The great American dream is colored by a tragedy that staggers somewhere on a line between irony and horror- the story of untold heroes, cursed by history and invisible to mankind. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores the depths to which men- all men, but the African Americans in particular- are always standing on the cusps of helpless revolutions, useful but never indispensable.
Trained to be a Yes Man and forced to know his place in society from the very start, our nameless narrator is plunged into a journey where he believes the sky to be the limit. Freed from the past of his ancestors but never quite forgiven, entrenched in dreams as sweet and naive as youth can make it, he believes himself capable of ambitious realizations and is blind towards the deep discrimination that are omnipresent in his world. He follows through with resourcefulness, doing the best he can under the circumstances that he faces but it does not take him quite as long to figure out that something isn’t quite right. He is plunged headfirst into a world where the powerful have mysterious objectives and he is only putty in the hands of them. Through a few blunt encounters, he picks up on what his place is supposed to be. He picks up on it but doesn’t quite accept it.
Some of the most gripping early experiences in his life are outlined through an encounter with an incestuous dark man who is not supposed to be seen by the ‘benefactors’ of the black people and an electrocution experiment where our narrator is a helpless, inactive human body with nothing to do. As his disillusions wash away, he becomes aware of the disparities he has been blind to. And then comes a change.
From being a thankful college student to an aimless wanderer in New York city, he traverses through the length and breadth of a colored life but collides with a parallel world of the Brotherhood; an organization which recognizes his usefulness (and just that). Here he discovers a motive- but he is truly blinded by his belief in the power of truth and equality. He sees his brothers as men and women who are all to be his equals, irrespective of color. Despite his theoretical convictions, he is still dauntingly subversive though not totally aware of it. It takes an awakening- sudden, cruel and nocturnal- to make him see that he is indeed unnecessary, irreplaceable and cumulatively invisible.
My feelings while reading this book were mixed- at points I was horrified, at other points somewhat bored. During certain political passages, I was trying my hardest to find the underlying meaning in phrases that seemed foreign only because I have never known or studied the African American history except as a vague, distant tapestry for certain novels and movies. So I had to grapple with the reality at places. I dogeared a few pages in a quest to discover hidden meanings. I suppose I scratched the surface at places but I am still learning. Overall, this book was a quest in terms of the topics it touched. I tried to pick up what I can. The gloomy picture dissolves as soon as I open my eyes but I found a strange relationship with the protagonist.
He was invisible.
And who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for all of us?