Study Guide

Invisible Man Race

By Ralph Ellison

Race

Chapter 1
Narrator

I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate from the fingers of the hand. And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard, and brought up my father to do the same. (1.2)

The narrator recounts that freed slaves were told they were free in all ways, although this clearly was not true. Socially, after freedom from slavery, black people were still kept very separate from the rest of society. Sadly, the narrator's grandparents bought into the promise of true freedom wholesale.

On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." (1.2)

…or did they? The narrator's grandfather, at least, portrays race relations as war, and advocates "overcoming the whites with yeses" – essentially, that black people should play the white system and take them for everything they can.

"To Whom It May Concern," I intoned. "Keep This N*****-Boy Running." (1.105)

The narrator dreams that the scholarship to the college is really another way for white people to keep him running in place, that a college education won't actually change his lot in life.

"You weren't being smart, were you, boy?" he said, not unkindly. "No, sir!" "You sure that bit about 'equality' was a mistake?" (1.87-9)

Racial equality isn't allowed in Southern discourse.

I was overjoyed; I did not even mind when I discovered that the gold pieces I had scrambled for were brass pocket tokens advertising a certain make of automobile. (1.102)

Early in the novel, the narrator is so happy to have received the presents from the white men that, at least temporarily, he forgives them for subjecting him to the battle royal and for gaining pleasure from watching him get electrocuted.

Chapter 2
Narrator

Then in my mind's eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding. (2.3)

The narrator uses a powerful metaphor that questions the supposed intentions behind the college education, which is supposed to provide racial uplift, but which may simply be another means to keep black people more firmly enslaved.

Why do I recall, instead of the odor of seed bursting in springtime, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn's dead grass? Why? And how? How and why? (2.4)

The college falls short of the narrator's fantasies. In fact, the institution is only beautified for Founders' Day, or the day on which the rich white men would come with empty checks in their hands, suggesting that the school put its efforts into impressing white donors instead of enriching the students' experiences.

But now I felt that I was sharing in a great work and, with a car leaping leisurely beneath the pressure of my foot, I identified myself with the rich man reminiscing on the rear seat…(2.30)

The narrator delights in associating with the founders of the college, wanting to be part of its prestige.

I didn't understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the "peasants," during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down. (2.98)

The narrator suggests that the school's black population resent people like Jim Trueblood because their lifestyle supports the black stereotypes the students were trying to abolish.

Of course I knew he was a founder, but I knew also that it was advantageous to flatter rich white folks. Perhaps he'd give me a large tip, or a suit, or a scholarship next year. (2.18)

The narrator feels he must play dumb in order to flatter Mr. Norton and benefit from his wealth.

I went to see the white folks then and they gave me help. That's what I don't understand. I done the worse thing a man could ever do in his family and instead of chasin' me out of the county, they gimme more help than they ever give any other colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was…The nigguhs up at the school don't like me, but the white folks treat me fine. (2.254)

In Trueblood's experience, being "good" doesn't get one rewarded, but being bad does. His behavior is celebrated by the white people as justification of their bad opinion, and resented by the black people for giving their race a bad name.

How can he tell this to white men, I thought, when he knows they'll say that all N****es do such things? I looked at the floor, a red mist of anguish before my eyes. (2.192)

The narrator is upset with Trueblood for not recognizing his responsibility as a black man to defend the black reputation. Really, really upset. He thinks in very collectivist terms, when in reality Trueblood's behavior should have no bearing on how the narrator is perceived. The narrator does not reach this individualist conclusion until much later.

Chapter 3
Narrator

But seriously, because you fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see – and you, looking for destiny! It's classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and he sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less – a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power are not a man to him, but a God, a force – (3.314)

In the Golden Day, the vet accuses both Mr. Norton and the narrator for feeding the system of racism without thinking of the other race as real people. For all he is as a patient in an insane asylum, the vet has the most insightful commentary on race relations than anyone else in the novel thus far.

"I'm a student of history, sir," another interrupted with dramatic gestures. "The world moves in a circle like a roulette wheel. In the beginning, black is on top, in the middle epochs, white holds the odds, but soon Ethiopia shall stretch forth her noble wings! Then place our money on the black!" (3.138)

One of the vets at the Golden Day likens the black situation to a game of roulette. Right now the black people are losing, but he predicts that their day will come.

Chapter 6
Narrator

You're nobody, son. You don't exist – can't you see that? 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…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 N**** in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am. (6.76)

This is the first time we see the narrator being told of his invisibility. Dr. Bledsoe has achieved a position of power incredibly rare among men of his race, but he feels no obligation to aid other black people, saying that he has no qualms with hanging every black man in the country if it means maintaining his power.

N*****, this isn't the time to lie. I'm no white man. Tell me the truth! (6.34)

Dr. Bledsoe employs a double standard when it comes to lying – lying to white men is fine, but not to him.

