Invisible Man and the Twenty-First Century Black Bildungsroman

Last summer, as I processed the news of the murder of George Floyd, I felt like I could keep it together. I was eighteen; the past decade saw numerous police killings that drew national attention. I had no illusions about any of this. Yet something felt different. 

It might have been the sheer barbarity, the life drained from an innocent person over the course of ten minutes. It might have been that it seemed like the White world experienced a short-lived moment of lucidity. Or it might have been that for the first time, I saw the event not through the lens of what it meant for my future, but that of my younger siblings

The news was too much to bear, but I couldn’t get the issue off my mind. In what is considered the most developed and tolerant country in the world, generations of Black children must grapple with the same search for identity as those that came before them. Why? I wanted answers, or at least a jumping-off point, but there were none to be found from the talking heads on cable news. 

I did find some in novels, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 book Invisible Man in particular. The story is set in the 1930s, and follows an unnamed Black man as he migrates from the Jim Crow South to the North, which he finds to be no better. Our narrator is boomeranged around the country with no concern for his well-being, with everyone using him for their own ends and dropping him when it suits them. His experiences cause a crisis of identity, one that leads him to conclude that, for all the racism he faces, he is, in effect, invisible.

“The end is in the beginning,” we are told. And indeed it is, as we are introduced to our narrator after he awakens to his invisibility, living in a basement in an abandoned building off the grid, his decision to retreat informed by the experiences that show his invisibility.

“You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.”

Despite living in a Southern society where he is a second-class citizen, the narrator aspires to overcome obstacles through humility, which he sees as “the very essence of progress.” This initial worldview revolves around the mistaken belief that success lies in acquiescence.

Even after the town’s important White men force him to fight in a battle royale against other Black children, the narrator delivers a graduation speech that quotes Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. The early narrator seeks to emulate Washington, who encouraged Black people to lift themselves up through individual improvement, rather than fighting for social equality or challenging White power structures. Washington’s message contrasted with Reconstruction-era views of radical change. 

“To those of my race who depend upon bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of cultivating friendly relations with the Southern white man, who is his next door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’” 

The narrator studies at a prestigious all-Black college but does not learn to see the world for what it is. His education means little, however, when it is derailed by a costly encounter with two archetypes of Black politics: the White liberal and Uncle Tom. The White liberal manifests as Mr. Norton, a White trustee who the narrator drives around. Mr. Norton sponsors the college because he believes that the narrator’s “people” are his destiny. His philanthropy is a parasitic paternalism that seeks to use the narrator for his own self-actualization. The narrator could be anyone sitting in front of him. 

The narrator draws Norton’s attention to Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who impregnated his own daughter. Norton is enraptured and horrified, becoming ill and causing the narrator to bring him to a salacious bar, the Golden Day, for whisky. Back at the college, Norton defends the narrator, but cannot protect him from the wrath of the college’s Black president, Bledsoe. Bledsoe privately expels the narrator and sends him north. 

It’s telling that Bledsoe is harsher on the narrator than Norton, who does not blame him for their bar trip. This indicates the nature of the racial caste system, whose burden lies greatest upon its lower orders. As the narrator explains, “the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all.”

The narrator misunderstands Bledsoe’s lesson. He comprehends the subservient attitude he must adopt, never questioning his place or challenging power structures, but does not get the active “invisible victim” role that is demanded of him. It is his job not only to obey White men, but also to steer them away from anything that would disrupt their worldview. 

It is only when the narrator attempts to find a job in New York that the depths of Bledsoe’s vindictive discipline are revealed. The narrator is sent to New York with papers from Bledsoe, which he is to give to some of Bledsoe’s contacts in order to secure a job. But as he finds out too late, Bledsoe has instructed his potential employers to ignore the narrator without revealing why. It is not enough for him to fail; he must suffer greatly for challenging the reality under which Norton operated as a White man. 

His aspirations dashed, the narrator takes a job at a paint factory but is badly injured. At the company hospital, he is experimented on and given shock treatment, with doctors testing their new electric lobotomy technology on him without consent or concern. Afterwards, he is discharged and dismissed from the company. 

