by Ralph Ellison
Where It All Goes Down
The American South and Harlem, New York in the late 1930s
The narrator is born and raised in the American South, only to wind up in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, which is a major center of African-American culture. The narrator finds the contrast between the North and the South incredible – he is amazed to find white drivers obeying the directives of a black policeman, on the subway he stresses out about being in close proximity to a white woman, and in the diner he wonders if it's insulting to tip a white waiter. In the North, then, the narrator experiences a certain amount of unprecedented racial freedom.
Or does he? His race is still the primary determinant in how he is perceived by others, whether by the higher-ups in an organization called the Brotherhood or by Sybil, a white self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who fantasizes about being raped by a black man. In his quest to uncover his identity, then, neither South nor North is particularly helpful. Ultimately, it is only by descending into a manhole and remaining literally invisible to society that the narrator is able to operate in a setting that allows him to uncover the full range of his individuality.