Excerpted from ‘The Black Man's Rebellion’, an essay originally published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019). The author offers trenchant commentary on the classic novel The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison that remains pertinent in a time of continued violence against the Black community.
This essay shows how the novel The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, written in 1952, becomes a battleground of identity and objectivity of the Invisible Man in relation to his white and black counterparts and explores whether his quest to be recognisable beyond his body is successful by the end of the novel. It contends that the polar argument about whether the black man is a person of mind or body cannot be made, instead the novel accentuates the tension that exists between both.
What does a man want?
What does the black man want?
At the risk of arousing the resentment of my colored brothers,
I will say that the black is not a man.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952
The Invisible Man’s journey is the manifestation of a black intellectual’s quest to find recognition beyond his skin. He embodies the ethic that W.E.B Du Bois propagated in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, in 1903, in which he pushed the black individual to immerse himself in the “kingdom of culture” to “attain self-conscious manhood”. According to one critic, “Du Bois looms large as to what an African American intellectual is” and writers who come after him, such as Ralph Ellison and others, have tried to answer him back through their own work and have made a name for themselves.
About fifty years after Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, his contemporary, while acknowledging the need for the black man to take a more active stance in his struggle for freedom, argued in his book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), that “not only the black man must be black; he must be black in relation to the white man”. Therefore, the “self-conscious manhood” that Du Bois proposed faltered with Fanon’s realisation that the black man has no ontological existence beyond what the white bestows upon him. The white man’s homogenising lens is restricted to the body and the skin, and the black man “[internalises]… this inferiority”, a process Fanon calls ‘epidermalisation’.
The Invisible Man revolves around a black man’s urge to prove to the white men his worth. The protagonist is unnamed, a fact that emphasises his invisibility, but he tries to make a name for himself by abiding by the rules of white conduct. He wins a scholarship to a black college but is soon kicked out, after which he goes to New York in search of a job through which he hopes he will be able to pay for his next semester’s fee. He never goes back to college, however, and after working in a paint factory, is recruited by a group of people who call themselves the Brotherhood, headed by Brother Jack, who wish to help the marginalised of the community. He is soon pushed around from Harlem to downtown and accused of trying to make a name for himself at the expense of the Brotherhood, and after repeated battles with the group, he realises what they actually stand for. By the end of the novel, disillusioned and lost, the Invisible Man begins to live underground as he realises that his hope and optimism of integration into the white community can not yield anything substantial; that he will be looked through a certain lens because of his colour, no matter what.
The Invisible Man’s struggle to be more than just a black man begins even before he receives a scholarship. He struggles to be heard by the white men when he says repeatedly, “I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything else in the world…”, which underscores his desire to be looked at as more than just a part of a race. His ambition also resonates with Du Bois’s idea of how a black man wishes “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face”. The ridicule that the Invisible Man goes through in this ‘Battle Royal’ chapter, when he is made to fight his fellows, then electrified while making him collect money, and then finally laughed at while he makes his speech, emphasises, however, that the urge to be heard is not that simple. This fact was not lost on Du Bois as well, who acknowledged that the acquisition of ‘culture’ is laden with the burden of race for the black man and doubles the obstacles between him and the ideals of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’.
The Invisible Man is reduced completely to a sexualised, racialised body in his encounter with Sybil. Her relationship with the Invisible Man is complex: she is the troubled wife of one of the members of the Brotherhood and she is white, which makes her superior to him. Her demand to be raped by him while she is asleep crushes his sense of being a dignified individual. She says, “You can do it, it’ll be easy for you” and “Come on, beat me, daddy- you—you big black bruiser”. The fact that the black man is seen as a phallus is already established, however, in this case, the white woman has actively made him so. Her demand objectifies him because of her complex superior position. By being raped, she wants to fulfil her childhood fantasy and this wonderment Fanon found in a trope on Negrophobic women. He says “And besides there was also an element of perversion, the persistence of infantile formations” because the women wonder “God knows how they make love! It must be terrifying” Moreover, she literally contrasts his colour to that of the sheets and says that he is “Like warm ebony against pure snow.” The image of the wood against ‘pure snow’ accentuates his body, his virility against her white purity.
By the end of the novel, the Invisible Man sees through the Brotherhood and the white men in general. He does not rape Sybil, leaves the Brotherhood and goes underground. The tension between the mind and the body of the black man with regard to his perception in the eyes of the white man still remains. Whether he loses his subjectivity as a result also remains a matter unanswered because, although he keeps getting reduced to the body, he maintains his struggle throughout the novel; until at the end he goes underground, which continues to be his rebellion.
The author would like to acknowledge the works of the following authors referenced in the essay: Charles Pete Banner-Haley, W.E.B. Du Bois, Raleph Ellison, Frantz Fanon, Diana Fuss, Joshua M Hall, Kimberly Lamm, David Marriot, Ross Posnock, Kim Savelson, Darieck Scott and Harvey Young.
Umaima Miraj says: “I am a student of anthropology/sociology major and literature in English minor at LUMS. My studies have enhanced my understanding of various cultures around the world. I have found myself mostly interested in African American and Latin American fiction and thoroughly enjoy socio-historical and magical realism genre novels. Recently, I have become more exposed to Pakistani writers, such as Qudratullah Shahab and Saadat Hasan Manto, whose works have awakened my interest in Urdu Literature. I am on a quest to learn more through reading, writing, travelling, and grasping every opportunity that comes my way that enables me to widen my horizons!”
Note on the featured Artist: Natasha Zubair is a freelance photographer/videographer based in Lahore. She is a graduate in Communication Design from the National College of Arts, Lahore.