What It's Like to Read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in 2020

Writer Alexander Montgomery reflects on why there's no such thing as "invisible."

ralph ellison invisible man

“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.” —Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

The nameless protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel Invisible Man begins his story after he has fully realized his invisibility—that is, the inability of people around him to see him as a person and not just as a Negro. He embraces his invisibility, living essentially off the grid, “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…”

Ellison presents the hero of this story as one who has endured the injustices one expects from mid-20th century America, and came to a point in his life where he decided the only way to beat the game was to not play at all. As he entreats the reader to understand his rationale, it becomes more and more clear how toxic even the most limited exposure to the status quo of white supremacy is to people of color—in spite of everything, one cannot blame him for wanting to leave.

In the here and now of Summer 2020, withdrawal from the American narrative is simply a luxury young people of color cannot afford. We have a social responsibility to assert our role in this grand scheme. Not only to ensure our survival, but because those who came before us fought and died for our right to do so. To cower would be disrespectful.

Related: 7 Books About Race to Explain the Current Unrest 

In the shadow of social media and Black Lives Matter, this generation’s struggle to shake off the yoke of white supremacy has become the dominating narrative. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on in the United States and the rest of the world (but mostly the United States), millions of people are stuck at home scrolling through social media, eyes inundated with images and videos of protesters who are aching to shout: BLACK LIVES MATTER. This reflex to make oneself known must be carefully cultivated, sharpened and maintained as if it were a valuable tool—because it is.

Perhaps the most valuable tool for young people of color is their ability to resist and in turn, rally. But Ellison’s Invisible Man is more than an astonishingly well-written work of fiction—for the contemporary reader, particularly a young reader of color like myself, it is an instruction manual on how to recognize and resist white supremacy as it functions both internally and externally.

The advent of social media and the ease with which practically anyone with access to the Internet may see how white supremacy is alive and kicking (and shooting) has furthered Ellison’s vision. While he utilized clever metaphors and richly cultivated language to convey certain truths to his audience, today’s audience of the world may see the raw footage of truth for themselves, then draw their own conclusions.

invisible man ralph ellison, first edition cover from 1952
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  • First edition cover of Invisible Man, 1952.

Ellison was writing in a time not unlike our own—unstable and rife with civil unrest and burgeoning awareness of just how deep the racial divide in America had become, in spite of thousands of Black men fighting and dying alongside white soldiers in World War II. Ellison wrote in a 1981 introductory essay to the novel that he was influenced by several events, including the Harlem Riots of 1943 (which Ellison covered for the New York Post and echoed in the climax of the novel).

The massive protests and rioting which frame the final chapters occur in the wake of police murdering an unarmed Black man—a narrative far, far too familiar to the world of 2020. In major cities across the world, people continue to protest the distinct lack of justice found for Black Lives and Black Trans Lives (which are especially at risk of being assaulted, whether at the hands of police or otherwise). Ellison’s Narrator framed Harlem’s significant response to the funeral of Tod Clifton as an “opportunity to express their feelings, to affirm themselves.” The protests going on right now are simply the latest opportunity we, the disenfranchised of the world, have seized to make ourselves known. To make ourselves visible.

Related: What White Fragility Gets Wrong, and 5 Books to Read Instead  

The reality Ellison presents to us is saturated with evidence that people of color are only allotted a certain degree of success under the purview of white supremacy. The novel is replete with instances and episodes where the Narrator’s Blackness actively negates his credibility, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s consider one of the novel’s earliest-occurring, most iconic scenes: the battle royal.

After the Narrator is forced to fight other young Black men of his hometown for the entertainment of the white elite, he attempts to give a speech (the same speech he delivered to his high school’s graduating class) and is largely ignored—up until the point where he utters the phrases “social responsibility” and “social equality”; at this, the white elite were amused and dismissive, but nonetheless awarded the Narrator with a scholarship to the state’s foremost Black college.

The early positioning of this episode in the 580-page novel proves Ellison didn’t see any need to waste time in illustrating the harsh reality of Black bodies being used and ogled in the name of entertainment for the ruling class. This was not the first and would not be the last time the Narrator’s internal life was ignored on the basis of his color.

ralph ellison, author of invisible man
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  • Ralph Ellison, 1960.

    Photo Credit: Library of Congress

It is at the Black college for which he was awarded a scholarship that the Narrator encounters Dr. Bledsoe, the school president and Ellison’s contemporary spin on the “Uncle Tom” archetype. Although he only appears in a few chapters, Bledsoe is a figure in the Narrator’s life that continues to haunt him throughout his American odyssey.

