AlthoughRalph Ellison’s Invisible Man istraditionally understood as a story about a black man living in a white man’sworld, the relationship between the two races is much more complex. The Americathat Ellison writes so passionately about cannot be fully understood in thesimple terms of black and white, but also through the lens of white andnon-white. It is an America that has been exclusively shaped by white men andis one that leaves African Americans (and other minorities) such as our unnamednarrator somewhere on the fringe, unable to formulate an understanding of self.The novel presents a tale of race and personal discovery in the first half of the20th century United States. Its narrator is not explicitly given aname for he is meant to be archetypical of many black males of the time, wholargely navigated this period with a sense of disorientation as they fought tofind their place within a Caucasian-dominated world. For this reason, the titleInvisible Man is easy enough tocomprehend; Ellison argues that to be black in America is to be invisible,thanks to the prevalent white culture that surrounds it and refuses to see him.Ultimately, the narrator encounters obstacle after obstacle in his journey toshape an identity for himself in a world that expects him to be submissive inthe face of white men.
He finds that the prejudiced views of others impede the variouspaths he wishes to embark upon, that the racism he encounters is a hindrance topersonal expression and self-identity. The narrator is faced with a choice:either he may accept the nature of his invisibility, or he can embrace hisblackness and plot his own unique course through a white society. In the end heopts for the latter of the two choices, but his path to self-discovery ismarred with the racism that permeated American thought throughout much of the21st century. The narrator in Invisible Man is not the only literary character to struggle withthe nature of his racial identity.
In 1929, decades before Ellison began workon his novel, Wallace Thurman published TheBlacker the Berry. Its chief protagonist is a young black woman named EmmaLou Morgan who, like the anonymous narrator, is unable to find her place insociety due to the color of her skin. However, Emma Lou does not spend her daysdreaming about someday gaining acknowledgment within white society, but rather yearnsfor acceptance in the eyes of her fellow African Americans.
The principal impedimentshe faces is the perceived darkness of her skin, which she believes separatesher from the rest of her racial group. The decades-old debate of light skinversus dark skin has a different name today: colorism. This type of bias is acommon issue, particularly in the African American female community. Althoughmany darker skinned black women are confident in their appearances and oftencelebrate their complexion, they still admit they walk a different path in lifethan that of the lighter-skinned population. Because of the darker shade of herskin, Emma Lou spends the majority of the novel exploring California then thestreets of Harlem in search of acceptance. Her identity is constructed solelyaround her apparent blackness and perceived inferiority to others. Theformation of a clear self-awareness is central to healthy growth, andespecially imperative for individuals who face discrimination and racism.
Throughouteach of their journeys, the unnamed narrator and Emma Lou have no choice but tomold their lives in a racist society, and in both cases it is evident thatracism is the most noteworthy obstacle to personal identity. To begin with, the black Americathat Ellison depicts in his novel is one that is made invisible by the prevailing,white culture. This notion is introduced early in the first chapter at thebattle royal, and Ellison’s conception of race can be partly understood throughthe events that take place there. A supposed twenty years before the prologuewas written and immediately following his successful graduation oration onhumility, the narrator explains that he was invited to give a speech for agroup of respected white men in his town. Although he initially imagined theaffair would be a “triumph for our whole black community,” it was soonrevealed that the white spectators in the audience had a very different eventplanned (Ellison 17). The narrator was only one of several young black meninvited to the gathering; each were blindfolded upon arrival, subject to terrorization,and forced to fight the others solely for the entertainment of the audience.
After a number of arduous minutes, only the narrator and another man namedTatlock, the “biggest of the gang,” were left in the ring. Meanwhile, as thewhite men placed bets on who would emerge victorious, the narrator wondered ifhe should give up or continue fighting. The decision is made for him, as he isknocked to the ground in a deafening blow. Following the battle royal, the young menwere forced to scramble for fake gold coins on an electrified rug: “Laughing infear and embarrassment, some were holding back and scooping up the coinsknocked off by the painful contortions of the others.
