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Ralph Ellison

The Invisible Man (1952)

These notes should be read as suggestions for further reading, thinking, listening and viewing.  They are not presented as a model essay but as instigations to further research!

Introduction: double consciousness / double bind 

I want to start by suggesting that there are two main trends in male Blackamerican writing, which is often seen as polarised between the

  • Polemical / political and the
  • Aesthetic / experimental.

And these are characterized as the schools of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

The debates around the American Literary Canon in the 1980s has arguably transformed the standing and literary reputations of a number of major African American authors.  But recognition in the mainstream was hard won. In his editor’s introduction to the Autumn 1985 issue of Critical Inquiry, the blackamerican critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. quoted the mainstream white critic W. Jackson Bate, in an article "The Crisis in English Studies." Bate bemoaned the "helpless disarray" of the literary profession, and pointed to the professional organization of American literature teachers, the Modern Language Association:


A glance at its thick program for its last meeting shows a massive increase and fragmentation into more than 5000 categories! I cite a few examples […] "The Trickster Figure in Chicano and Black Literature" […] Naturally the progressive trivialization of topics has made these meetings a laughing stock in the national press." 


Gates commented that black criticism had thus been derided and regarded as a way of downgrading the literary profession. And he indicated the problematic question of the places of texts in the literary canon, written by the "Other." That "Other" was everyone non- white/male/European-American. He listed African, Arabic, Chinese, Latino, Yiddish, women authors … one could go on. (Japanese-, Korean-, Filipino-, South-Asian-, etc.) the crucial point was that the serious study of Blackamerican writers (along with Chicano, Yiddish, Chinese, etc.) had blown apart the tidy, non-fragmented categories of "literature," and had politicized and polarized literary criticism in ways which changed it dramatically. The American right still bemoans the changes that have occurred. In an essay which I have included in a collection of essays on Ezra Pound and Poetic Influence, a right-wing critic, William McNaughton, quotes Newt Gingrich approvingly: 


American life and, indeed, the future of the nation itself are being undermined by neglect of, and contempt for, basic American values, intelligence and wisdom, in favor of the pursuit of "exotic perversion"; and, furthermore, the institutions which should be helping the nation resist such an undermining — especially institutions of higher learning — have become part of the problem.

The "men of 1994" observe, aghast, that Yale University a couple of years ago had to return $20 million to would-be donor Lee Bass "because the university could not get the faculty to agree to teach Western Civilization." The "men of 1994" look with horror at a report that on Thomas Jefferson's two hundred and fiftieth birthday, at the meetings of the Organization of American Historians, not a single mention was made of Jefferson's life while there were seminars on radical history, labor history, gay and lesbian history, and multicultural history. (The horror does not come from the wish to "marginalize" or to hurt the feelings of radicals, laborers, gays, lesbians, or products of other cultures: the horror comes from the use of the subjects mentioned to push Jefferson right out of the curriculum: "our children are being cheated," the reporter — himself an historian — says Newt Gingrich, in To Renew America. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. 


Interestingly McNaughton was very coy about referring to Gingrich, and wanted to do so anonymously using the soubriquet, "The Men of 1994" throughout his article. I took the decision to de-anonymize his references both to Gingrich and to Dick Armey (another right-wing politician and commentator) and let his argument stand up to intelligent scrutiny. I personally find the rhetoric of the right obnoxious, but I still believe in freedom of speech and open debate, which is why I included McNaughton in my collection of essays. Also it serves as a reminder that literary production and literary criticism is continues to be politicized and polarized. Now, we face renewed instances of racist attacks on an African-American president; see for example Patricia Williams' review of a recent biography of Barack Obama. African-American authors have earned recognition, and arguably with the publication of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, they have gained their place in a broader canon. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature was a cultural event, rather than just an academic publication, and yet the principle of "different but equal" still has to fight a rearguard action as it were. (I strongly recommend that you struggle with the format of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature— not a pleasant reading experience in itself — since the content is an excellent introduction to this part of the literary canon.)

The point of this is that Blackamerican authors have written in a strongly dialectical, often oppositional relationship to the literary tradition, which has excluded / marginalized / silenced / judged their literary production. As Gates said, "Ironically, Anglo-African writing arose as a response to allegations of its absence." To put it another way, Franklin & Moss comment:

 [T]he writers of the Harlem Renaissance were not so much revolting against the system as they were protesting the unjust operation of the system. (363)

 The Harlem Renaissance began around 1921, and in 1925 Alain Locke wrote this in The New Negro:


So for generations in the mind of America, the Negro has been more of a formula than a human being […] The thinking Negro even has been induced to see him self in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.


