Relate the following quote from Ellison’s essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” to the story told in Chapter One:
“The Blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
The opening chapter of Invisible Man (also known as "Battle Royale") presents an episode that is painful and brutal and that directly confronts ideas of exploitation (by whites) and complicity (by blacks) in a system of racial prejudice and bigotry.
The chapter is centrally concerned with a public spectacle -- a fight arranged between a number of black boys who are blindfolded and set against each other in a boxing ring. When the boys are paid, the money is placed on a electrified mat that shocks anyone who touches it. As some of the money is in the form of coins, the boys cannot be paid without receiving an electric shock. Some of the boys are also forcibly pushed onto the mat and severely shocked. Later, the narrator discovers the coins are fake. They are worthless tokens.
After this demeaning and cruel activity is concluded, the protagonist gives a prepared speech about how racial harmony will come about if blacks remain humble, echoing the philosophy of Booker T. Washington with ideas relating to self-determination and also "the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the southern white man" in order to achieve progress.
Having directly experienced a moment of truly cruel exploitation as entertainment for white men, the narrator's speech becomes ironic and nearly humorous. In suggesting "friendly relations" the narrator is naively ignoring the reality of what he has just been through. How might one befriend a group that finds hilarity in one's pain and in one's abjection?
The chapter is "near-tragic" in large part because the narrator fails to become conscious of his situation. He receives a scholarship to attend college from this assembly of white men, but this serves to put him in a position of dependency -- one that is again presented in as near-comic and near-tragic in the next chapter as the protagonist is tasked with obeying a white trustee of the college and almost gets the man killed in doing so.
The narrator's situation is not clear to him in all its threats to his manhood, to his self-worth, and to his future as a black man. But it is clear to his grandfather. Coming to him in a dream, the narrator sees his grandfather (and thus perhaps subconsciously realizes his plight) and the old man mocks his grandson's symbolic, prize briefcase.
In the dream, the grandfather expresses a knowledge that the narrator is a complicit party to his own exploitation, all too happy to be kept running by those in power.
"I awoke to the old man's laughter ringing in my ears.
"(It was a dream I was to remember and dream again for many years after. But at that time I had no insight into its meaning. First I had to attend college.)"
There is pain in the narrator's inability to grasp his grandfather's advice from early in the chapter. He does not rise to an awareness of the basic irony the underlay his speech, where the men he spoke to threatened him, ignored him, and repeatedly called him "boy." The speech ultimately is a capitulation and its thesis simply that the narrator is a person who "knows his place."
While this speech does get the narrator a scholarship to college, it does not deliver him into a greater consciousness and instead effectively straps him to a dependency on white patronage.
One of the most potent aspects of Ellison's Invisible Man is the subtle and consistent expression of the mind of a well-intentioned man who fails to fathom the depth of moral corruption stemming from racial bias that dominates nearly every facet of his life.
Although he is given a very direct statement on this stark fact in the first pages of the novel, he never fully comes to grips with it. Even in the end, the narrator cannot submit to the depth of cynicism of this grandfather, though he does come to see a wisdom in this cynicism.
As an articulation of brutality, wrought in great bloody and shameful detail, the opening chapter of Ellison's novel expresses the divide between the narrator's capacity for understanding his own situation and the actual terms of social life he lives with. Unaware of the fullness of his own exploitation and dependency, the narrator ironically believes himself to be above it, able to give a speech (which should be embarrassing to him) and able, in the end, to feel as if he has achieved a victory by being publicly beaten, shocked, mocked and patronized.
The schism here between the narrator's naivete and the reality of his situation creates humor (resulting from irony) and also makes a point about the thoroughness of the oppression the narrator faces. His complicity in his own exploitation runs contrary to the simple and complete awareness expressed by his grandfather, making the narrator's joy laughable and blind where it could have been knowing and sly.