While Dr. Bledsoe is meek and apologetic when dealing directly with the school’s white sponsors, he is hostile and abrasive to the Narrator after he inadvertently exposes one such sponsor, Mr. Norton, to the controversial, incestuous life of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who lives near the school. Bledsoe is enraged that the Narrator managed to shatter the vision of respectable Black folk he had so carefully constructed for Norton’s amusement, and sends him to New York with several letters meant to help him find work until he’s able to return to the school and resume his education.

The extent of Bledsoe’s insidiousness is made clear to both the Narrator and the reader when it is revealed the letters he instructed the Narrator to give to various successful white men in the city were simply condemnations, assuring their recipients the Narrator will never be allowed back at the college. Bledsoe chose to manipulate and deceive young Black folk in order to maintain his position of influence under the oppressive status quo, rather than mentor or democratize. Ellison placed such a character opposite our Narrator in order to illustrate a sobering reality: that too often, the traumatized oppressed will identify with their oppressor and adopt their ideals to cultivate power and influence.

Related: 10 Unapologetic Books About Race in America 

The Narrator himself is tempted into this position shortly after he arrives in New York by the Brotherhood, a local leftist organization narratively influenced by the parties Ellison himself associated with in his youth. At first, the Narrator is impressed by how seemingly invested the Brotherhood is in Harlem and the Black community who lives there. However, after a former colleague of his, another young Black man named Tod Clifton, is gunned down by police, he delivers an impassioned eulogy to the crowd gathered at the funeral that draws ire from the Brotherhood’s leadership.

In a tense meeting where he is cornered by several (white) members of the organization, the Narrator asserts that Clifton was shot by police because he was Black—not because he was selling Sambo dolls in the street or because he was formerly a part of the Brotherhood, but because he was Black.

The leadership refuses to accept his reasoning, stubbornly clinging to their own racialized worldview and inadvertently revealing their own “white-savior” complex. Indeed, they tell him outright: “You were not hired to think.” Ellison goes to great pains to show the reader how the Brotherhood’s white leadership deliberately de-centers Black voices to service their goals and sees the Narrator and the Black people of Harlem (and their anger) as a prop, a resource to be exploited for political gain.

In the context of Black Lives Matter, the idea of white leadership appropriating the struggle for social justice on behalf of people of color is one the organization has taken steps to actively subvert. The co-founders of BLM, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, are all Black women. They have all expressed an interest in centering voices which have for too long been repressed, particularly those of Black queer women. Again, Ellison has shown us what not to do, and we have triumphed in the present day because of it.

black lives matter protest in charlotte, nc on 5/30/20
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  • Black Lives Matter protest in Charlotte, NC. Via Unsplash.  

    Photo Credit: Clay Banks

In spite of the uncomfortable truths it offers up, or even because of them, I can’t help but be comforted by this work, so far removed from the time in which it was composed. To know that even almost 70 years ago, Ellison was writing to encourage people of color to take stock of how the world perceives them and use that knowledge to mold themselves into whatever it is they want to be—it’s exactly the breath of fresh air I need. But in spite of this, it’s critical to remember there are hundreds of writers of color aside from Ellison who have articulated this truth in a myriad of fashions. So rarely in my life have I been awarded comfort by tradition.

America is a land steeped in tradition. Apple pie, police brutality, baseball, lynchings, white supremacy—this is what the nation is known for worldwide. But there is another tradition, a countercultural reflex, which in recent months is becoming harder and harder to ignore: resistance. The time to cower has passed—even Ellison’s Narrator, by the end of the novel, admits that his exile must come to an end, not only because he felt he has spent enough time away from the world, but because he is ready to share with it his truth.

Related: 26 Must-Read Books by Iconic Black Authors  

From Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin to Angela Davis to Patrisse Cullors, there will always be people of color who see the problem, and are brave enough to meet it head-on by way of disseminating what they’ve learned to as many as they can. These heroes, and others like them, have blessed us with their insight and ability to explicate humanity’s deepest flaws and greatest triumphs. The world is better off because of it. Who could have known they, those pioneers of the lower frequencies, were really speaking to us?

I am not an invisible man. No, I am not a Panther, like those who plagued Hoover and his cronies; nor am I one of your Fox News strawmen, words taken out of context. I am a man of levity, of hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities—and I might even be said to possess a soul. I am not invisible, understand, simply because I refuse to let myself go unseen.

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