In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s The Outsider, the search for identity focuses on the individual. Both stories revolve around anguished, alienated Black men who have an almost impossible time finding their place within society.
The novels simultaneously show the progression of African American rights and the lack of progression. Ellison’s protagonist has access to a good education. He goes to a prestigious, all-Black college. Yet the way the protagonist earns his scholarship to this college reflects a lack of progress. To get his scholarship, he has to box other Black men for the amusement of a white audience.
As with Ellison’s protagonist, the main character in The Outsider, Cross Damon, has the ability to attend an acclaimed school, the University of Chicago. Yet such an estimable education doesn’t quell Damon’s inner turmoil. As the narrator says, Damon’s “insight merely augmented his emotional conflicts.”
Both characters try to escape these institutions and the progress and approval that they seem to confer. They don’t appear to want to be a part of the system or any kind of structured apparatus. The narrator tries to conform to the rules of the Brotherhood even though the Brotherhood isn’t actually helping Harlem’s Black community. The narrator’s individuality breaks through when he draws attention to a former Brotherhood member who's been shot and killed by police.
Cross, too, can’t find fulfillment in an institution, an organized group, or even a relationship. As with Ellison's protagonist, Cross has an identity that’s both independent and isolated. While racism is explicit in both works, the struggles of the characters probably shouldn’t be reduced to racism. In both works, a reader might get the impression that no amount of rights or societal shifts could help these two characters. It’s the structure of the society itself that’s the problem. Racism is a central part of that structure, but it’s not the only key issue.