The men roared above usas we struggled,” he explained (Ellison 27). At the end of the chapter, it isrevealed the coins are nothing more than worthless brass tokens, advertisingsome obscure brand of automobile. Although the narrator is given a scholarshipto the state college for Negroes from the superintendent spectator, he dreamsthat the briefcase in which it was enclosed actually contained a letter thatread: “Keep This Ni***r-Boy Running.” This grueling scene was meant tosymbolize the way in which Ellison believes society is structured. For him, andundoubtedly many others, society is controlled by an assortment of dominant,influential white men who deny African Americans the ability to realize theirown identities while encouraging them to fight amongst themselves. In a similarvein, the horrific display of oppression and appalling money grabbing hedescribes also provides commentary on the so-called American dream. For generations,citizens have believed the United States to be a country filled withopportunity, a place in which a person can begin life with nothing and concludewith an amassed wealth and successful career if he or she invests continuous,hard work. What this theoretical view fails to consider, however, is thatsociety has always placed inherent restrictions on minorities – such asslavery, inadequate education opportunities, equal protection under the law,and so forth – that make it extremely difficult and often impossible for themto realize this dream and their true potential.
In Invisible Man, the chief constraint on personal identity is racism,which significantly disadvantages the narrator by forcing him to work muchharder (often to no avail) than the more advantageous white men for aneducation and a future. Thus, disenfranchised groups are habitually unable toattain this “American dream” and are prevented from conceptualizing theiridentities.Moreover, as a black man living in awhite man’s world, Ellison’s narrator experiences a variety of racismthroughout his journey from Liberty Paints to the Brotherhood. At the former ofthese two groups, he learns that undermining the African American community is aneffective way to guarantee white dominance in America and that society isstructured in such a way that being black is to be intrinsically inferior. Tothe detriment of the narrator, this realization affects him both mentally andphysically.
A few years after receiving his scholarship, he is expelled fromschool for taking a white trustee of the university to a predominantly blacktavern and failing to show him a better depiction of African American life. Heis then cast away to Harlem, where he finds a job at the Liberty Paints plant. Theirsignature color is deemed “Optic White” and Lucius Brockway explains that themain function of this paint is to hide blackness: “Our white is so white youcan paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledgehammer toprove it wasn’t white clear through!” (Ellison 217). This quote demonstratesthe metaphorical nature of the paint factory; Ellison’s descriptions of both therelations between the black and white plant workers and the paint itself aremeant to symbolize the racial conflict that plagues America.
Just as the whitepaint conceals blackness, white society attempts to obscure and oppress blackidentity. This prejudiced power structure forces African American men and womento acclimate to white culture, to disguise their true selves in order to gainsocietal acceptance. In doing so, they discard their own identities and becomeinvisible. Even the company’s slogan invokes this feeling of subservience: “IfIt’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.” The narrator understands this to meansomething else and says, “If you’re white, you’re right,” (Ellison 218).At the beginning of this novel, thenarrator describes himself as an invisible man not because of some “biochemicalaccident to my epidermis,” but rather because “people refuse to see me,”(Ellison 3).
He is also physically unseen as he lives underground and hidesfrom the world, as a result of the aforesaid racism he encountered as well as avariety of other unfortunate events related – directly or indirectly – to thecolor of his skin. Although he concedes that this invisibility sometimes hasadvantages, it is most often damaging and wears down on his nerves. Hisreclusive solitary confinement can be interpreted as a way of dealing with his apparentrejection from the outside world.
InvisibleMan was published in 1952 and one of the primary goals of its author was toilluminate the insidious effects that racism has on the mental health ofAfrican Americans. In 2017, a mounting body of research suggests that instancesof racial discrimination can have an adverse and long lasting impact on thepsyches of black Americans (Sellers et. al). In a psychological study at theUniversity of Michigan, researchers predictably found that “racial hassles,”not unlike the ones encountered by the narrator, tend to make life much morestressful for African Americans. As a result, this stress leads to increasedlevels of anxiety, depression and other forms of psychological distress, whichmay cripple an individual’s capacity to formulate an identity. On the otherhand, they contend that “having race as a central identity is protective forAfrican Americans in the face of racist hassles” because doing so allows forstronger ties between members of the same racial group while providing for aneffective defense against instances of racial discrimination (Sellers et.
al).These findings are significant because they suggest the resiliency of AfricanAmericans; although experiencing racism can have a damaging impact on shaping identity,celebrating one’s own race as opposed to suppressing it may curb some of theseharmful effects. The narrator reaches a similar conclusion at the conclusion ofthe book when he decides to embrace his unique identity and reaffirm hisresponsibility to his community rather than hide underground. “I’m shaking offthe old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole…Perhaps that’s my greatestsocial crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility thateven an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play,” (Ellison 581).Previously, the narrator believed that the 1,369 light bulbs of his basementhole were the only things allowing him to feel visible. By the end of the novelhe emerged out of the light to seek illumination elsewhere, as a visible manwith a strengthened understanding of his multifaceted identity.
