By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ralph Ellison
Narrated by: Joe Morton
Few books capture the complexity of discrimination and its societal consequence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is one of the few.
To re-read/listen to Ellison’s book, it seems a biography of its author. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He attends Tuskegee Institute, a black university in Alabama. He fails to graduate and moves to New York. He becomes a spokesman and propagandist for the communist party before WWII. He eschews communism after the war while living in New York. He becomes acquainted with other writers like Richard Wright who expose discrimination in its abomination. In these details, one sees Ellison as the “Invisible Man”.
The intensity and credibility of Ellison’s story is magnified by Joe Morton’s skill as an actor. Every line reflects understanding and relevant emotion. In just reading “Invisible Man” much of what Ellison wrote is missed. Morton offers clarity and visibility in his narration.
In outline, this story follows the path of Ellison’s life. The book’s hero is expelled from college in his Junior year and moves to New York. The reason for his expulsion is an aspect of discrimination and its consequence.
A rich, white financial benefactor of the university is being shown around by Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. Through a series of incidents, the white supporter becomes embroiled in the reality of human poverty in a black community. His immersion exposes a black father’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. However, the story’s inference is that incest is not limited to the poor; i.e. the benefactor’s reaction to the story implies a similar act in his life. The University benefactor appears overwhelmed by the black father’s story. He is emotionally and physically shaken. He asks the “Invisible Man” to get him a shot of liquor. Because they are far from town, the only place for a drink is a seedy bar in the neighborhood. In trying to please the university’s patron, the “Invisible Man” embroils the rich man in a bar fight. No one is killed but the experience illustrates how discrimination relegates parts of society to a life of poverty, anxiety, and despair. Many of the characters in the bar seem crazy. They seem consumed by fear, hate, boredom, or frustration.
Upon returning to the University, the patron tells the “Invisible Man” to have the President of the school come see him in his room. Dutifully, the “Invisible Man” calls the President and is condemned for showing the patron to a part of town that shows some of black America’s reality. The University President expels the “Invisible Man” for a mistake he believes he did not make.
The President tells him he did make a mistake. He could have shucked and jived to steer the patron away from the reality of being black in the south. The President is telling him he must “play the game”. This is a statement about the complexity and disastrous effects of discrimination. A respected black leader is saying—if you want to get ahead, you must hide who you are, play by a white man’s rules, and interpret everything a white person says to mean you don’t matter. Then act like you believe it, but keep your own counsel.
The “Invisible Man” accepts the University’ expulsion and understands the President’s reasons for expelling him. He asks the President for letters of recommendation to rich patrons he knows in New York. The “Invisible Man” plans to get a job in New York that will allow him to come back to the school after a year of exile. The President agrees and writes several letters, seals them, and tells him not to open them.
In New York, all but one letter is delivered to offices of potential white employers. No job interviews are offered. With a last letter in hand, the “Invisible Man” insists on seeing the white patron that the letter is addressed to. He is interviewed by the son of the business owner who offers to show the letter to him. The letter is a condemnation of the “Invisible Man” by the black University President who has no intention of ever allowing him to return to the University.
With no job, no prospects, and dwindling savings, the “Invisible Man” realizes he is screwed; i.e. not only white America denies his existence, but Blacks-in-power accept white-cultural-rules and screw him; just like other racists in America.
Dr. Blesoe, the black University President is saying: “Play the game, but play it your own way, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate.” The inference is to act like a toady to white culture to gather money, power, and prestige while keeping your own counsel. Never let your guard down. When you have power, you can selfishly guard it by being the equal of white racist when confronted by minorities who might challenge you.
Both black leaders in power and whites deny equality of opportunity. There seems nowhere to turn. That is until Ellison describes a story about a black family’s eviction in Harlem. With that incident, the “Invisible Man” becomes visible. Relying on his education and previous speech-making experience, the “Invisible Man” addresses a crowd around a dispossessed family and sparks a Harlem’ riot.
Members of “The Brotherhood” are in the audience. The leader of “The Brotherhood” is impressed by the “Invisible Man’s” ability to motivate the crowd. The leader offers him a job. At first, it seems like the dawning of a new life, an opportunity to prosper while doing good for himself and the community. In the end, it is just another game.
The game is the “science” of collectivism; i.e. what is important is not the individual but the collective. Whomever does not play the game by the rules is sacrificed. He/she is either ostracized, or murdered, if the rules of the collective are disobeyed. If the collective is challenged by a minority, the minority is sacrificed. The suicide, or murder of an individual is of no consequence except as it benefits or hurts the collective.
When a riot breaks out in Harlem, the “Invisible Man” expects “The Brotherhood” to be supportive of the plight of the poor and dispossessed but what he finds is that “The Brotherhood” is happy to see the destruction because it advances their collective objective; i.e. the destruction of the State and its replacement by “The Brotherhood”. They care nothing for the black community.
Ellison cogently reflects on his life to explain that the individual is of supreme importance; i.e., not the collective, not white culture, not black culture, but only the individual within the whole of humanity.
Majority rule is as tyrannical as minority rule when it discounts individual freedom. Human beings playing the game by rules of a collective is as harmful to minorities as slavery. Choosing to become invisible is not a solution for discrimination. In reality, invisibility is a symptom of American apathy that encourages discrimination. Small activist groups elect populists who pander to extremist views.
Ellison suggests his “Invisible Man” is only in hibernation. He ends his story by suggesting the “Invisible Man” will soon awaken to become an involved individual. One is skeptical of Ellison’s pronouncement. It is easier to be invisible.