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Racism & Identity: Almost 70 years later, Invisible Man still relevant


Introduction from our Founder: “In the mist of an international Black Lives Mater movement, racism, once a taboo topic, is daily International news.. As companies scramble to rapidly alter covert behaviors once accepted, and police departments are called out for their systemic brutality, the novel Invisible Man is presently pertinent. Almost 70 years after its first publishing, the struggle for respect, equality and visibility in the USA continues.” Simone-Monet Wahls, Founder of Future Executives, Inc.

Despite its relatively short history, American literature has developed a diverse array of styles and themes, representative of the rich history and diverse composition of a nation. From the classic tale of a boy and a runaway slave in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to the smooth, flashy, yet melancholy story of The Great Gatsby, to the coming of age of one Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye, America has produced several pieces of timeless art in the form of novels. 

Invisibility

Among these pillars of American culture, is Invisible Man, written by Ralph Ellison in 1952. Often confused with The Invisible Man, a book written by H.G Wells, Invisible Man does not detail a literal invisible man, but rather a man who struggles to find his identity, trapped by the expectations of others. His lack of self makes him an invisible man: someone who can’t be seen for his true self by others. Offering an insightful glance into racism, identity, and self, Invisible Man has been cemented as another critical piece of American literature and deserves more attention from mainstream readers.

The book follows an unnamed African American narrator in the 1900s. As he looks back on his life, from his beginnings in his small hometown to his eventual isolation from society in a city sewer- where he now lies writing his account.

Scheme of Racism

The story starts in a small southern town where he is subjected to intense racism but receives the opportunity of a lifetime: a scholarship to a college. He leaves the place he has known all his life in pursuit of success and is thrown headfirst into a new world, where his bright-eyed view of the world will slowly disappear. Through his journey, he attends college, works in a paint factory, and becomes a leader of a communist party. He faces disappointment and betrayal despite his accomplishments .

Progressing through different stages of his life, the narrator faces repeated obstacles to his individuality from all directions, as others use him and shape him as they see fit. His struggles are heavily a product of his time, living in a racist America that discriminated against Black people. His gradual emergence from his early innocence and growing disillusionment with society paints an existential view. The narrator begins to wonder the worth of finding oneself is in the first place.

Relevant almost 70 years later

The novel is just as culturally relevant now as it was when written. The content deals with themes of black nationalism, selling out, inauthentic social activists, and on a grander scale: different ways of addressing and coping with the racial inequality that has been plaguing this country since its inception. It also explores the identity of African Americans, via the protagonist narrator as he navigates a world stacked against him from all sides.

Racism and Identity in a Unsympathetic World

While heavily relying on racism in America as a driving factor in the story and as a critical part of the message, the message is not limited to a critique of racial oppression. Rather it serves as a vehicle for the exploration of identity, and both the dangers of societal expectation and self-repression as a defense mechanism. The story embodies the struggle of defining oneself despite the perceptions of others. It’s a message that has been played out over and over in shallow attempts to motivate and inspire. Yet, Invisible Man couldn’t be further from just conveying an empty platitude.

The narrator does not have a grand triumph of self-discovery, nor is his journey happy or easy. It is admittedly often bleak and despairing; rather than being a mountain climb, the narrator’s struggles are more akin to a maze. In the end, we aren’t quite sure if he has escaped his invisibility or not.

A bit of Optimism

The writing is simple enough to avoid the intimidation that other classic literature (particularly Russian literature) often presents. It’s descriptive, intricate, and dynamic enough to keep a reader’s interest and create a vivid setting that contributes to the dark mood of the story.

Overall, the novel is engaging and entertaining while presenting a meaningful take on what it means to be alive, and how we should define ourselves as individuals. Though it deals with serious topics and ugly truths, the book is not lacking in hope. The narrator makes it clear that despite his past failures, he once again plans to rally against invisibility and try and form his own identity.

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