The lines quoted are from the epilogue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man . The title character is trying to sort out the meaning of his experience of invisibility and of “hibernation,” when he cut himself off from society as much as possible. In the preceding passage, he has been...
The lines quoted are from the epilogue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The title character is trying to sort out the meaning of his experience of invisibility and of “hibernation,” when he cut himself off from society as much as possible. In the preceding passage, he has been questioning the “passion toward conformity,” asserting that diversity is essential in contesting tyranny. The logical extension of conformity, he fears, is the pressure to remove race as a meaningful category of American society: “they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one.” The idea of “colorlessness” is disturbing because it would invalidate important, unique aspects of his existence; that total uniqueness he glosses as “color.”
The recognition of diversity, or the “many strands” of which American has been woven, is key to co-existence and the possibility of positive social change. Those who try to deny this are negating a vital dimension of American society; their attitude, he contends, would result in a great loss: “ ‘winner take nothing’ . . . is the great truth of our country.” He suggests that people not try to control each other but practice tolerance. Because people who have been disempowered understand the bases of their oppression, they can move forward and try to achieve more in their own lives and in society overall.
Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many—this is not prophecy, but description.
The invisible man’s words are not very optimistic, however: "None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.” He sees Americans as fooling themselves in believing that their uniqueness depends on the rejection of race, as whites try to escape blackness and black people become “gray” as they pursue whiteness.
Racial diversity continues to be both a source of strength and an area of contestation in American society. More than fifty years after Ellison wrote Invisible Man, many Americans still find it difficult to see the shared humanity of those they perceive as different.