The narrator’s life turns when he comes across a crowd angrily yelling at police evicting an old Black couple. The narrator incites the crowd to rush the officer and restore the couple, and the speech garners the attention of a local communist organization: the Brotherhood. Their leader, Brother Jack, recruits the narrator to help grow the organization in Harlem. 

The narrator originally succeeds, but finds himself resented by other members, who chastise him for overtly appealing to racial equality rather than sticking to the more historically based script. The Brotherhood sidelines the narrator, but he persists, and when his former colleague, Tod Clifton, is shot by a police officer, he delivers an impassioned eulogy that provides one last chance to galvanize Harlem.

But the Brotherhood is uninterested, seeing Clifton’s turn away from the organization as a reason to let the opportunity pass. Brother Jack scoffs at the narrator’s assertion that Clifton’s race was the sole reason for his death, accusing him of “riding ‘race.’” The narrator realizes the organization’s progressivism was a facade; its fixation on the class struggle and the inevitability of history render it unsympathetic to the immediate concerns of Black people in Harlem.

In the final chapters, the community’s anger over the shooting of the unarmed Clifton boils over, and the narrator finds himself in the middle of a race riot. He realizes the Brotherhood planned and encouraged the turmoil; they let the community suffer because it would produce useful propaganda. Thoroughly disillusioned and betrayed, the narrator’s warning in the Prologue echoes: “Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history. They are preparing a boomerang. Keep a steel helmet ready.” The narrator fled the Jim Crow South, and was met with simply a more insidious form of racism, even within leftist politics. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

And from there, the narrator chooses to plunge into the darkness, secluding in his hideout and recognizing his invisibility.

Through this narrative, Ralph Ellison expertly explores the dynamics of the racial scene of the twentieth century. But the work also perfectly encapsulates the unique situation of twenty-first-century Black Americans. 

Booker T. Washington is long gone, but in many ways, today’s Black Americans are just as influenced by his accommodationist, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. The revolutionary zeal of the Civil Rights Movement gave way to half measures of racial progress.

Indeed, half is often too large a fraction. Full integration, massive wealth distribution, and equal justice for all morphed into inefficient affirmative action, racial sensitivity training, and a perverse form of diversity that values tokenism in oppressive power structures over dismantling them.

Among them, we see a hundred Bledsoes, Democrats and Republicans alike, Black tokens who earn power not by breaking barriers, but by reinforcing them under the veneer of diversity. Daniel Cameron. Colin Powell. Lloyd Austin. Kamala Harris. The boot on the neck of Black and Brown people gets no less painful when the person wearing it looks like them. 

Bledsoe, like many Black leaders today, will never be anything more than a Black man in a White world, and the only way he can eke out an existence is by acquiescing. He cannot take this system down from the inside, for the system corrupts its components. His success must come at the expense of the narrator and other Black people. Bledsoe succedes not by overcoming or reforming prejudice, but by letting it shape him and his role, and by disciplining those who threaten its hegemony. Bledsoe is vilified in the novel; today, his ilk are unduly lionized for what their success means for this backward notion of progress. 

We have yet to see the fruits of the country’s supposed progress. The radical demands of the 1960s were in many ways closer to being achieved then than they are now. Northeastern would be lucky to get its Black enrollment a full percentage point above the abysmal 3.3 percent it lies at now, despite demands for it to reach 10 percent by 1971. In Boston, the average household wealth for a Black family is a mere $8 (compared to $247,500 for White households). And nationally, residential segregation has doomed school integration for decades.

The failure of feeble means to address racial inequity has caused many, even those ostensibly on the left, to question if the problem really is Blacks “listening to too much rap,” “blaming whitie for everything,” or being “welfare queens.” This sort of thinking, a reflexive impulse to blame social ills on a nebulously defined “Black culture,” has even infected those seen as former civil rights leaders. It was not Strom Thrumond but Jesse Jackson who said, “there is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps . . . then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

And as the shadow of Booker T. Washington hangs over the narrator, so too does that of Barack Obama for the current generation of Black youth. He was elected when I was seven years old, and I recall believing that his election symbolized the end of racism. As a child, I may be forgiven for such lunacy, but no such excuse can explain away the adoption of this narrative by America’s chattering classes and much of the public. Growing up under Obama was a mixed blessing. The benefits of seeing the most powerful man in the country look like us was tempered by the firestorm of op-eds declaring a post-racial America. 

