Exploring Traumatic Invisibility Through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

The messages about “Invisibility” in Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel remain potent and pertinent today.

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Ralph Ellison makes an authorial decision to maintain the anonymity of the main character, by choosing to not give him a name. But, what is the significance of an “invisible man” in this novel?

July was BIPOC mental health awareness month, and it inspired me to challenge myself to cross Ralph Ellison’s 1952 book Invisible Man off of my TBR. I was initially stumped by the density of the material, and its requirement of reflection. Invisible Man is a book that you kind of wade in and sway with. It will pull you up, around, swing you sideways and leave you with a loosened jaw, and a new set of eyes. Yes, a new set of eyes because it is one of those books that will wedge itself in the little grooves of your mind forcing a new level of awareness. And you know how awareness goes because once you see it, you can’t scrub it out.

In these rapturous moments of awareness, (oftentimes on the subway, thanks MTA), Ellison’s genius verbiage, his knack for words and syntax is enticing, exciting, and provokes a sort of heavy pondering of one’s way of being. Especially as an African-American woman, this book introduced a new level of inquiry about my own “invisibility”. It forced me, as a black person, to take a hard, fixed inward look at the layers I may have accumulated over my original essence.

“What and how much had I lost by trying to what was expected of me instead of what I had wished myself to do?”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

What is “invisibility”?

Invisible Man delineates invisibility as a phenomenon that occurs because of a “peculiar disposition of the eyes with whom (he) comes in contact. A matter of the construction of the inner eyes”. Invisibility requires the compliance of the imagination. Here, I emphasize the imagination because it is in fact, a withdrawal from reality. Facing reality demands acceptance, acceptance of what is and what will drip down into the future and result from what is. But of course, the withdrawal and the dip into fantasy is far more pleasurable.

invisible man by ralph ellison book cover
tan background with scattered green lines

As a reader, I am familiar with the sweet pleasures of escape. However, there is a time for everything. When you sit across from the facts, there is real evidence that shows that the African-American community still does deal with the repercussions of invisibility. In the book, Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the main character’s university, was angered by the main character’s naive honesty towards white people. Dr. Bledsoe says, “Why the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please the white man is to tell him a lie”. The nameless main character fails to understand that an encounter with a white person (in this sense), necessitates a facade and a shielding of the mind from facts. The goal is to appease the white man’s tastes, making us “marketable” characters. We are essentially characters playing a role, with our bodies three steps ahead and our spirits lagging behind. This is because the integration of body and spirit cannot take place in most white spaces. Our likes and dislikes are faced into a narrow channel and anything rendered “distasteful” should be cast off.

The Resulting Repression

There is an inherent pressure to repress. This is why the term “code-switching” exists, as one struggles to imprint a sense of self on a white world due to intolerance, a person reverts to talking “like” a white person, discarding any culturally specific language. A by-product of the exhaustion to retain one’s own life force is the subtle renouncement of a sense of “I” for the ever-so-palatable sense of “we”. POC learn conditions and restrictions to their bounds of being and inherit conditional acceptance by a white world.

As taught in POC households, there is a way to act around white people and a way to act around your own. This is often the trigger point in a life where invisibility is ingested as an identity for victims, and then victims work to remain invisible for safety measures. As the main character puts it he, “recalls the fear that hung over all those who had no protection from powerful whites”. So here is the transactional relationship of existence in a white world, protect them, so they will protect you. Therein lies a sentiment of seeking asylum in a white world, as means of survival.

An article by the National Library of Medicine, called, When is Parental Suppression of Black Children’s Negative Emotions Adaptive? The Role of Preparation for Racial Bias and Children’s Resting Cardiac Vagal Tone, shows evidence that Black parents, teach their children to suppress, as a way of preventing punishment, but “Parental suppression strategies led to increased internalizing symptoms (e.g., anxiety, withdrawal) among children”. Consequently, for many African-Americans, the internalization of feelings becomes habitual.

two people sit on the couch, older person looks like they are scolding child who sits angrily with arms crossed

Shame and Disconnection from the True Self

In the book, the “powerful whites”, who run the university he goes to and the organization he is employed at, forsake him. As African-Americans navigate in corporate structures, which are often white-run and profit-focused, heavy, hot-breathed whispers of expectations keep us an arm’s length away from our innermost selves. In the main character’s opening reflections, he states that his grandfather who was a man of “desirable conduct”, defined his conduct as “treachery” on his deathbed. This treachery was understood as the excessive denial of expression of emotion and true feeling.

For many of us, our lives are cumulative performances for that of the white gaze, so simply doing something for ourselves feels discordant. This resistance feels like a little battle within the pores of the bones, with the notion of “shoulds” constantly tussling against our own intuition. As our sense of self is muddled and mixed with that of whiteness, those who do ostensibly defy the prescribed parameters of being, are often labeled as weird. This invokes so much shame on those who do decide to be themselves! The main character mentions the shame that is pressed upon the psyche, as he was oriented to value the “calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and whom we were deeply ashamed”. The main character gathers the messages that he has been taught and then turns to project his beliefs on the preacher. He comes to believe that the ability to suppress is a marker of superiority.

“I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to “justify” and affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs; or when I’ve tried to give my friends the incorrect., absurd answers they wished to hear. In my presence they could talk and agree with themselves, the world was nailed down and they loved it. They received a feeling of security: But here was the rub: Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house on a high wind…”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Character Development and A Closing Message of Hope

A pivotal moment of development for the main character was when he was in New York, eating a yam. (I was so proud of him!!) The yam was symbolic of his southernness and black heritage. This presumably banal act was a bold assertion of self. He declares “I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper…to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am!” The main character gradually eases into an understanding and pride for his aliveness.

Research from the National Library of Medicine article entitled “Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow Up”, “revealed significant associations between higher levels of emotion suppression and all-cause as well as cancer-related mortality.” In response to this evidence, it is my hope that a generation is raised to be in tune with themselves and afforded the privilege to feel, feel everything to the core, and have healthy channels for these emotions. We are all human, and at every moment, we are all bubbling with some emotion, whether that emotion is one of past, present, or of anticipation.

I personally believe that this “invisibility” can be a mutable state, visibility can be achieved through expression. When we learn to access the natural toolkit of healthy expression as a way to facilitate letting go and releasing emotion, this will have a harmonizing effect on the individual and society at large. The natural ebb-and-flow of emotion will unveil the very web of being entombed inside of you and me! What a gleaming vibrance and aliveness it will bring to the world! The course of action is to dance, make art, and poetry, and set the world ablaze! Cheers!


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