Invisible Man: Prologue - Chapter Six
America is, historically, a country of white Protestant men. They founded its government, set its rules, and arranged its processes based on what would be most convenient and tenable for them. The result, of course, being that women and minorities got the shaft.
Invisible Man -- the only novel Ralph Ellison ever published in his lifetime -- is a commentary and condemnation on that violation, at least as it relates to the black population. But Ellison does not seem prepared to place the blame solely on those men whose rules began the cycle of segregated civilization. In order for a cycle to exist at all, in fact, the oppressed party has to buy into it, to a point where his protagonist is no longer a viable person. "I am invisible, understand," he writes, "simply because people refuse to see me."
Of course, like all execution-of-innocence style stories, it takes him a while to understand this place. The narrator (who remains faceless and placeless, reinforcing his invisibility) believes that if he works hard and pleases the powers that be, doing what they ask and responding to what they say, he will eventually be rewarded with respect. The Man, of course, is not interested in affording respect to an inexperienced black man. His growth is reliant upon his disappointments.
Examples? They abound in the opening section. He is invited to give a speech to a white social club, but is first coerced into fighting nine other black kids in a battle royal for the entertainment of the rich dudes, and then heckled as he attempts to lecture. He takes a benefactor of his university to a lower-class area of town at his request, to later learn this neighborhood was not what he wanted to see. He is sent away from school by the head to earn his tuition with sealed employment-seeking letters that although I haven't gotten there yet can only end up in misery.
Naivete in youth is not unexpected, but it is a dangerous setup, particularly given the setting. After all, emancipation was generations ago. War is over. Black people are making social contributions. One would think this means real progress toward a unified state, but then one would not truly understand that those in power tend to strive for maintaining it, whatever the cost.
The school's head tells him as much:
"The white folk tell everybody what to think -- except men like me. I tell them; that's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. Shocks you, doesn't it? Well, that's the way it is. It's a nasty deal and I don't always like it myself. But you listen to me: I didn't make it, and I know that I can't change it. But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am."
Given the title of the story and the content of the prologue, it's probably a safe bet that our protagonist does not attempt his own power-hungry cash grab. But it remains to be seen what he learns (if anything) from this self-effacing, two-faced fakery at the expense of his race.
Posted by Endymion at February 8, 2008 06:01 PM