This rhymes with the famous passage from Du Bois’ the Souls of Black Folk:


The Negro is a sort of seventh son born with a veil and gifted with second sight in this American world — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconcilable strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (qv. Bradbury & Temperley, 159).


Or moving forward to a text first published in 1952, entitled Peau Noir, Masques Blancs,we receive confirmation that things hadn’t changed greatly as regards black consciousness over half a century:

 The black man has two dimensions. One with his fellows, the other with the white man. A Negro behaves differently with a white man and with another Negro. That this self-division is a direct result of colonial subjugation is beyond question … No one would dream of doubting that its major artery is fed from the heart of those various theories that have tried to prove that the Negro is a stage in the slow evolution of monkey into man. Here is objective evidence that expresses reality. […]


To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization. […] the Negro […] will be proportionately whiter – that is, he will come closer to being a real human being – in direct ratio to his mastery of the [Anglo-American] language. […]


Every colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality – finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle. (Fanon 1970, 13-14) 


 Fanon was actually talking about the colonial situation for the Negro of the Antilles in relation to French language and culture; but his analysis had a wider application, as the translation of his text into English in 1968 demonstrated.


To bring this back to a specifically American context, and to quote Henry Louis Gates again; this time in The Signifying Monkey, it becomes clear that the "double consciousness" of black folk, or the anguished split identity implicit in the phrase "black skin – white masks," revolves around the issue of the colonized or enslaved peoples relation to the master’s language. In order to prove his humanity the black man has to prove himself master of the master’s language; in so doing he deracinates himself from his sense of authentic cultural identity. This is a double bind that takes on the complexity of the gordian knot. As Gates says:


 To become subjects, as it were, black ex-slaves had to demonstrate their language-using capacity before they could become social and historical entities. […] the correlation of freedom with literacy not only became the central trope of the slave narratives, but it also formed a mythical matrix out of which subsequent black narrative forms developed. (Gates 1984, 105 & 108)


I’d just say at this point, that the problem is that if you learn to speak the master’s or the dominant language you end up colluding with the opinion that your own originatory culture is inferior and despicable; if you refuse to speak the dominant language you might have difficulty being seen and heard. This is complicated by the fact that these issues were internalized in the black consciousness, (until Nation of Islam, Black Panther movement, etc.) just as submissiveness and the desire to please were internalized in female consciousness until the consciousness-raising methodology of second-wave feminism interrogated and deconstructed that ideological and psychological complex. However, I think one of the reasons why Ellison opts for an "aesthetic / experimental" prose style is that mastery of the master’s language in its own terms is not enough, the language has to be possessed in terms of African-American culture as well, if a way forward and out of the double-consciousness is going to be plotted.

Wright versus Ellison

Arguably, there are two central trends in African-American writing, initiated by two key writers. It’s crude to label them "protest naturalist" and "experimental confessional," but broadly that’s how they’ve been taken. The "protest" school follows Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son; the "experimental" is dominated by Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). But both writers share an experimental narrative form and subject matter; both owe allegiance to earlier American and European writing; and both are concerned as much with the black psyche as with black action and experience.

Native Sonby Richard Wright (1908-1960) is the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black Chicagoan who comes from a rat-infested slum (the first incident in the book is a horrific description of a rat-killing in the apartment, 42-5). He gets a job with a wealthy white family, in panic kills the daughter of the family, Mary Dalton, then flees and is hunted down by the Chicago police (after also killing his girlfriend Bessie). He’s tried, and despite his radical lawyer’s best attempts, he is to be executed.

