Since I first glanced at the words in print, I have been curious to know the general reaction to the phrase ‘post-racial America’ which cropped up around the time of Obama’s inauguration. In its essence, it describes an America free from racial discrimination and prejudice, where there is no longer a need to see or acknowledge race. It is, in many ways, an academic version of the term ‘colour-blindness’.
It is also a horrifically problematic term, as it assumes that the experience of a middle-class Black male is the exact same experience as a working-class Chinese-American female, which it is of course not.
Post-racialism has thankfully been criticised and deconstructed by racial theorists and writers since its conception, but I believe it is beneficial in these very circumstances to use it as an ideology to hold up against texts such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is here that the term crumbles, as Ellison’s work remains one of the most famous and ground-breaking texts on the Black experience to date, despite it being written almost fifty years before Obama’s presidency.
Still, it is a not a text everybody is familiar with. Sometimes I will talk about Invisible Man and for a solid ten minutes someone will think I’ve been meaning the HG Wells story. Sometimes I will talk about Invisible Man and people will tell me how much they have been meaning to read it, but it’s so big. Sometimes I will talk about Invisible Man and people will thank me for recommending it to them. Whenever I talk about Invisible Man, I find it is impossible to create an accurate summary in the limited time that I have of my emotional and intellectual reaction to this text. Where it sits on my bookshelf, I find my eyes are constantly drawn to its muted green spine in whose binding contains one of the most moving passages I have come across in my literary experience. What I mean to say, which yet again I have not managed to summarise succinctly, is that Invisible Man is both addictive and repulsive, incredible but real, beautiful yet horrifying, and a text I have found myself so deeply immersed and in awe of that I haven’t stopped talking about it since I put it down.
The origins of my relationship with this text come through my array with existentialist thought and literature, as well as my interest in the writers and artists of Black America in the 1950s. One of the most rewarding things about Invisible Man is that one is able to approach the text through a variety of lenses, as it is both an existentialist work, a racial work, and a Marxist work at the same time. The main character is unnamed which automatically highlights the tension between identity and language, and it is a technique seen in other African-American texts such as Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Surnames have often been a way of linking the black community to its roots in slavery, as historically, many slaves would take on a surname given to them by their slave owner. Some, like Malcolm X and the narrator of The Sellout, refashion themselves through the adoption of a new name as a rejection of this identity, whilst still embracing it as an important part of their black history and identity. However, the narrator of Invisible Man refuses even this – he has no name, rejecting the ‘white man’ language and resisting any attempt of categorisation and control in its basic linguistic form. The main character is anonymous, lending him freedom from both racial connotations but also, from a Foucauldian perspective, any kind of governance that an adoption of language would entail.
The narrator, at the opening of the novel, explains that in the eyes of society he is invisible. One recognises hints of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground in which the similarly unnamed narrator here explains his choice to live both physically and figuratively beneath society. Yet by the end of Invisible Man, we know not whether this invisibility was chosen or forced upon the narrator, because the narrator himself is not able to differentiate between the two. Because of his race, he is absurdly invisible to the white community around him. Although his allows him the freedom of performativity, to play with and adopt identity, it also takes away any sense of authenticity that he might have had, and that had already been stripped away through the historical erasure of black voices. Paradoxically, choosing not to be seen becomes the only way the narrator achieves agency in his existence, blurring the distinction between choice and control. The reader is left anxious and paralysed in the lack of resolution, arguably the only fitting way to end the novel that truly captures the absurdity of existence.
Ellison’s novel is one I did not expect to be addictive, but it was, in a morbid kind of way. The narration takes you from place to place, from elite colleges, to taverns, to the streets of New York City, and not one episode is untouched by Ellison’s uniquely intelligent prose. Through the novel there was a constant desperation to follow the narrator towards his next step, to his next revelation, to the next conflict. With each push forward, one hopes to find a resolution to the immense question posed by the opening of the novel, but both reader and narrator are left equally empty the more is learnt about the community within which he resides. It is a novel written to unsettle, in that things to not fit together as distinctly as one believes they should. Ellison tears down the notion that there is an overarching design to the life of his narrator, making the entirety of the novel an anxious exploration into the unknown, no matter how familiar one is with the context in which it was written.
Invisible Man draws on the power of the jazz age, the hipster movement, whilst simultaneously containing notes of Eliot’s modernist imagery seen throughout his poetry. Ellison’s novel feels like more than just that, it feels like something with the power to change the way we view race in both the contemporary era and in relation to its history – something which will never stop being an important topic of discussion.
Invisible Man is out now from Vintage