Is the reader of Invisible Man meant to identify the narrator or to sympathize with him?  How does Ellison himself see his protagonist?

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The novel espouses themes of existentialism, which touch all of us.  He does not want us to sympathize (an emotional response) with him; rather, he entreats us to see him as an individual, and to see ourselves (ethically, spiritually).  More, he brings race into the existential equation.  Whereas existentialism deals with making choices that lead to individual freedom, race seemingly is uncontrollable: we cannot choose not to be black.  But, the narrator says that we can choose whether or not to live in or out of history: our forefathers' legacies.

"When I discover who I am, I'll be free," says the narrator of Invisible Man, newly awakened, suffering from amnesia (243). He is victimized by whites, betrayed by blacks, and alienated by institutions, industry, and religious, labor, and political organizations. In the end, he chooses to live abandoned by all in his basement, savoring his newfound invisibility. Ralph Ellison's response to the American anti-black racial problem is not so much a social solution, but an existential one. To be invisible, in a sense, is to be a conscious individual who cannot be predicted or manipulated.

While Ellison uses existentialism to examine the racial problem, racial identity alone is not an existential structure because it is so highly subjective and not universal.  Ellison’s narrator makes a similar deduction in embracing yams, "They're my birthmark...I yam what I am!" (266). A birthmark, here, is both a mark of distinctive identity and a blemish on one's body. In other words, a yam is a proud symbol and a negative stereotype of his Black Southern heritage. He, wrongfully following the lead of Dr. Bledsoe, had shame-facedly associated soul food with “field niggerism” (265), adopting instead to savor the more sophisticated delicacies of the house Negro (who caters for the white slave master) in order to escape the stereotype.

Since he has awakened, however, the narrator "no longer [feels] ashamed by things I had always loved" (266); he is no longer ashamed of his birthright, a poor black man from the Deep South. He continues, "But what of those things which you actually didn't like, not because to dislike them was considered a mark of refinement and education--but because you actually found them distasteful?...It involved a problem of choice" (266). It is a problem, according to Sartre, of authenticity. So, has he not liked yams because whites didn't think he should? Or because other blacks (namely house Negros) didn't think he should? Or because he (as a repressed field Negro) didn't think he should? To love yams to spite the whites would be inauthentic. To hate the yams to spite his blackness would be inauthentic. The narrator is caught in an existential dilemma.

After he takes a bite of the second yam, anticipating another sweet relic of home, it is frostbitten, leaving a bad taste in his mouth. Although he naively loved the yams of home, the yams handed to him in his newfound freedom of the North are at first sweet, and then foul. He is in the process of reinventing himself, casting off both the house and field Negro stereotypes. His authenticity then is not defined by being inauthentic to any ascribed stereotype, but by relishing what he wants to relish, regardless of stereotype. His existence as a yam lover or yam hater precedes his essence, which may hold that eating yams is shameful.

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