The novel’s plot is innovative: instead of a pitiable black victim, a man unjustly accused of a crime, Bigger is indeed a violent rapist and murderer, both of white and black women, and he is shown to have been depraved and made violent by a white-dominated society. At the end, before his execution, he feels no remorse: "They wouldn’t let me live and I killed […] I didn’t want to kill! […] But what I killed for, I am! It must have been pretty deep in me to make me kill! […] I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em […]" (461). (Cf. Camus, L’Étranger, 1942, which is a French Colonial text). So the novel, with its existential triumphant ending, is both a politically powerful proletarian tract (a radical work refuting the class discipline of the Communist Party, which Wright joined, but which was horrified by Native Son), and also a study of violent racial pathology. His prefatory essay, written after the novel’s publication indicates how Wright saw his particular contribution to American tragic literature: 

 I feel that I’m lucky to write novels today, when the whole world is caught up in the pangs of war and change. Early American writers, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene. But I think if they were alive, they’d feel at home in modern America. True, we have no great church in America; our national traditions are still of such a sort that we are not wont to brag about them; and we have no army that’s above the level of mercenary fighters; we have no group acceptable to the whole of our country upholding certain humane values; we have no rich symbols, no colorful rituals. We have only a money-grubbing, industrial civilization. But we do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger of even a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him. New York, 7 March 1940. (38-39)


Note that the first two sentences of Invisible Man also constitute a rejoinder to Poe.

Perhaps even more powerful than Native Sonis Wright’s novella, contained in the Black Voices collection as well as The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, "The Man Who Lived Underground." This is a piece which draws on Dostoevski and which Ellison acknowledged as an influence on Invisible Man. Wright’s great power was both to demonstrate the psychic, social and political damage done to the black race by white society, and also to delineate the living hell, the nightmarish, shadowy, phantasmagorical world in which those with little to lose must live — and the consequences of that for hegemonic white bourgeois society. His influence was profound: on Ellison; and on a school of black "protest" writing, in tough urban settings, depicting the oppressive dehumanization of poor blacks in the cities, written in a new stripped-down realist prose through a politics of anger and opposition. (E.g. novels of Chester Himes.)

Black writing and music


It’s crucial to emphasise the importance of Black music, and to see it both as a major element in black writing, and as a highly successful cultural form. (Is this a problem, that we know black music — blues, jazz, rap, etc., but don’ t know black literary tradition as well?) James Baldwin wrote:


 It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in American has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear. As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference. "Many Thousands Gone: Notes of a Native Son," 1964 (first published Partisan Review, November-December, 1951).


In 1964 LeRoi Jones (Amiri Imamu Baraku) claimed:


 Jazz made it possible for the first time for something of the legitimate feeling of Afro-American music to be imitated successfully. Or rather, jazz enabled separate and valid emotional expressions to be made that were based on older traditions of Afro-American music that were clearly not a part of it. The Negro middle class would not have a music if it were not for jazz. The white man would have no access to blues. It was a music capable of reflecting not only the Negro and a black America but a white America as well.  (Blues People: the Negro Experience in White America and the Music that Developed from It, 1964, 148-49.)


Compare: Louis Armstrong, "Black & Blue" (originally by Fats Waller) full text of lyrics in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature with

Invisible Man pp. 10-11.


"Now You Has Jazz Sequence" from the movie:

 Charles Walters dir. High Society, (MGM, 1956)

Bing Crosby (C.K. Dexter-Haven), Grace Kelly (Tracy Lord), Frank Sinatra (Mike Connor), John Lund (George Kittredge), Louis Armstrong (himself).

 Cole Porter (Music & Lyrics)

 Grace Kelly in her last film before marrying Prince Ranier of Monaco:


The leads are all too laconic for the movie’s own good. Crosby is far too old for his role – he looks like a piece of walking beef jerky. Sinatra comes off more like a gate-crashing taxi-driver than a reporter. He can’t muster the energy to get past his own phony "hip" persona. And Kelly seems preoccupied by another wedding, or perhaps wallpaper choices for the palace. Still, there are a few diverting moments seeing Bing work out with Frank and the ever-welcome Satchmo. (Virgin Film Guide entry)




The scene at the party, where Bing introduces Satchmo and jazz, encapsulates position of Blackamerican in his society; and entertaining performer. Shows way can integrate without achieving true equality.  

Throughout the novel Armstrong and other blues and jazz singers and instrumentalists recur, creating a texture of feeling with all the resonances of "black and blue" (violence, sadness, invisibility, woundedness, negation, etc.). Ellison has written that the blues is "an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically," and he has also written (in his review of LeRoi Jones, Blues People) that:

The blues speak to us simultaneously of the tragic and the comic aspects of the human condition and they express a profound sense of life shared by many Negro Americans precisely because their lives have combined these modes.


