By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ralph Ellison
Narrated by: Joe Morton
Few books capture the complexity of discrimination and its societal consequence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is one of the few. To re-read/listen to Ellison’s book, it seems a biography of its author. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He attends Tuskegee Institute, a black university in Alabama. He fails to graduate and moves to New York. He becomes a spokesman and propagandist for the communist party before WWII. He eschews communism after the war while living in New York. He becomes acquainted with other writers (like Richard Wright) who expose discrimination and its abomination. In these details, one sees Ellison as the “Invisible Man”.
The intensity and credibility of Ellison’s story is magnified by Joe Morton’s skill as an actor. Every line reflects an understanding of discrimination and its relevant emotions. In reading “Invisible Man” much of what Ellison wrote is missed. Morton offers clarity and visibility to the “Invisible Man”.
In outline, this story follows the path of Ellison’s life. The hero is expelled from college in his Junior year and moves to New York. The reason for his expulsion is an aspect of discrimination and its consequence. A rich white financial supporter of the university is being shown around by Ellison’s “Invisible Man”. Through a series of incidents, the white supporter becomes embroiled in the reality of human poverty in a black community. His immersion exposes an incestuous relationship with an inference that incest is not limited to the poor; i.e. that it reflects on his own white life.
The white university benefactor appears overwhelmed by a realization of evil’s equality among men. A rich white man’s evil is no different from a poor black man’s evil. He asks the “Invisible Man” to get him a shot of liquor. Because they are far from town, the only place for a drink is a seedy bar in the neighborhood. In trying to please the university’s patron, the “Invisible Man” embroils the rich man in a bar fight. No one is killed but the experience illustrates how discrimination relegates parts of society to a life of poverty, anxiety, and despair.
Upon returning to the University, the patron tells the “Invisible Man” to have the President of the school come see him in his room. Dutifully, the “Invisible Man” calls the President and is condemned for showing the patron a part of town that shows what it is like to be black in America.
The University President expels the “Invisible Man” for a mistake he believes he did not make. The President disagrees. He tells the “Invisible Man” he made a horrible mistake. He explains that he should have “shucked and jived” to steer the patron away from the reality of being black in the south. The President is telling him he must “play the game”. This is a statement about the complexity and disastrous effects of discrimination. A respected black leader (this University President) is saying—if you want to get ahead, you must hide who you are, play by a white man’s rules, and interpret everything a white person says to mean you don’t matter; and act appropriately to reinforce a white man’s stereotype of “Negroes”.
The “Invisible Man” accepts the expulsion and understands the President’s reasons for expelling him. He asks the President for letters of recommendation to rich patrons he knows in New York. The “Invisible Man” plans to get a job in New York that will allow him to come back to the school after a year of exile. The President agrees and writes several letters, seals them, and tells the “Invisible Man” not to open them.
In New York, all but one letter is delivered to offices of potential white employers. No job interviews are offered. With a last letter in hand, the “Invisible Man” insists on seeing the white patron that the letter is addressed to. He is interviewed by the son of the business owner who offers to show the letter to him. The letter is a condemnation of the “Invisible Man” by the black University President who has no intention of ever allowing him to return to the University.
With no job, no prospects, and dwindling savings, the “Invisible Man” realizes he is screwed; i.e. not only white America denies his existence, but Blacks in power accept cultural rules and screw him as royally as white America. Dr. Bledsoe, the black University President is saying: “Play the game, but play it your own way, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate.”
Both black leaders in power and whites deny equality of opportunity. There seems nowhere to turn. That is, until an eviction of a black family in Harlem. With that incident, the “Invisible Man” becomes visible. Relying on his education and previous speech-making experience, the “Invisible Man” addresses a crowd around the dispossessed family and sparks a riot in Harlem.
Members of “The Brotherhood” are in the audience. The leader of “The Brotherhood” is impressed by the “Invisible Man’s” ability to motivate the crowd. The leader offers him a job. At first, it seems like the dawning of a new life, an opportunity to prosper while doing good for himself and the community. In the end, it is just another game.
The game is the “science” of collectivism; i.e. what is important is not the individual but the collective. Whomever does not play the game by the rules is to be sacrificed. He/she is either ostracized, or murdered, if the rules of the collective are disobeyed. If the collective is challenged by a minority, the minority is sacrificed. The suicide, or murder of an individual is of no consequence except as it benefits or hurts the collective.
When a riot breaks out in Harlem, the “Invisible Man” expects “The Brotherhood” to be supportive of the plight of the poor and dispossessed but what he finds is that “The Brotherhood” is happy to see the destruction because it advances their collective objective; i.e. the destruction of the State and its replacement by “The Brotherhood”. They care nothing for the black community.
Ellison cogently reflects on his life to explain that the individual is of supreme importance; i.e., not the collective, not white culture, not black culture, but only the individual within the whole of humanity. Majority rule is as tyrannical as minority rule when it discounts individual freedom. Blacks playing the game by rules of white culture, or any collective, is as harmful to minorities as slavery. Choosing to become invisible is not a solution for discrimination but it is a symptom of the American apathetic and un-involved. Ellison suggests his “Invisible Man” is only in hibernation and will soon awaken to become an involved individual. One is skeptical of Ellison’s pronouncement. It is easier to be invisible.