What is the significance of music in the Prologue of Invisible Man?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The jazz music that the anonymous narrator spends all of his time listening to is deliberately included because it is another way that the author shows the protagonist is struggling to identify who he is. Jazz is a form of music that depends on improvisation and spontaneity. As it is a form of music that was birthed among African-American musicians, it has been used as an excellent metaphor for the battle for difference in the society of the United States. The constant listening to jazz music highlights one of the central themes of this novel, which is of course the quest for an identity. It is important, too, that Armstrong is mentioned as one of the artists that the protagonist listens too, as he is recognised as being responsible for revolutionising the jazz medium into something that was profoundly individual, as a soloist led the rest of the band and improvised, and the rest of the band had to play along to the tune of the soloist.

It is also significant that Armstrong's song, "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" is listened to. This links to the novel as well as it was one of the first jazz songs that began to broach the issue of racism. The lyrics of this song focus on the conflict between the identity that society imposes on the singer and his own inner feelings. Lyrics that the narrator listens to in this novel are when the singer says he feels "white inside," and that "my only sin / is in my skin." Inclusion of this track into Ellison's novel supports the central theme of the search for an identity in a society that forces you to accept the identity that it has constructed for you.

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