The relationship of the black prose writer with African and Afro-American music makes a crucial difference to black literary production. This has been theorized by both Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Henry Louis (Skip to his friends) Gates, Jr.

 Signifying / Signifyin’

See Gates 1988, pp. 48, 49, 78, 87; 64-5, 84.


Gates says that much black writing "signifies" in playful and parodic ways, which gives denseness to the work, and he calls Ellison "our Great Signifier, naming things by indirection and troping throughout his works.":


Ellison in his fictions signifies upon Wright by parodying Wright’s literary structures through repetition and difference. The complexities of the parodying I can readily suggest. The play of language, the signifying, starts with the titles: Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy, titles connoting race, self and presence. Ellison tropes with Invisible Man, invisibility an ironic response, of absence, to the would-be presence of "blacks" and "natives", while "man" suggests a more mature and stronger status than either "son" or "boy". Wright’s distinctive version of naturalism Ellison signifies upon with a complex rendering of modernism; Wright’s reacting protagonist, voiceless to the last, Ellison signifies upon with a nameless protagonist. Ellison’s protagonist is nothing but voice, since it is he who shapes, edits and narrates his own tale, thereby combining action with the representation of action to define "reality" by its representation. This unity of presence and representation is perhaps Ellison’s most subtle reversal of Wright’s theory of the novel as exemplified in Native Son. Bigger’s voicelessness and powerlessness to act (as opposed to react) signify an absence, despite the metaphor of presence found in the novel’s title; the reverse obtains in Invisible Man, where the absence implied by invisibility is undermined by the presence of the narrator as the narrator of his own text. (293-94)

So we can describe Invisible Man as highly dense, reflexive and sophisticated, carrying many different voices and discourse, subverting and playing with them. This includes the self-conscious revision of and signifying upon:


  • Brer Bear & Brer Rabbit
  • Dante, Inferno
  • Dostoevski, Notes from Underground
  • Dickens
  • T.S.Eliot, the Family Reunion (1939)
  • William Faulkner
  • Joyce, Portrait of the Artist
  • Kafka
  • Melville,Benito Cereno, Confidence-Man, Moby-Dick
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Frederick Douglass’ slave narrative
  • W.E.B. DuBois, the Souls of Black Folk, 1903
  • Marcus Garvey
  • Jean Toomer, Cane
  • Booker T Washington
  • Richard Wright, Black Boy, Native Son, "The Man Who Lived Underground".

A close examination of how the text plays with these references, would demonstrate Gates’ argument that Ellison’s text exemplifies a common process in Afro-American literary history; namely, "tertiary formal revision," i.e. an author revises at least two antecedent texts, often from different generations or periods. They do this, reading and critiquing other black texts as an "act of rhetorical self-definition," creating "relationships of signifying," (290). The Signifiying Monkey is a common figure in African folk-lore, in slave tales, and is a trickster, who speaks figuratively, is never literal and can convey ambiguous meanings in each speech act. He is also a liminal character, living on the boundary of the community. As such he can subvert its laws and social organization, although often this is in order to reinforce in the hearer’s or reader’s mind the reason why social and moral laws are necessary for cultural and political stability and cohesion.

The Invisible Man is an unwitting trickster figure, whose mistakes reveal the cracks and divisions in society that people try to "turn a blind eye" to. He is Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit. As James Baldwin puts it:

The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that. He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle. One may say that the Negro in American does not really exist except in the darkness of our minds. (18)


 That’s why Invisible Man is such a disturbing novel, and one which takes all that sense of Afro-American invisibility, or loss of identity, and terror of being obliterated and finally silenced and turns it brilliantly onto the reader. In his last words, the "invisible man" underground points to the power of the Afro-American voice, not simply to speak for itself but to deconstruct notions of otherness and racial categorization, of race as sign:


Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? (468-69)

 Note the language of speech, not writing; music rather than published text: rhyming of "what else could I do?" and "when your eyes were looking through?" One is sure to hear an echo of popular music lyrics in these phrases. And note also, that fifty years on, Toni Morrison in Jazz, signifies on the ending in her own ending to that 1992 novel.




After 'Prologue' Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Jeff Wall, a Vancouver-based artist who specializes in cinematographic photography, imaginatively captures the invisible man's high wattage, underground apartment in this 1999-2000 photograph.






Ralph Ellison fact sheet