Dr. Bledsoe

"He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it's a habit with them. Why didn't you make an excuse? Couldn't you say they had sickness – smallpox – or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My God, boy! You're black and living in the South – did you forget how to lie?" (6.24)

Dr. Bledsoe is amazed that the narrator hasn't learned how to lie to white folks while seeming to follow their orders. He's finally exposing the truth behind the façade of black obedience – a truth that the naïve narrator hasn't learned yet.

Chapter 9

…I remembered something my grandfather had said long ago: Don't let no white man tell you his business, 'cause after he tells you he's liable to git shame he tole it to you and then he'll hate you. Fact is, he was hating you all the time…(9.147).

The narrator's grandfather argues that black people and white people should never get close enough to be real with one another. Is this useful advice for this particular situation? (Emerson is trying to get to know the narrator better.)

Chapter 10

"Now measure ten drops into the paint…There, that's it, not too goddam fast. Now. You want no more than ten, and no less."

Slowly, I measured the glistening black drops, seeing them settle upon the surface and become blacker still, spreading suddenly out to the edges. (10.48 – 10.49)

Pure white paint requires ten black drops. Many critics think this is a metaphor for black Americans' contributions to white America. We're inclined to agree, especially when you consider the figure of Lucius Brockway toiling in the basement, controlling all the paint production and clearly not exactly accruing all the benefits.

Chapter 13
Narrator

A black statue of a nude Nubian slave grinned out at me from beneath a turban of gold. I passed on to a window decorated with switches of wiry false hair, ointments guaranteed to produce the miracle of whitening black skin. "You too can be truly beautiful," a sign proclaimed. "Win greater happiness with whiter complexion. Be outstanding in your social set." (13.3)

In this society, whiteness is prized, celebrated, and sought after.

Chapter 14
Narrator

I felt that somehow they expected me to perform even those tasks for which nothing in my experience – except perhaps my imagination – had prepared me. Still it was nothing new, white folks seemed always to expect you to know those things which they'd done everything they could think of to prevent you from knowing. The thing to do was to be prepared (14.185)

The narrator says there is a double standard between white people's expectations and restrictions of black people.

Chapter 15
Narrator

They've tried to dispossess us of our manhood and womanhood! Of our childhood and adolescence – You heard the sister's statistics on our infant mortality rate. Don't you know you're lucky to be uncommonly born? Why, they even tried to dispossess us of our dislike of being dispossessed! And I'll tell you something else – if we don't resist, pretty soon they'll succeed! (15.49)

The narrator accuses white supremacists of taking away what rightfully belongs to the black community, yet he fails to realize the Brotherhood's part in this.

Chapter 16

"Stephen's problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record…We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: We will have created a culture. Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn't exist? For, you see, blood and skin do not think!" (16.133)

Culture, not race, is the more important distinction to be made.

Chapter 17
Narrator

You my brother, mahn. Brothers are the same color; how the hell you call these white men brother? S***, mahn. That's s***! Brothers the same color. We sons of Mama Africa, you done forgot? You black, BLACK! You – Godahm, mahn! …Leave that s***, mahn. They sell you out. That s*** is old-fashioned. They enslave us – you forget that? (17.130)

Ras the Exhorter hates the fact that Clifton and the narrator are calling white men their brothers. His philosophy is black/white oriented, and he believes that black people should not even associate with white people, especially when it comes to social change.

Chapter 18

I picked up the link and held it toward him, the metal oily and strangely skinlike now with the slanting sun entering the window. "Would you care to examine it, Brother? One of our members wore it nineteen years ago on the chain gang."

"Hell, no!" He recoiled. "I mean, no, thank you. In fact, Brother, I don't think we ought to have such things around!"

"You think so," I said. "And just why?"

"Because I don't think we ought to dramatize our differences." (18.84 – 18.87)

Here, the narrator encounters "forced sameness." At the same time, contrast this with Emma's comment upon meeting the narrator – that he should be "blacker."

Narrator

Brother, This is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down. You are from the South and you know that this is a white man's world. So take a friendly advice and go easy so that you can keep on helping the colored people. They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do. Be smart…(18.2 – 18.3)

This anonymous message generates new significance when we learn at the very end of the novel that it's from Brother Jack who is, by the way, white. Just another example of the ways that race is used as a manipulative tool in this novel.

Chapter 20
Narrator

Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him For he's Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll. And all for twenty-five cents, the quarter part of a dollar… Ladies and gentlemen, he'll bring you joy, step up and meet him, Sambo the – (20.71-5)

There is a lot to unpack in this brief ditty. First, it suggests resilience on the part of black people, who, "shake them" as you might, you cannot break. Second, it suggests a role of black people as entertainers – but as entertainers whose strings you can pull and control. Third, this can also be viewed as not having anything to do with race and everything to do with the narrator as Sambo, being cruelly played by others. Lastly, the ditty suggests that black people can be bought.

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