I am a novelist, not an activist. But I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As to the individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make some sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap.
Quoted in The New York Times Magazine, November 20, 1966
America belongs to everyone who loves it. Each must live his life and understand it, and be responsible for his own conscience. The way home we each seek is that condition of man’s being at home in the world which is called love, and which we term democracy.
Quoted in Mirror, February 20, 1953
Ralph Ellison (1914) was born in Oklahoma. He has seen many sides of Negro life and has put the essence of them into his outstanding novel, Invisible Man. Though it was published in 1952, it is still timely.
The characters are strongly if simply drawn. They are often types, often exaggerations, but they stay in the reader’s mind. There is the Negro president of the college the young hero attends, a shrewd, classic “Uncle Tom,” using both white and black men for his own benefit. There is the bigoted Southern businessman and his opposite number in the North. There is the young Negro idealist who is killed because of his idealism. There is the Black Nationalist leader, Ras the Exhorter, a kind of leader later to become much more important on the American scene. There is the Communist official in Harlem, using the Negro to help the aims of the Party, and a gallery of others, black and white.
The nameless hero, the Invisible Man, meets all these characters in the course of the book. A few treat him well. Most treat him badly. Many ignore him. They never see him as a person. That is why at the end of the book he retreats to complete invisibility. No one can see him in his cellar except himself.
Ellison tells his story with an intensity that hits the reader hard. In the first chapter of the book, from which an excerpt is reprinted below, the Invisible Man tells us what it means to be invisible and what he has done in his desperate effort to cope with the problem.
Uncle Tom: term applied to Negroes whose behavior towards whites is regarded as fawning or servile.
opposite number: a person having a rank, position, or function comparable with that of another in a different situation or organization.
From Invisible Man
One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me, his breath hot in my face as he struggled. I pulled his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” But he continued to curse and struggle, and I butted him again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees, profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood. Oh yes, I kicked him! And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth – when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare! And I stopped the blade, slicing the air as I pushed him away, letting him fall back to the street. I stared at him hard as the lights of a car stabbed through the darkness. He lay there, moaning on the asphalt; a man almost killed by a phantom. It unnerved me. I was both disgusted and ashamed. I was like a drunken man myself, wavering about on weakened legs. Then I was amused. Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I began to laugh at this crazy discovery. Would he have awakened at the point of death? Would Death himself have freed him for wakeful Jiving? But I didn’t linger. I ran away into the dark, laughing so hard I feared I might rupture myself. The next day I saw his picture in the Daily News, beneath a caption stating that he had been “mugged.” Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!
Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. I learned in time though that it is possible to carry on a fight against them without their realizing it. For instance, I have been carrying on a fight with Monopolated Light & Power for some time now. I use their service and pay them nothing at all, and they don’t know it. Oh, they suspect that power is being drained off, but they don’t know where. All they know is that according to the master meter back there in their power station a hell of a lot of free current is disappearing somewhere into the jungle of Harlem. The joke, of course, is that I don’t Jive in Harlem but in a border area. Several years ago (before I discovered the advantage of being invisible) I went through the routine process of buying service and paying their outrageous rates. But no more. I gave up all that, along with my apartment, and my old way of life: That way based upon the fallacious assumption that I, like other men, was visible. Now, aware of my invisibility, I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century, which I discovered when I was trying to escape in the night from Ras the Destroyer. But that’s getting too far ahead of the story, almost to the end, although the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.
The point now is that I found a home – or a hole in the ground, as you will. Now don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a “hole” it is damp and cold like a grave; there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole. And remember, a bear retires to his hole for the winter and lives until spring; then he comes strolling out like the Easter chick breaking from its shell. I say all this to assure you that it is incorrect to assume that, because I’m invisible and live in a hole, I am dead. I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.
My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway. Or the Empire State Building on a photographer’s dream night. But that is taking advantage of you. Those two spots are among the darkest of our whole civilization – pardon me, our whole culture (an important distinction, I’ve heard) – which might sound like a hoax, or a contradiction, but that (by contradiction, I mean) is how the world moves: Not like an arrow, but a boomerang. (Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet handy.) I know; I have been boomeranged across my head so much that I now can see the darkness of light-ness. And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me. Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.
That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I’ve already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth. When I finish all four walls, then I’ll start on the floor. Just how that will go, I don’t know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long as I have you develop a certain ingenuity. I’ll solve the problem. And maybe I’ll invent a gadget to place my coffeepot on the fire while I lie in bed, and even invent a gadget to warm my bed – like the fellow I saw in one of the picture magazines who made himself a gadget to warm his shoes! Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a “thinker-tinker.” Yes, I’ll warm my shoes; they need it, they’re usually full of holes. I’ll do that and more.
Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” – all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music...
mugged: (slang) assaulted and robbed.
Ford: Henry Ford (1863–1947), American automobile manufacturer.
Edison: Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931), American inventor.
Franklin: Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), American statesman, writer, and inventor.
Louis Armstrong: famous American jazz musician (1900–1971).
reefer: (slang) marijuana cigarette.
1. Why does the narrator in this excerpt attack the other man?
2. Why does he stop short of slitting the other man’s throat with his knife?
3. What does the narrator mean when he says he suddenly realized that the white man did not see him?
4. What was his first reaction to this realization? His second reaction?
5. Explain the meaning of these words: “Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life.”
6. Are bursts of violence usual with the narrator?
7. How does he customarily handle his “invisibility”? Why?
8. Why is it appropriate philosophically that the narrator live rent-free?
9. Why is it so necessary to him that his cellar home be full of light?
10. What does he mean when he says he can see the darkness of lightness? What outwardly light places does he say are the darkest parts of American culture? What does he mean by this?
11. Why does the narrator refer to the junk man who is supplying him with wire and sockets as “a man of vision”? Do you think this reference has meaning on more than one level of interpretation?
12. In what way does the narrator say he is like his invisible compatriots?
13. Why does he say Louis Armstrong was able to make poetry out of being invisible?
14. How is an invisible person’s sense of time different from that of a visible person?
15. How does his sense of time help the narrator to understand Armstrong’s music?
1. Is race the only criterion that society uses to make a person invisible? Explain.
2. The narrative in this excerpt is given as a soliloquy. Is there an advantage to this type of presentation considering the nature of the novel?