Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Invisible Man tells an African American Pilgrim’s Progess, a modern black rite of passage. In part, its story could not be more literal, a South-to-North, Dixie-to-Harlem journey that recalls the movement of black Americans from the postbellum South to the northern cities. In equal part, however, the story operates as a kind of fantasia, a “dream” history, which serves as both the narrator’s past and that of most of his black American cocitizenry. As he looks back from his “border area” manhole, lit with 1,369 lightbulbs illegally running on electricity from a company named “Monopolated Light & Power,” he declares himself to be “coming out,” no longer either invisible or, as it were, uninscribed and wordless.

In this respect, he offers himself as both an actual man and as a key figure from African American folklore, a “man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids” and a Jack-The-Bear whose time of “hibernation” has come to its appointed end. Dipping into blues and jazz, street talk and rap, he promises in the prologue to “irradiate”—that is, in every sense to seek to throw light upon—his own story and that of the larger American black-white encounter. Inevitably, the touchstones involve slavery, Reconstruction, the Jazz Age, the Depression, and interwar Harlem, with hints of the coming 1960’s Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man ranks as one of the most canny, daring characterizations in modern literature. Every action he takes, every transition in his life, almost everything he says, carries a double or emblematic implication without becoming simply or reductively allegorical. His role in the Battle Royal scene calls up the stereotype of the black male as pugilist, from slave fighter to Joe Louis. As a student, the narrator might well imagine himself as a would-be Booker T. Washington, but his goals are preset and accommodationist. In Trueblood and The Golden Day, he begins to see the “true” image white America holds of him and his community, that of either permanent inferior, sexual spectacle, or, at best, token professional.

In the North, equally, he can work at Liberty Paints, but only in the basement, as a support figure for a white, one-color, America. In The Brotherhood, his party membership again rests less in his own gift than in his willingness to follow the committee’s dictates, the white-set political line. If he speaks on women’s rights, various of the white sisters fantasize him as a sex fiend, a stud. Even in his role as con man, he betrays his true inner self. Finally, forced by the riot to an “underground” self-reckoning, once again both literal and fantastical, he “sees” and in turn demands to be “seen” in a manner beyond myth or stereotype. His own black selfhood and that of his African American community at last, thereby, emerge on terms undetermined by others.

This same doubling, or multiplication, applies to the other key presences in Invisible Man. Bledsoe incarnates a historic past gallery of “separate but equal” leaders, in one face “putt’n on ol’ massa” and in another acting the part of mean, self-serving authoritarian. Norton, likewise, imagines himself all good intention, but he is in fact the embodiment of condescending white liberal racism. In the North, Mr. Emerson proves less the reformer implied in his name than another white betrayer. Brother Jack, with his “political science,” proves as inadequate to the narrator’s needs as Ras, with his “Mama Africa” Rastafarian Black Nationalism. Tod Clifton, especially, moves from activist to figure of despair, as sad and ultimately self-destructive as the Sambo dolls he takes to peddling in the street. These and lesser figures—from Mary Rambo, a warm, transplanted black southern woman who befriends the narrator in Harlem, to Dupre, an arsonist-looter—in Ellison’s always inventive fashioning serve as both individuals and types, the one always in a teasing imaginative balance with the other.

Undergirding the whole of Invisible Man lie Ellison’s organizing metaphors and tropes—invisibility and sight, vision and blindness, blackness and white, underground and above—a complex, supremely adroit creation of texture. If H. G. Wells’s science fiction classic The Invisible Man (1897) hovers behind the title, so, equally, do a host of other eclectic sources from Dante to T. S. Eliot. At the same time, and throughout, Ellison calls upon his intimacy with the treasury of African American music and folklore. Citing, typically, the old Louis Armstrong version of “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?,” the narrator, and Ellison behind him, answers with Invisible Man, storytelling with all the feints and improvisational riffs—and at the same time all the overall discipline—of a great jazz composition.

Whether read as “confession” or as “history,” the book fuses its “high” references with those of black, vernacular culture, verbal and musical, its seriousness of purpose with a winning talent for humor and well-taken irony. Best of all, perhaps, it manages to transpose, brilliantly, inventively, the black and white of America’s racial makeup into the black and white of the written page.