Spoken from the hole, an abandoned and forgotten
subterranean room, marked by stark contrasts of light and darkness, music and
threats, peace and silence, the story of Invisible
Man begins and ends in this space of elemental separation, where the
narrator unfurls his story of how he became the Invisible Man (IM) and of how
he has chosen this as his place of hibernation and contemplation, a place to
where his life has led him and a place in which he has discovered his
invisibility. In this setting, IM finds himself “free of illusion”, living “a
death alive”, where we view the progress of the novel as a shedding of
racial strata from the narrator’s initiation into the racially layered world by
his grandfather’s passing words; the Invisible Man’s progress culminates in his
descent into the hole of the underground after his episodic search for
identity, only to find that he is truly left without identity, only left with
his mind to contemplate his placelessness in the world. It is this close-knitting
of identity and place that I wish to examine here and argue that the urban
setting of Invisible Man cultivates
and requires its inhabitants to relinquish or hide attachment and embedded
associations – rather than confront these effects of racism – to survive within
its boundaries. These social requirements serve to further de jure racism and force unilateral adherence to socioeconomic
codes, thus discouraging the diversity of humanity. This diasporic influence is
explored through IM as the novel’s protagonist expresses a diasporic quality either
directly or indirectly through his responses to living in the city. Ralph
Ellison’s novel expresses this diasporic element in the neo-slave tradition,
which gives the narrative setting of the novel strong connotations of the Middle
Passage’s hold on the slave ships. As Ellison writes, this is at the heart of
the African American’s isolation in America, a place in which African Americans
are placed by social structures and psychological adherences to social
survival, creating a “psychogeography”, or “foreclosed zones of resistance
that can be made habitable” (Thomas 81). Ellison constructs such a place with
“the hole” as both a literal and narrative structure that isolates African
Americans from equality under democracy and reinforces white hegemonic power
structures that holds these liminal spaces at bay.

Ellison’s episodic
structure mirrors that of the post-Emancipation history of African Americans.
As his story moves from scenes of Reconstruction South to the Great Migration
towards the North, the narrator finds himself encountering scenes that are both
realistic rememories and surrealistic flights of chaos and confusion. Both the
reality and the surrealism of the novel’s episodes encapsulate the physical and
psychological trauma against African Americans. Ellison’s modernist aesthetic
mimics both the writing of T. S. Eliot and the early bebop jazz musicians whom
Ellison listened to growing up in Oklahoma City, and whom were popular during
the years in which Ellison composed Invisible
Man (Spaulding 481). The aesthetic allowed for Ellison to explore the
subconscious connections between the historical moments of African American
progress while illustrating the continuance of racial oppression as exceeding
linear boundaries of time, that sees no difference between the othering of
slaves into a subjugated hold and the socially acceptable “holes” African
Americans are forced to occupy. What Christina Sharpe in her book In the Wake calls “the Hold”, this
prescribed positioning of Black bodies as seen in Invisible Man is an example of the continual effects of slavery in
American society. Sharpe describes all African American works of art, music,
sculpture, film, and literature to “wake works”, that is “a theory and praxis
of the wake; a theory and a praxis of Black being in diaspora” (19). Sharpe
goes on to explain being “in the wake”:

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In the
wake, the semiotics of the slave ship continue: from the forced movements of
the enslaved to the forced movements of the migrant and the refugee, to the
regulation of Black people in North American streets and neighborhoods, to
those ongoing crossings of and drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, to the
brutal colonial reimaginings of the slave ship and the ark; to the
reappearances of the slave ship in everyday life in the form of the prison, the
camp, and the school (21).

As Sharpe positions it, held within the wake is
the diasporic community of African Americans. This continued “Hold” of physical
and psychological trauma mimics the confines in which slaves were carried
across the Middle Passage and results in an identity that is an amalgam of both
collective and individual experiences predominantly forced by those who created
the wake and who continue to ignore its presence. This wake/hold/hole disassociates
its inhabitants from the rest of world and results in an invisibility that IM embraces
at the end of his story; satirically, Ellison’s protagonist momentarily chooses
the hole as his place of retreat and contemplation, subverting the forced
isolation of the hole and highlighting its role as the antithesis of progress. While
in the hole, IM finds his most lucid thoughts about his relation to the world,
“Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in
division is there true health. Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up
above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern” IM
troubles this forced positionality by treating it as his place of solace, where
he ironically is safest and freest from the impressions of prescribed
identities.

            In
the hole, IM experiences a rebirth, a rediscovery of identity or lack of one, upon
entering the hole at the end of the story; it is here that the novel ends, it
dwells in the birth canal and remains silent about the future of IM. As Sharpe
explains, “the belly of the ship births blackness; the birth canal remains in,
and as, the hold” (74). Sharpe positions her discussion of the birth of
blackness as a dehumanizing effect of the wake, where Black women are stripped
of their maternity as Black bodies “become a territory of cultural and
political maneuver not at all gender-related or gender-specific” (Spillers qtd.
in Sharpe 74). Much in the same vein, the hole eliminates all identity from IM
except his consciousness: “In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind. And the mind that has conceived a
plan of living must never lost sight of the chaos against which that pattern
was conceived” (580). It is this kernel of identity that spurs IM out of
hibernation and back into the world above, despite his newly discovered
invisibility.  

