In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the author explores stereotypes and prejudices in America from the early to mid-twentieth century. This novel of self-discovery presents an unnamed black man serving as a narrator. He seeks to learn where he fits into contemporary society while searching for the American dream....
In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the author explores stereotypes and prejudices in America from the early to mid-twentieth century. This novel of self-discovery presents an unnamed black man serving as a narrator. He seeks to learn where he fits into contemporary society while searching for the American dream. From the outset of the novel, the narrator tells the reader:
“I am an invisible man . . . I am invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me.”
The narrator recognizes that he exists in a subservient role from which he must escape if he is ever to understand what it means to be a black man in America. He knows there are obstacles in his way that he must overcome. As the protagonist begins his quest, Ellison cleverly uses metaphorical musical references to parallel the black struggle for individuality and against racism in America with certain music genres.
For example, jazz is a musical style developed largely from blues and primarily by African-American musicians. One of the most significant elements of the genre is improvisation. It is a style that absorbs elements of other genres and finds a way to become individualized. This type of music provides a perfect background for the novel since it mirrors the protagonist’s quest for his individuality. He must ingest the realities of the American society of his day before he can create a unique plan for navigating through society’s discriminatory stereotypes. This is possible only by developing his individual talents.
In the Prologue to Invisible Man, the protagonist is convinced he has the talent to succeed. He likens himself to some of the great minds that have come before him and maintains a positive outlook on life:
“Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a ‘thinker-tinker.’ Yes, I'll warm my shoes; they need it, they're usually full of holes. I'll do that and more.”
Of course, the narrator has not yet completed his quest so he must still face his obstacles. It is interesting that the author chooses the jazz sound of Louis Armstrong to be the narrator’s focus as he envisions his future:
“I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" -- all at the same time . . . Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.”
This scene is especially powerful because the narrator’s selection of that Armstrong classic is an early example of the societal exposure to and condemnation of racism bestowed upon the public via the genres of blues and jazz.
Ellison does not comment directly on the meanings of the songs threaded through the novel, but the music does help to reinforce the feelings of racial tension central to the story. By studying the selected background music in Invisible Man, the reader develops great insight into the black struggle for individuality expressed in this classic and the protagonist’s transformation to visibility.