit value system that would make success possible for “anyone willing to work hard for it.” There is no victorious promise that the weight of inherited circumstance can be shaken off by virtue of individual efforts or that the momentum of history can be altered by dint of personal genius.

Instead, there is a dominant theme of history remaining an unbroken chain — one that proves time after time to be unbreakable.

Reading Invisible Man should shock us if we come to this canonical work of American fiction looking for a literary statement that agrees in some way with our broad belief in America as an upwardly-mobile melting pot. That is not what we get. Not at all.

Invisible Man, Integration and Adaptation

For every literary triumph of identity like The Color Purple (which notably refrains from considering issues of race conflict), there are many more tales of personal disintegration and racial dis-integration. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man may have been appropriated and thus assimilated into mainstream American culture, but if you read the novel you quickly see that it tells a story of one man’s sense of the impossibility of dignified assimilation. The unnamed protagonist struggles against a patronizing wealthy white elite and is later exploited by white political progressives who use him to destroy his own community.

Among his many troubles, the protagonist’s greatest conflict is one of identity. Repeatedly, he voices a disturbed awareness of his lack of agency. Despite a generic belief in his own potential, the protagonist cannot escape a specific self-doubt, saying at one point, “I had no doubt that I could do something, but what and how?”

“I had no contacts and I believed in nothing. And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I and how had I come to be?”

He craves the potency of an integral identity and feels that in attaining it he will find peace, but he is “too much aboil inside” for any peace. He stays that way to the end.

From a critical/theoretical standpoint, the unnamed protagonist of Ellison’s novel is a perfect representation of Paulo Freire’s notion of adaptation.

Freire offers a brief taxonomy of social being in Education for Critical Consciousness, suggesting that adaptation and integration with one’s context (social, practical, environmental, etc.) are the two basic, alternative attitudes a person can adopt.

Freire posits that “Integration results from the capacity to adapt oneself to reality plus the critical capacity to make choices and transform that reality.” In contrast, adaptation results when “man loses his ability to make choices and is subjected to the choices of others” so that he becomes an object, rather than a subject.

Ellison’s protagonist squarely fits into Freire’s conception of the dehumanized object, “incapable of changing reality, he adjusts himself instead” (Freire). Constantly adopting new masks, the nameless protagonist flits from one momentary social role to another. When he makes a naïve and disastrous mistake with a white board member of his college, the protagonist finds that his first persona is taken away from him. He can no longer play the role of aspiring scholar and, powerless to do otherwise, must adjust to his changed circumstances.

When the narrator changes his name in the middle of the novel, it is given to him by a group of white political activists (and still remains unstated). Contrast this name change to the one in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and a clear difference emerges. Fitzgerald’s flawed hero chooses a name for himself and uses that assumed identity to change the world around him. He integrates in Freire’s sense by making choices that demonstrate an understanding of his social world and re-shape it for his own benefit.

Ellison’s narrator merely adapts, continuing the morally ambiguous tradition of the classic black charlatan/trickster, morphing himself from situation to situation but never taking action to change the situation. Read with Freire’s taxonomy in mind, Invisible Man represents an ideal opportunity to consider and discuss how different American’s respective self-conceptions are evident in our literature and how these conceptions, on the page, represent important illuminations of often subterraneous social thought.

Not all of our quote-unquote representative literature seems to represent the same fundamental ideology. There is a breach. There is a fascinating amount of space, really, between certain literary projections of individualism/self-determination and other bitter reflections on social-determinism in American letters. And it’s a charged space, a fraught and rather dark space.

But we may find illuminating answers when we ask questions like what does it mean that Invisible Man is a tale of dis-integration that runs against the grain of Ayn Rand’s boot-straps self-reliance? What does it mean that Black characters may not be realistic if they demonstrate the kind of self-actualization and attainment of self-creation that is so charmingly available to figures as emotionally and intellectually challenged as Huck Finn and Hester Prynne? 

We may find that the extant notion of the upwardly-mobile melting pot is, perhaps, preventing a necessary conversation that might “correct” the American narrative by shifting the story we tell ourselves about our country so that it better reflects the divergent perspectives that seem to animate our literature.

A Conversation on Race, Expectations, and Identity

All this is not meant to suggest a black-and-white interpretation of identity politics in American literature. Rather, the point here is to draw attention to the idea that the treatment of identity as a theme in American novels represents a profitable conversation (or a fruitful argument) when Black novels are read in dialogue with White novels.

Forgive me if this is a crude categorization of American literature, but what stands behind this essay is a sense that a discussion of our racial politics has been pushed aside by the silencing power of Political Correctness taboos and its counterpart – stark and persistent moral outrage. We may find it helpful to push past the bluntness of identity politics by basing our discussion in something more neutral than our sincere but necessarily biased political values.

There is a need for attention on the subject of American identity now, today. As Michael Eric Dyson puts it in Debating Race, “I don’t believe in the mushroom theory of letting it grow in the dark. I believe in exposing it to the light of common day.” The shootings that have headlined the news in the last few years are not anachronistic. They are symptomatic of a persistent and pernicious human relativism that sees some people as more deserving of protection under the law and some as less deserving. We have got to find some ways to talk about this, preferably, ways that will encourage insight and understanding and not blame, guilt, or evasion.

Recognizing the disparity that exists between various treatments of identity in canonical American novels might help us to freshly consider the ways our society shapes individual perceptions of race (from right-to-shoot police officers to white supremacist homicidal young people) and perpetuates collectively unchallenged biases that might systematically educate one group to adapt while teaching others to integrate.

If the “post-racial America” myth has been allowed to take root, is it perhaps because the adapters are too often indoctrinated with an ideology that suggests, despite a philosophical race-equality in the United States, there nonetheless remains a sense of hierarchy and hierarchical power that is even more deeply definitive of American life than race?

Hmm.

Ideology is a murky thing. And if we ask why any group would choose complacency over conflict, we’re simply forgetting that we all want the same things at the end of the day. Comfort. Safety. Respect. But if there is an ideology at work that persuades us to believe that some people are born less deserving of these things, we have to find a way to talk about that ideology out in the open.

Literature stands as a unique locale for discussions of ideology and for challenges to it as well. Bringing into focus some of the underlying and highly internalized systems of value and perspective that qualify as experience, novels have a unique ability to articulate the contingency of these values and perceptions. Discussions of novels in public and in the classroom, I would argue, present the same opportunity.

So if Political Correctness has served to mute many discussions on identity in America and if ideology is often too buried in our experience to directly assess, we might revisit our canon and see what it can do for us. Maybe in taking a look at our literary heritage we can take necessary steps forward toward a realization of universal integration, in all the connotations of the term.

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