Obama’s race may have been a source of hope for a civil rights movement with few recent victories, but it was often a self-imposed strain on his ability to use his position to advance the cause of Black Americans. Obama tiptoed around race, falsely believing it would stop things like the Affordable Care Act from being called “reparations.” He was prone to bouts of bootstraps theory, turning “Yes We Can” into a cudgel not unlike “cast down your bucket.” 

When he acknowledged race, Obama faced harsh backlash, as the narrator does when he slips up in his speech to the White Southerners and mentions the phrase “social equality.” Obama was forced to backtrack when he said that a cop who arrested Black professor Henry Louis Gates—who was entering his own home—acted stupidly, and was rebuked as playing the race card when he said “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon [Martin].”

The character of Norton exemplifies the White liberal, who Malcolm X once castigated as “hypocrites who use our people as political footballs only to get bills passed that will increase their own power.” Norton professes a love for the narrator’s “people,” but sees them as a proxy for his own fulfillment. Indeed, when the narrator happens across Norton by chance in the North, Norton does not recognize the man who was supposed to be his “destiny.” He’ll write a check to the college or proclaim his support for Negro advancement, but to really see the narrator is a step too far.

Likewise, Norton’s idealistic yet backwards view on race is held by many in America now who consider themselves to be liberal. Social progressives whose lawns might be adorned with signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” still support restrictive development and NIMBY policies that keep neighborhoods segregated. Many suburbanites don’t connect their views on justice to the zoning policies that dictate who lives where. The progressivism of aesthetics, not policy, is king.

And of course, no one demonstrates Malcolm X’s political opportunist more than President Joe Biden, who famously claimed that “if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Biden’s “gaffe” betrayed the Democratic Party’s general apathy for the Black community, taking its vote for granted in the face of a Republican Party actively mobilizing on White grievance.

Black voters saved Biden in the primaries against another candidate—Bernie Sanders—whose platform was far more in tune to their communities’ needs, and propelled him to the White House. But Biden has proved hostile to real change, as displayed in a December meeting where he yelled at civil rights leaders who challenged him on his backpedaling. Biden claimed to have been the only person to call out Trump as a racist after Charlottesville, and the subtext was clear: I said all the right things. But that’s all I was ever going to do.

And feelings of invisibility are taking hold in the Black electorate, which gave more votes to Donald Trump, a virulent racist who even Black conservatives acknowledge as such, than any other recent Republican candidate.

Yet the Black community has not received the best treatment from the left either; too often, it resembles what the narrator receives from the Brotherhood. Being some of the most economically downtrodden in the country, Black Americans have a deep history in leftist politics; Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis come to mind as just some Black socialists dedicated to fighting oppression in all its forms.

However, their needs are far too often dismissed as trite when compared to the class conflict, a frame of analysis known as class reductionism. In this warped worldview, proper Marxian analysis of material conditions means forgoing an analysis of race or gender. Class reductionists yearn to distinguish themselves from the liberals obsessed with “identity politics”—a term that, ironically, originates from the Combahee River Collective, an identity hodgepodge of Black, feminist, lesbian socialists—and develop a blindspot on race.

Ellison shows this mindset when Brother Jack admonishes the narrator for speaking in terms of race. In his final meeting with the Brotherhood, when the narrator explains that the crowd rallied behind Clifton’s death because he was Black, the other members dismiss this as “racist nonsense.” It is revealed that Jack is blind in one eye, as his fake one pops out. He looks at the world through distorted glass, seeing class but nothing else. In the end, the Brotherhood allies with the racist police and angry White people to punish Harlem for the perceived benefit of spreading their narrative.

By the time he wrote the novel, Ellison had left the Communist Party over what he perceived as its betrayal of Black Americans. Today there is no American leftist party large enough to mirror the Communist Party of Ellison’s time. But there has been a similar turning away from race issues in the small left-wing spheres that do exist, and a willingness to excuse racism from the far right. This is encapsulated in the persistent myth that voters were driven to Trump in 2016 not because of racism but because of “economic anxiety.” Trump’s voters were downtrodden proles, this fairytale holds, working-class people who voted for Trump because they were abandoned by smug, liberal elites. 

