Ron Arden's Reviews > Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Jul 26, 2011


This is one of those novels I always wanted to read and I'm glad I did. The story is about an unnamed black man living in the 1920s or 1930s in the US. The time period is not specific, but it is after WW I and sometime before WW II. The story begins with him in a battle between himself and other young black men in a ring. The battle is like a dog or cock fight for the amusement of a bunch of drunk white men. He "wins" the event and delivers an eloquent speech that gets him a scholarship to an all black college in the south.

He attends the college and is a good student. One day he is driving a wealthy white trustee around to see some of the sights and winds up in a shanty camp of poor black farmers. A few things ensue that cause the trustee to faint and appear ill. When they return to the school, the trustee is fine and tells the college president not to blame our protagonist for what happened. The president agrees, but then expels the young man. The president is two-faced and speaks of equality when in public, but clearly has his severe prejudices against whites when in private. He thinks the incident will cause problems for him and his hard fought position of power. He is using the young man for his own purposes.

The young man goes to NYC under the false impression that the president has given him favorable letters of introduction, so he can find work. The letters turn out to be damnations of his character and so he winds up with a group called the Brotherhood. This group of white and black people seem to want to create a fair society where all are Brothers. Since he is an eloquent speaker, he rises in the ranks and is effective in Harlem.

Eventually the power base is threatened by him and a series of maneuvers force him into a bit of an exile. Both black and white men want what they want and he becomes a pawn. He is a man and a person and invisible. He is just a check mark, someone to be used to perform a function.

Eventually everything devolves into a violent clash of black against white and the disenfranchised against the enfranchised. This drives the young man underground, literally. He has become invisible, both literally and figuratively.

This novel was written in the 1940s and early 50s and showed the struggles of a black man against white and black America. There was a lot of us and them and sometimes it was unclear who us and them were. 60 years on, I am not sure how much has really changed for humanity. We have just shifted our scapegoating to another group of people. People still struggle with identity. Am I a person, a color, a religion, a citizen of a country, a political party, a philosophy or what? I start as a human. A living sentient being that has ideas, thoughts and aspirations. Beyond that, the rest are beliefs and experiences. I hope that someday we embrace each other for all the diversity among us rather than fighting for what and who is right, according to some abstract notion.
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