Why is the protagonist considered invisible in college in Invisible Man?

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The main character is invisible in college because he has trouble expressing his true identity in a society that does not accept him.

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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the story of a man wrestling with his identity as an African American man living in a highly prejudiced society. When he is accepted to an all-black college, his choices to placate the curiosity of the white community cause him to be seen as...

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invisible, in addition to the fact that he is a black man and disregarded by the society in which he lives.

Ellison’s unnamed central character should be in sympathetic company at his school, but the tension that lingers within in his own community amplifies the alienation that he feels. The author is attempting to demonstrate how outside agitation causes this turmoil within an oppressed community, pitting one against another. This quote from chapter five is a clear demonstration of this conflict:

"The clouds of darkness all over the land, black folk and white folk full of fear and hate, wanting to go forward, but each fearful of the other. A whole region is caught in a terrible tension. Everyone is perplexed with the question of what must be done to dissolve this fear and hated that crouched over the land like a demon waiting to spring, and you know how he came and showed them the way.”

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Dr. Bledsoe is an example of a black man who is complicit with white supremacy so that he can secure his own social and economic advancement. He assigns the narrator to chauffeur Mr. Norton, one of the white philanthropists who funds the college that the narrator attends, assuming that the narrator is "smart"—meaning, that he understands how to play a subservient, naive role—and that he will know how to anticipate white people's needs and desires, showing them only those things that they want to see. When the narrator takes Mr. Norton to see Trueblood in the former slave quarters, he demonstrates to Bledsoe that he is not "smart," or not as knowingly complicit with white supremacy as Bledsoe had thought.

Thus, the narrator is invisible at the black college (modeled on Tuskegee Institute, where Ellison studied) due to Bledsoe's interest in seeing him only as an instrument of his own advancement. When the narrator arrives in New York with Bledsoe's letters, he is shocked to find out that Bledsoe attempted to stain the narrator's reputation everywhere Bledsoe sent him to look for work. Bledsoe has no empathy for the narrator's mistake and no interest in supporting a younger ambitious black man, given the precariousness of Bledsoe's own station.

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The central conceit in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is that the unnamed narrator of the tale is figuratively invisible to the larger American society because he is a young black man. Therefore, he is not only “invisible” in college, but also throughout the rest of the novel. He considers himself an invisible man because he is marginalized; he is pushed aside and disregarded by a racially stratified American society, and he considers himself unseen. Indeed, his time in college contributes to his designation as an invisible man. After he has allowed a wealthy, white supporter of the college, Mr. Norton, to see the darker side of the town, Dr. Bledsoe is furious with the narrator. Dr. Bledsoe berates the narrator in a way that exposes his own manipulative personality:

“You're nobody son. You don't exist--can't you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think-- except men like me” (143).

Dr. Bledsoe confirms the narrator’s marginalized status here. Thus, the narrator is indeed metaphorically invisible in college, and he remains this way throughout the remainder of the novel.

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