Slavery, Reconstruction and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
The Civil War was fought to keep the United States together as a single nation. While the Declaration of Independence asserted that it was ‘‘self-evident’’ that ‘‘all men were created equal,’’ the subsequent formulation of the United States Constitution stipulated that slavery would remain legal. Because of the plantation system, the Southern states' economic livelihood depended on having a labor force which it could deny any legal, social or human rights. In the decades before the Civil War, the United States was held together through a series of compromises (The Missouri Compromise (1820), The Fugitive Slave Act, Compromise of 1850, The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)) that attempted to balance the political power of slave and free states. One of the most blatant statements of deprivation of Blacks' basic rights of citizenship and the attendant human rights was the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which stated directly that no black person had rights any white man need respect. Under this ruling, no Black person was allowed claims to citizenship.
The Civil War began in 1861 as the North tried to keep the South in the national Union. Slavery was partially abolished by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which did not outlaw slavery in the border states between North and South in an attempt to keep those states aligned neutral in the war. After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment (ratified 1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868) guaranteed the rights of citizenship to freed Blacks. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified 1870) guaranteed the right to vote. While these were important steps, they did not prevent the further oppression of African Americans.
Reconstruction was a federal policy to engineer the inclusion of freed African Americans into the national—political, economic and social—framework. In the 1870s, the North had grown weary of the enterprise and more concerned with facilitating industrial and corporate development. Prejudice against African Americans in the North severely limited their employment opportunities while local laws and social practices in the former slave states intimidated African Americans, and effectively locked them from participation in the marketplace. Local laws like the Black Codes and Jim Crow as well as brutal Ku Klux Klan violence effectively prevented many African Americans from voting, working or living where they would have chosen.
The presidential election of 1876 marks the unofficial termination of federal attempts to reconstruct the South. The election motivated a political compromise that installed the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, as president despite his failure to win a majority of electoral votes and his loss of the popular vote. The Democrats, who represented the interests of the former South, traded the presidency for assurances that under Hayes the last federal troops would be withdrawn from the South. Without the troops, the local governments in the South were able to follow with impunity programs of segregation and intimidation against African Americans. In 1896, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, legally sanctioned separate Pullman cars for Blacks and whites, citing the segregation of public schools in Washington, D.C. as social precedent that demonstrated the social proclivity to segregate. The legal sanction of racial segregation structured the school system, employment opportunities and loan opportunities until Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954), which ruled that segregationist policies were inherently unequal. Ellison's novel is published just two years before the Brown decision.
African American Resistance and Leadership: Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois
In equating himself with his grandfather and with Booker T. Washington, the narrator recalls major figures who served to fight against the marginalization of African Americans, during and after the abolition of slavery. It is notable that the short story and the novel seem to use figures of men as leaders while women serve relatively minor roles. The narrator projects himself into a clearly empowered, masculine agency.
To understand the novel's irony regarding the narrator's reverence of Booker T. Washington, it is important to consider the context in which Washington became powerful. His autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published in 1901. It tells of his rise from his childhood status as a slave to being one of the most influential men of his...
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Point of View and Narration
The narration is in first person, addressing the reader directly with a direct and honest tone implying a certain naiveté. The narrator is most capable of conveying his confusion. His sense of accomplishment is rendered pathetic by his constant inability to take offense at the inhumane treatment he endures at the hands of his "benefactors." By rendering scenes of physical and psychological violence to the reader in forceful detail and lyrical immediacy, one expects a statement of anger and resistance. Instead, the reader alone seems to understand the demeaning implication of the battle royal as the narrator progresses toward the ultimately triumphant scholarship award. The final mention of the narrator's dream suggests that this absence of indignation is indeed ironic, an irony that is wound more tightly in the novel as a whole.
The story takes place around eighty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in approximately 1947. It is important that the narrator lives in the South, where slavery played a crucial role in sustaining the economic system of plantation farming until the Civil War. In the days after slavery's abolition, African Americans were prevented from becoming economically stable by the white community. The town of the story reflects a fundamental hierarchy in which white men are those with economic, political, judicial and educational authority. The hotel where the battle royal takes place represents the extent of this white power. It is significant that once inside the room where the events take place, one is either there as an audience member or an entertainer. The audience is composed only of white...
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Compare and Contrast
1952: Racial segregation is legal, upheld by the Supreme Court decision of 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson. Schools, housing and employment and businesses in the South maintain separate facilities for Black and white people.
1954: The Supreme Court reverses the Plessy v. Ferguson decision with the decision, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. Declaring that separate facilities are inherently unequal, the court ordered the desegregation of schools throughout the country.
2000: Today, de facto segregation continues to frustrate the implementation of the court's 1954 decision.
1860: About forty percent of African Americansliving in the city of New York would have to move in order to achieve racial integration. In New Orleans, about thirty-six percent of African Americans would have to move. (Massey and Denton)
1940: About eighty-seven percent of African Americans living in the city of New York would have to move in order to achieve racial integration. In New Orleans, about eighty-one percent of African Americans would have to move.
1990: About eighty-two percent of African Americans living in the city of New York would have to move to achieve racial integration. In New Orleans, about sixty-nine percent of African Americans would have to move.
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Topics for Further Study
Do you trust the narrator's perspective? What are some different perspectives that might add to a fuller picture? How might the story be told through Tatlock's eyes? Through the eyes of the woman?
In 1947, this story was first published as ‘‘The Invisible Man.’’ Five years later, the novel was published under the title of Invisible Man. How does the absence of the article "The'' change the title? How might one interpret the title and meaning of the book differently because of this change?
The M.C. is a strange character. His voice steers the audience's and the reader's attention to particular scenes. Analyze the role the M.C. plays in the story. Why is there so little description of this...
(The entire section is 172 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson. Unsigned on its publication in 1912, the novel was republished in 1927 with Johnson named as author. The story is a narrative about "passing," in which a young boy learns the rules of racially identifying and being identified as an African American at the turn of the nineteenth century. Raised by his African-American mother in the North and virtually abandoned (except for economic support) by his Southern, white father, the narrator ultimately decides to allow society to consider him white. The novel offers an ironic story of self-realization that both highlights and critiques the forces of racism.
The Big Sea (1940) by Langston Hughes. The...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baumbach, Jonathan, ‘‘Nightmare of a Native Son: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,’’ in Critique, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1963, 48-65.
Bellow, Saul, ‘‘Man Underground: Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man’’ in Commentary, June, 1952, pp. 608-610.
Busby, Marle, Ralph Ellison, Twayne, 1991.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "Nature," in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff, Penguin, 1985, pp. 35-82.
German, Norman, ‘‘Imagery in the ‘‘Battle Royal’’ Chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 394-399.
Hoberek, Andrew, "Race Man,...
(The entire section is 481 words.)