This narrative was pushed not only by left-wing figures, but also by the mainstream media. Though they had different agendas—pushing economic issues on the left vs. playing classic bothsidesism on the Beltway media—the message was the same. To see this tendency on the left was infuriating given their superior solutions to racial issues. For example, union membership tends to be more effective at reducing racial animus than liberal diversity training, a fact reflected in the growing social justice unionism movement.

Yet this cannot be the entire solution, as racism is a strong enough force to render useless the benefits of class solidarity. The narrator encounters this in his brief stint at the paint factory—whose entrance is bedecked with a sign proclaiming “KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS”—where he is greeted with suspicion by the union members. The union has pushed the only other Black employee out, and accuses the narrator of being an informant for the bosses. 

Indeed, left-wing fetishization of the White working class often seems to replicate White supremacy in tone. When we think of the working class, our mind often goes to a White, hard-hat factory worker rather than a mixed-race waitress. It is not that universal programs or unions are racist themselves—indeed, they are our best shot of kneecapping racism—but that special care must be taken to prevent racism from corrupting them, such as in the implementation of the New Deal.

The belief that the White working class is above racism reared its ugly head after the Capitol riot on January 6. Many leftist figures defended the rioters and chastised those who called them racist, often citing a Washington Post article that blamed the riot on the “financial troubles” of those involved. Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin, tweeted this:

Besides the absurdity of the article’s assertion that a woman like Jenna Ryan, who arrived at the Capitol on a private jet, was motivated by unpaid taxes, this analysis fundamentally misunderstood the rioters’ pathology. Unlike most extremists, a large portion of them were middle class or business owners, complicating the idea that they had a legitimate economic grievance. Indeed, the rhetoric of many rioters, who proclaimed that they were there to “take their country back,” lays bare the degree to which racism motivated them. Any discussion of “economic anxiety” must acknowledge that the force driving reactionaries to the candidates least likely to address material conditions is racism. 

The functional equivalent of the Capitol rioters in Invisible Man would not be the factory workers, but instead, the town elites who force the narrator into a battle royale in his youth. The most important people in the town gather to savagely egg on a brutal melee. The behavior of these “gentlemen” reveals their respectable daytime persona to be a facade, a crafted image that hides their inner barbarity.

Today’s racists, as those before them, come from all walks of life. They look like Nicolas Fuentes and Richard Spencer, White men from upper-middle-class households. They are prominent among the ranks of major political parties. Some were surprised to hear about how many elected Republican lawmakers were among the crowd of rioters. Perhaps if they had read Invisible Man, they wouldn’t be.

But by far the most compelling aspect of Ellison’s novel is its analysis of the psychology of oppression, the grating effects of living in a society where “you wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.” Ellison’s description may seem like it contradicts the notion of racial profiling, but alas, it is all too compatible. The invisibility to which the narrator refers is a form of unpersoning, an utter lack of willingness to recognize his humanity. 

The narrator’s cry when eulogizing his fallen Brother Clifton echoes painfully in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. The refrain of “His Name was Clifton” calls to mind “Say Her Name,” and other phrases I recall chanting in a crowd marching down Boulder Drive in my hometown. More than being a heartfelt declaration of anguish, the narrator’s speech cuts to the heart of the matter, the inhumanity that cost Clifton his life for resisting not arrest, but reality. For the narrator, Clifton serves as a jarring example of the brutal nature of invisibility, a reminder that anyone in the White world may break you or rule you out of history, and no court, no body of law will lift a finger to prevent it. 

“The story’s too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, he was unarmed and his death was as senseless as his life was futile.”

The sad truth of this country, one that was evident long before and will be long after those protests, is that not a damn thing has changed.

And in the face of this everlasting predicament, we find ourselves in the same place as the narrator at the end, underground in our own country, unseen. Yet despite this, we carry on, searching for paths forward in a country whose fabric is inextricably intertwined with our invisibility.

Despite the novel’s place in the canon of “Afro-pessimism,” the narrator also concludes, “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless.” Indeed, such perseverance is necessary even for those who maintain our invisibility, who refuse to recognize it, “even though death waits for both of us if you don’t.” Like the narrator, I believe in nothing if not in action. But whether or not the country is ready for such action remains to be seen.

“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?”

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