While the experiences of the narrator aretold through the lens of existing as an outcast in a white man’s world, The Blacker the Berry presents Emma LouMorgan as an outsider in her own black community. The two stories are analogousdue to the fact that each protagonist’s understanding of the world is at leastpartly shaped by negative stereotypes about the color of their skin. For EmmaLou, her luscious, deep black complexion is nothing more than a tragic curseand a foundation for ridicule amongst her family members and acquaintances. Thisunfavorable conception of blackness forms the very basis of her identity.
Froman early age she was taught that black skin, compared to that of mulattoes andothers with lighter black skin, is undesirable. In many ways, Emma Lou’sgrandmother regrets her birth and sees her dark skin as the physicalmanifestation of the failed relationship between her mother, Jane, and herfather, whom they refer to as “old black Jim Morgan.” Whenever her father isbrought up in familial discussions, he is remembered for leaving his wifeshortly after his daughter’s birth and deemed a “dirty black no-gooder,” andEmma Lou feels as though his mere skin color ordained him to receive no respectfrom others (Thurman 4). Meanwhile, she imagines a similar fate for herself as herlighter skinned mother and grandmother continue to instill feelings ofinferiority in the young and vulnerable Emma Lou by telling her she will neverfind a worthy husband. “Oh, if you had only been a boy!” her mother frequentlyexclaimed. Seemingly, there was no place in society for a girl as dark as she,but if she had been born a boy the shade of her skin would matter less.
The variation of racism Emma Louencounters throughout Wallace Thurman’s novel differs from the overt form thenarrator in Invisible Manexperiences. It has a name of its own, colorism, and its hierarchy dictatesthat light skin is valued over dark skin. What is referred to as traditionalracism emphasizes ancestry and restricts people to a specific racial category,while colorism furthers division by placing people on a spectrum ranging fromdark to light (Harris 61). It is markedly dangerous for its intraracial nature;in other words, perpetrators of colorism often come from within one’s ownracial group. Thus, Emma Lou is fighting a dual battle as she navigates asociety dominated by whites as well as a black community that seems to rejecther for the color of her skin too. Yet like the narrator, she too is invisible.
Her white and mulatto classmates largely refuse to associate with her out ofthis superficial color difference and she believes she is unseen by “the rightsort of people” in the black community. Early in the novel she becomes obsessedwith gaining the acquaintance of these individuals, and yet if someone hadasked her what she meant by “the right sort of people” she would have beenunable to give a comprehensive answer (Thurman 30). The audience is left toassume she was likely referring to lighter skinned individuals, or thosehailing from a higher social class than she. At the encouragement of her UncleJoe, she departs her unaccepting Idaho town in search of acceptance at theUniversity of Southern California. Amongst the first people she meets here is ayoung woman named Hazel Mason and although she is kind and comes from a wealthyfamily, Emma Lou resented “being approached by anyone so flagrantly inferior,any one so noticeably a southern darky, who had no business obtruding into themore refined scheme of things,” (Thurman 16-17). She is an imperfectprotagonist, for she is often guilty of disseminating colorism despite being avictim of it herself.The beginning of Emma Lou’s time at the universityis characterized by feelings of confusion in her new surroundings, adapting tonew academic expectations, and striving for social acceptance amongst the “superiorand intelligent” African American women (Scott). Although she faces an assortmentof awkward encounters and dismissal by her peers, she remains hopeful: “Shewould show all of them that a dark-skin girl could go as far in life as afair-skin one, and that she could have as much opportunity and as muchhappiness,” (Thurman 25).
Unfortunately, her freshman year of college leavesher feeling discouraged and depressed. She returns to Boise, Idaho for summervacation without a firm grasp of who she is, but holds steadfastly to thebelief that befriending the right sort of people will pave the way for personalgrowth. Throughout the novel, Emma Lou bases her identity around the acceptanceof others and when she encounters rejection her confidence and self-worth takemassive hits. After entering a summer romance with a man named Weldon Taylor,she feels for the first time as though someone truly cares for her and prematurelycommits to the idea of marrying him. Taylor, however, eventually leaves town topursue work elsewhere and Emma Lou mistakenly assumes he left because of thedarkness of her skin: “It never occurred to her that the matter of color hadnever once entered the mind of Weldon. Not once did she consider that he wasacting toward her as he would have acted toward any girl under similarcircumstances, whether her face had been white, yellow, brown, or black,”(Thurman 37).The true tragedy of Emma Lou Morgan’slife is not the tone of her skin, but rather the colorism she faces in herearly life and resulting inability to formulate a true identity.
