The Eloquence of Ellison's Invisible Man

IN THE PROLOGUE to "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison's narrator declares, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." The character is a complex black man whom the world refuses to see as a full human being. In the epilogue, he questions why the invisible man is never more hated than when he is honest and never more loved than when he says what people want to hear.Published in 1952, "Invisible Man" was Ellison's only novel. He beat out Ernest Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" for the 1953 National Book Award. His theme still gnaws at America.

Two years before Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a national figure, and decades before corporate America heard of "diversity consultants," Ellison wrote:

"Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway? Diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts, and you'll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business, they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness?"

That question is still what makes Ellison relevant today, as Arnold Rampersad's new biography of the writer underscores. "If you believe race is still an essential issue in America today, then 'Invisible Man' is a guide to understanding it," Rampersad said over the telephone last week, a day after Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute hosted a reading for him in Cambridge. "Ellison's figure in 'Invisible Man' gets in a hole, but says he will get out of that hole. He's in a hole, but he still sees America as full of promises and is optimistic at the end.

"Ellison has this quality of optimism after showing how difficult it is to solve the problem of race. He stressed there are no easy answers. You're torn between underlying pessimism and a kind of despair and the necessity of optimism. If you're cynical and despairing, you've lost the game. Ellison believed black people did not want to lose the game."

There are now, of course, many African-Americans who have risen to lofty positions in society, from Michael Jordan to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, and CEOs Richard Parsons of Time Warner and Kenneth Chenault of American Express.

Yet their fame exists alongside problems that are all but invisible to most Americans -- the disproportionate percentage of black men in prison, African-American (and Latino) youth crammed into poorly funded public schools, and the low percentages of African-Americans in top professions.

Fifty-five years after "Invisible Man," public figures and government bodies still treat people of color in dehumanizing ways. The Rutgers women's basketball team makes the NCAA championship game and all that Don Imus could call them was "nappy-headed ho's." The Justice Department last week released more data showing that African-Americans and Latinos are still much more likely to be searched and arrested with force than white drivers who are pulled over. Anti-immigration politicians want Latinos to vanish despite their obvious contribution to the economy.

To Rampersad, it is clear what can happen in a society blind to the dignity of others. "The best example of that invisibility in the last two to three years," he said, "certainly has to be Hurricane Katrina. It was like watching something emerge from Hades, a subterranean section of humanity, a surging of a dark mass of humanity that underscored the helplessness and abandonment of so many people. These people were invisible, and now suddenly they were visible. They had to be saved or unsaved."

In the biography, Rampersad reveals an Ellison who is as complex as his invisible character. The writer was considered exceptional in his time, but became distant from contemporaries such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin and stars of the late 20th century, including Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Rampersad quotes Morrison as saying that Ellison was a melancholy figure.

"One contrasts the largeness of 'Invisible Man' with its broad canvas and its wide range of effects, of insight, with the narrowness of his public encounters with blacks," Morrison said.

Yet Ellison remains vital. America today is one where exceptional black people are very visible on its broad canvas. Yet everyday public encounters with blacks remain narrow in so many walks of life. "When I walk into certain fancy restaurants and see the waiters, they're all white," Rampersad said. "It's as if the presence of blacks destroys the atmosphere. There are still ways that white people do not want to see black people."

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

(c) Copyright 2007 Boston Globe

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