“I got the regular stuff about race and color and pride and prejudice and the sound and the fury and the cultural implications … but what about me?”
This is a paper from December 1994…
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is an interesting book. When I was beginning it, a few weeks ago, I had no idea where it was heading. And now that I’ve finished, I’m not all that certain of where it’s taken me. I can unabashedly say that the first 250 pages were killing me. I would read about six or seven pages a day without being able to work up the enthusiasm or the interest in the story to read any more. Then, as time is so often wont to do, time began to dwindle. And luckily for me, the closer I got to the end of the book, the more fascinated I became by what was happening in the course of events leading up to … to … where? The more I read, the more little things I started to notice. I realized that the narrator remained nameless to the reader, even though his name kept changing in the story. I learned that I was more and more anxious when a character was introduced to discover if the character was black or white. I was shook by the number of questions the narrator asked, sometimes whole paragraphs of nothing but questions, and how few answers he seemed to find. I was struck by how much like him I began to feel. By the time I got to the riot, I was unsettled. And then … nothing. I couldn’t get anything out of the conclusion (the conclusion being everything from the riot until the actual end of the book). I mean, yeah, I got the regular stuff about race and color and pride and prejudice and the sound and the fury and the cultural implications … but what about me? He brought all these questions to the front of my mind, questions that are always there, questions that I try to deal with in my own little, Vedder-ized way, questions that only become haunting when I’m drunk or alone in the car for over an hour (both instances create a sort of vague, quasi-reality), questions that I don’t like to ponder and when I do I end up not happy, questions that come out when I try to write something besides the crap I handed in for the last assignment, questions that get me into trouble, and he didn’t give me any fucking answers. He just left me hanging and I hate that. I have all this shit in my head already, y’know, and it’s just not that easy to deal with it. (heartofdarkness.)
I haven’t decided if I enjoyed it yet. The experience I mean, not the book. I did enjoy the book. I enjoyed reading it once I got into it, it just took me about 200 pages longer than it normally does to get into a book. I saw the bit coming with Bledsoe’s letters being knife-in-the-back-esque before he even got to New York and I’m proud of that and I don’t know anyone else I’ll be able to tell that to besides you so there. The factory-hospital was very disturbing to me. (It reminded me too much of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which I have always considered a horror movie.) I kept getting annoyed at how often he’d find himself in situations where all he had to do was say something and he’d be fine, but he wouldn’t. He reminded me of one of my friends from high school who would just take everything. She didn’t know how to talk to people and get herself understood (I can understand that in a way, but not to the extent it was in her). I found myself thinking at the narrator, “Just SAY something!” and he wouldn’t and things would come crashing down around him. I kept thinking, how could someone let himself get taken advantage of like that? And then I would feel guilty for not connecting with the black experience. And then I would just get lost wondering about how I feel about blacks. If you are lost and wondering about race, this would be a good book to read, I think. It won’t really help you figure anything out, but it’ll at least remind you that you’re lost.
I know it’s late in the paper to be saying this, but I think the most intriguing part of the book is the way it deals with identity. In fact, more than a book about the black experience, I think it should be considered a book about a man trying to find his identity. The narrator’s identity is always changing, developing, evolving. And so is everyman’s. That is what we do here on this planet, we try to discover ourselves. It doesn’t make a difference if we’re black or white or red or yellow. The act of growing up and never quite getting anywhere, it’s almost a joke. At the factory-hospital in the mind-machine the narrator’s identity is supposedly changed. When he gets involved with the Brotherhood he even assumes a new identity. The bit where he’s walking around and everyone thinks he’s Rinehart is consumed with identity. What is it? How does he become these different personas so easily? What does he signify? There are several things that happen that shape him as we follow him through the story. Characters, events, situations that alter his identity are the driving force behind the book. Things as meaningless as his shoes differentiate him as a distinct character. When he is expelled from his campus-world he is forced to create a new identity for himself in a new world. When he finds out about the letters from Bledsoe his identity is transformed. When he is at the paint factory his identity is changed. When he joins the Brotherhood and has to actually become a new person…when Clifton is killed…when he realizes he’s been a pawn … when Ras is on his high horse …
The interplay between Ras and the narrator was the most thundering part of the book, I thought. The clash over whether it is right for blacks to try and incorporate themselves into the dominant culture or whether they should try and preserve their own identity is one that still exists today. It’s really impossible to do both. Blacks will always be blacks and whites will always be whites. We can imagine a world of peace and harmony and complete lack of stereotypes and racism, but the difference will still exist. Even if the cultures were exactly the same, the skin color alone makes for a difference. I try to think of myself as pro-diversity, but just that thought makes it not so. To acknowledge the difference is to vilify it. If I scream my lungs out saying that I’ve got nothing against blacks, I’m admitting that there’s something to hold against them. I don’t think I’m making myself clear, but I think that’s a difficult thing to do with this topic (or with any other). I personally (who cares?) think that it’s a good thing for blacks to preserve their heritage and not become completely lost in the great American melting-pot. But they can’t as a people do that and not expect to be treated differently. I want to say that I don’t walk around showing off my deep Italian line, but that doesn’t mean anything because I’m part of the dominant class (no matter how I feel about it!). And even if a black man completely eschews his blackness and becomes a prosperous, yuppie, American random-man, he cannot help but have black skin and be seen as a black.
You might as well have had me try to write something coherent about abortion. It’s just one of those things that I try to think my own thoughts and not have to explain myself. I work for a pager company, and before that I worked for Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. I’ve encountered more walking stereotypes than I care to remember, but I try not to let that interfere with my judgment of any individual as a human being. (I really spend too much time trying to figure out who I am; I tend not to get bogged down in trying to figure out who other people are!) Am I doing it wrong? It’s hard to be another way. We can philosophize and teach cultural awareness classes and have pro-diversity weeks and even black culture month and where is it getting us? We’re still going to have four out of five starters black on the court. We’re still going to have Black History Month. We’re still going to have white presidents (or, if not, mostly white congresses). We are different, y’know? Males and females are different, too, and we’re no further along at working that problem to a happy finale.
This is probably nothing what you wanted, right? I’m sorry. I know it’s not supposed to be an essay on racism in the 90s. Would it have been better if I followed the progression of the symbol of the broken chains in the campus museum and from Brother Tarp? Or how about Mary as a symbol of matronly femininity? Blindness and the glass eyeball? I’m really not trying to laugh in the face of authority or assert my independence from the savages or anything. (The narrator as Marlowe? Ras as Kurtz?) And I’m not trying to just be a dickhead. I hate spunk.
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