It is nosecret that African Americans with lighter complexions have historically andcontemporarily been favored over those with darker skin, and Emma Lou was madepainfully aware of this at an early age. Her story is representative of many AfricanAmerican women who for centuries have found themselves defined by the shade oftheir skin. Sociological research suggests that African American women withlighter skin tones encounter fewer societal barriers, develop higher levels ofself-esteem, and achieve greater social status (Mathews et. al). Comparatively,women with darker features enjoy less advantages and opportunities and may beprone to holding lower levels of self-esteem. Make no mistake, colorism issimply another manifestation of racism and its pervasive effects date back tothe era of slavery. Slaves who possessed lighter complexions were frequentlygranted the distinct “privilege” of serving inside the house rather than in thefields as did the darker skinned slaves.
Additionally, mixed race slaves andthose with lighter skin tones were frequently sold for higher prices at slaveauctions, further solidifying the notion that light skin was a more prizedasset (Mathews et. al). After the abolishment of slavery, these inescapablesentiments persisted over decades and permeate society today. Thoughit was originally published in 1929, TheBlacker the Berry is still a relevant text depicting the plight of AfricanAmerican women.
Young, impressionable black girls in the 21stcentury are still inundated with ideas about lighter skin being more desirable;one need only examine hip-hop music videos and contemporary cinematic filmsthat seem to solely feature light-skinned women to the exclusion of those whoare darker complexioned. Studies have shown that these pop culture depictionsmay have a negative effect on the development of their identities, as childrenbegin to categorize individuals based on skin color as early as age six(Thomas). From a developmental perspective, it is equally important to takenote of gender and how it relates to academic and social maturity. In 2008, theAmerican Psychological Association found that African American girls are morelikely than their male counterparts to experience complex discrimination, suchas colorism, in a school setting. Their study concluded that the presence of “astrong identity may serve to generally diminish discrimination effects” whilethe absence of one may exacerbate such effects (Chavous et.
al). With respectto Emma Lou, her lack of a solidified personal identity rendered her vulnerableand highly sensitive toward matters pertaining to skin color. It was not untilshe realized that she was partly responsible for her unhappiness that shebreaks away from Alva and her own self-destructive behavior. “It was clear toher now what a complete fool she had been,” writes Thurman. “What she needed todo now was to accept her black skin as being real and unchangeable, to realizethat certain things were, had been, and would be, and with this in mind beginlife anew, always fighting, not so much for acceptance by other people, but foracceptance of herself by herself,” (144).
Upon this recognition, Emma Loubreaks free from the chains of colorism. In summary, both the unnamed narrator in Invisible Man and Emma Lou Morgangrapple with the harsh realities of overcoming a society that values white skinover black. In each instance, racism was the chief obstacle in their quests to conceptualizetheir personal identities and they are only successful in doing so once theyaccept who they are. Despite the fact that these stories were told during theliterary period of the Harlem Renaissance, the issues within them are stillrelevant today. Ellison and Thurman recognize the uniqueness and beauty ofblack identity and encourage their readers to do the same, all while poeticallyand symbolically describing the difficulties one may encounter along the way. Theauthors’ dichotomies of whiteness versus non-whiteness and blackness versusdarker blackness, respectively, encompass what W.E.
B. DuBois deemed “theproblem of the color line.” This color line, reinforced over years of racialinequality and feelings of inferiority amongst African Americans, pits lighterskin colors against darker ones and has destructive consequences on formulatingone’s identity (Harris). Racism and colorism are undeniably cruel barriers topersonal growth, yes, but the aforementioned protagonists prove that they canbe overcome. As we move through the 21st century confronted with notone, but many color lines, it is essential we condemn all forms ofdiscrimination in the present rather than simply cling to the hope that it willsomeday be eradicated.
Perhaps the solution to racism rests in the hands offuture educators, who would be wise to teach their pupils about the value thatresides in each of them.