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Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

As a white American, it’s really difficult to talk about issues of race, in much the same way that it’s difficult for a male to enter into a conversation about women’s rights.  One has the feeling of walking out into a minefield.  We become desperately self-conscious, trying not to say anything that could be construed as racist, while at the same time trying not to say anything that could be construed as patronizing.  We weigh and measure every phrase, every word.  It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about race that’s simply open and unguarded.  And unlike a lot of issues, being better educated doesn’t make talking about it any easier.  If anything, it makes it worse.  We go beyond phrases and words, and start getting paranoid about subtext and context.  We retreat into the realm of theory, where there are no actual people or actual feelings to get hurt.  The whole discussion of race becomes, for educated whites, an exercise in abstraction, in part because we hope that nobody can get offended by abstraction, and we want so desperately to be one of the Good Guys.

In popular American literature and film, we take a different approach — one that assumes that there is a white experience, and a black experience.  Cop movies usually have the white cop and the black cop.  They drive each other crazy, but they learn to get along and defeat the (white) antagonist.  Books portray the black as the victim, done in by white society.  The Magical Negro shows up to drive Miss Daisy home.  The Blacksploitation films of the 1970s gave us the badass jive-talking black man being cooler than cool to a funk soul soundtrack.  All of those conversations reflect and create some aspect of racial reality in America.  But almost none of them do so with real honesty, with real sincerity.  They mostly just repeat stories that people already think they know.

Ellison doesn’t permit himself that luxury.  He’s not going to tell the story of a black man repressed by white society.  He’s not going to tell the story of a black man with a heart of gold who rises above his circumstances.  He’s not going to tell the story of a black man who kicks ass and takes what’s his.  Instead, he tells a story with honesty and sincerity.  A young black man, raised in the south, eager to prove that he’s better than those ignorant blacks that surround him.  A young man embarrassed by poverty, trying to differentiate himself so that he can blend in to the world of wealth, into the world of “success”.  He believes that through hard work, through education, through self-sacrifice, he will finally be able to “pass”.  Everywhere he goes, he feels the pressure to “uplift the race”.  Those he hates most aren’t white racists, but blacks whom he considers to be backwards, who make his own skin color look bad.  He ends up in the employ of Marxists, who prop him up as a public speaker to rile up the Harlem ghetto with the rhetoric of class war.  Again, his greatest rivals aren’t the white bourgeoisie, but black nationalists who see him as a sellout and a house negro.  Eventually, the Marxists demand that he stop speaking in public, because his speeches are too successful, too emotional, and they want time for the rest of “the movement” to catch up.  Rather than rising above, the narrator ends up feeling a fool — duped and used at each stage of his life, always a representative of his race, his class, his upbringing, and utterly invisible an individual.

It’s a bold book to write, but clearly it struck a chord with people when it came out in 1952, and continues to strike a chord with people today.  It’s one of the few things I’ve read or seen that doesn’t devolve into caricature or tip-toe around the minefield.  It’s honest, it’s sincere, and because of that, I feel like I’ve learned a great deal by reading it.  There is no black experience in America.  There is no white experience in America.  There are a multiplicity of experiences, and while race deeply affects those experiences, we rob ourselves when we reduce it to the white cop and the black cop swapping quips and fighting the bad guys in the spirit of racial harmony.

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