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Invisible Black bodies in White society


In the novel, The Invisible Man, written by Ralph Ellison in 1952, the main character is invisible to a society that refuses to see him. Much like the Shambleau alien in Moore’s story, this fictional society does not like the idea of the “Invisible Man” inhabiting within the Euro-American society. One thing to make clear: “Shambleau” was published in Weird Tales and was automatically categorized as Science Fiction, but Ellison’s novel often is not, despite having the same title as an H.G. Wells Science Fiction novel. The narrator of the Ellison’s story is never given a name, but the readers are given enough information to conclude that the “Invisible Man”, is in fact an African American man. This invisible man cannot come to terms as to why society is unable to see him, to the point that he aches to convince himself that he does exist in the real world and that he is part of all the sound and anguish, and that no matter how loudly he screams no one will hear him, since being invisible and without substance will render a human to have a disembodied voice (Ellison 4 & 581). This invisible man is at a constant struggle of how he sees himself and how white society sees him, or lack thereof.

In one passage Ellison writes that the invisible man is “constantly being bumped by those of poor vision, or you are simply a phantom in other people’s minds” (4). This introductory passage to the novel, establishes the hopelessness that the main character feels and how easily this fictional society can look through a person that they would rather see as “invisible”. However, throughout the novel the character gains confidence and finds ways to force society to see him. Rather than be defeated, the main character fights on to find his own way to survive in a harsh dystopia. While never using his skin color as the reason why society cannot see him, the invisible man seeks to find a way to belong.

By Ellison never giving the protagonist in this novel a name, the protagonist is exemplifying the invisibility that many African American’s felt in the 1950’s, making the story more relatable. Ellison’s protagonist throughout the novel, “is looking for the possibility of a black future that, in the 1930s of the novel, he cannot find”, such has education, employment, and a stable sense of security (Yaszek, An Afrofuturist Reading, 304). The protagonist is an African American man who is admitted to an all African American college, later to be kicked out of the prestigious institution, travels to Harlem and comes face-to -face with the harsh realities of white society in the “big city”. While attending college, the invisible man describes himself and his classmates with, “our uniforms pressed, shoes shined, minds laced up, eyes blind like those of robots to visitors and officials on the low, whitewashed reviewing stand” (Ellison 36). The “robots” could potentially represent the African Americans who were willing to perpetrate or become automatons of beings that could easily coexist with the racist society they resided in. This could be done by dressing, speaking and possibly thinking in the ways that society wanted all its citizens to adhere to. Ellison makes the point of letting the reader know that blending into society is easy when you happen to have the preferred color of skin, otherwise, society will not accept you. Ellison posits that the, “goal of the black writer— and all black people—to reorder narrative accounts of the past and present so that audiences may remember them differently without being too tightly bound to them” (Yaszek, An Afrofuturist Reading, 303). A simple reordering can be simple as changing how African Americans were treated after slavery was abolished. By reordering the narrative of past and present, Ellison’s novel became an Afrofuturistic text, unbeknownst to him.

In the article titled, “An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man”, Lisa Yaszek writes that, “Ellison tries to rethink reality—and to rethink the histories we tell ourselves to make sense of reality—by subjecting his unnamed protagonist (and, by extension, his readers) to a sometimes-dizzying array of times, places, and events that do not necessarily unfold in a linear manner” throughout the novel (Yaszek 298). In the passage where the invisible man learns that his letter of recommendation is a ruse, Ellison achieves the rethought of history. The invisible man is seeking employment after being kicked out of the university and is trying to earn money to return and finish his education. A version of this fictional tale could have happened to an African American in the past, but rather than turn to violence or revenge, Ellison writes that the invisible man seeks to just coexist without causing any waves. Later when the invisible man is thinks to himself that rather than fighting, “he was trained to accept the foolishness…pretend you respect them and acknowledge in then the same quality of authority…make no effort to fight back, but only to escape unmarked” (225). This mantra of sorts is throughout the novel, and is believed by the invisible man. It is now claimed to be an Afrofuturist text due to its imagining of a how the invisible man can disappear and reappear into society to form his own person and control his fate.