The antithesis of the
hole could be argued as being the skyscraper. Oddly absent from Invisible Man, skyscrapers would have
been a part of the urban landscape during the time in which the novel takes
place. Skyscrapers became a part of the modern city landscape towards the end
of nineteenth-century during a time when the romanticism of Western expansion
was reaching a close (Brown 166). Adrienne Brown argues that the emergence of
his new urban construction challenged the Realist novel’s focus on linear form
and individual agency by presenting a structural scope of multiple perspectives
that reflected the changing spatial and social landscape of the city (167). He
tethers this vertical exploration of space to the older traditions of Western
expansion, placing these towers as new forms of interior white landscapes that
erase individual identity from place and time. As these structures emerged, the
narrative of the frontier and the fantastic combined as a means of narrating
skyscrapers as landscapes of white hegemony that act as both a bastion of white
hegemony and a destruction of identity. Brown continues in his examination of
the narratives surrounding these newly established structures, “Using the
frontier framework, skyscraper narratives restrict the multitudinous types of
difference residing within New York City to a neat logic resembling that of
Cowboy versus Indian. By reducing difference within the city to this narrow
register, the authors cut out the messiness of urban difference” (184). Very much a racial watchtower and stalwart of
conservative social structures, these narratives serve as an example of white
anxieties at the time of the construction of these structures.

With the announcement of
the closing of the American frontier by the U.S. Census of 1890, the
introduction of the skyscraper symbolized a new territory and avenue for
American democracy to explore and expand itself within. Ironically, the freedom
found in this new territory of sky, while challenging to Realist notions of a
central perspective, became a site of white-dominance and subjugation of
diversity. White anxieties about the inclusion of Black bodies and the
resulting loss of imaginary identity and hierarchical power inhabit the
skyscraper, and these building become sites of exclusion and colorblind
identity. One of the few times IM finds himself within one of these buildings
is when he delivers a letter from Dr. Bledsoe to Mr. Emerson’s son shortly after
his arrival to the city. Hoping to find employment, IM confronts the white
hegemonic power in which Dr. Bledsoe is complicit in its continuance as IM
hands Mr. Emerson’ son the damning letter of introduction. The dominance of
such power structures within skyscrapers is evident in the disconnect between the
son of a wealthy businessman and IM when the former asks, “do you believe it
possible for us, the two of us, to throw off the mask of custom and manners
that insulate man from man, and converse in naked honesty and frankness?”
(186). The voice of IM’s grandfather is soon present to remind him of the
inevitable consequence of such a reveal of humanity ending in a nonplus of
racial hatred. The attempt at removing “masks” in this episode stems from Mr.
Emerson’s apparent repressed homosexuality and resulting frustration with the
white, heteronormative “tyranny” in which he finds himself a passive actor
(187). By telling the story of IM from the hole, the novel acts a piece of wake
work and gives voice and identity to an invisible group of people that are
placed within the ever-present wake of slavery.

Ellison furthers the
placement of the hole as not just a physical space that his narrator has used
to discover his invisibility but as an inescapable state of being, in which
Black bodies must inhabit and work out from. Critics first received Invisible Man as being relatively silent
on political activism. But, after further consideration critics began to see
Ellison’s circular narrative structure and positionality of the narrator as
expressions of subversive action towards dominating social structures that
retain de jure racism. One influence
of Ellison’s episodic mixing of realism and surrealism within the narrative is
the author’s early introduction to jazz, specifically bebop that was mounting
in popularity at the time that Ellison was writing Invisible Man (Spaulding 481).  A. Timothy Spaulding connects the unnamed
narrator with the bebop virtuoso “as products of post-World War II
sensibilities … who struggle to achieve an individual identity through the
creation of a unique improvisational voice” (“Embracing Chaos” 482). As the
narrator relates his story and improvises a unique voice from the
interconnected episodes and characters of the story, IM constructs an identity
from both the communal and individual experience of being in the wake of a
white hegemonic society.

IM first discovers the
power of an invisible perspective while listening to Louis Armstrong’s
recording of “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?” (8). Underneath the
rhythms and tempos of the song, IM explores the racial strata of the music:

And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there
was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an
old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltscmerz as flamenco, and beneath
that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory
pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners
who bid for her naked body… (9, emphasis in original)

The description then falls upon a sermon as it plunges
into surrealistic mixings of images and sounds of the past before it resurfaces
to Armstrong’s question “What did I do / To be so black / And blue?” (12). In
the archeological description of the song, grammar at times becomes more fluid
and musical, jumping and riffing from one image to another, ebbing and flowing
from experience to experience both personal and communal. Trancelike, the
narrator discovers the ability to slip in between the nodes of sound and time
to discover buried meanings and connections on his way to finding his identity
in the hole, much like the hole itself does in the placement of the city by
allowing IM to slip beneath the surface of society and examine the underlying
socio-economic structures of America in the retelling of his story.

             IM’s emerging self-awareness draws upon the personal
and communal experiences of African Americans since the time of slavery. This reestablishing
through individual and collective experiences anticipates Toni Morrison’s
concept of “rememory”, as seen in Beloved’s
narrative tempest of experiences shared and otherwise by the characters of the
novel. This act of rememory can be seen as an expression of the search for
“home” or a reconstructing a lost history that leads back towards the lost home
of Africa after the Middle Passage. In Dr. Michelle Commander’s Afro-Atlantic Flight, she examines the
ways in which people of the diasporic community reconstruct “Africa” both real
and imagined. Commander explains that these “Afro-Atlantic ideas of return and
rememory strike me as substantial exercises of Afro-Atlantic speculation
whereby travel, escape, and mourning are taken up as forms of resistance
against the narrative of progress and the supposed healing properties of the
passage of time, of forgetting” (54). Much like the artful expressions and
exercises of discovery and imagination that Commander examines in her book,
Ellison uses the process of discovery of his protagonist’s identity to reclaim
his place within society and to act against the continually prescribed
identities that IM has place upon him before coming to the underground. While Ellison
does not seem to be mourning in his examination of African American experience,
there remains an element of remembering and accounting the transgressions
against Black bodies and identities within his novel. His narrative structure’s
use of jazz aesthetics in the creation of identity accounts for the continual
presence of racial oppression despite the location or position of the person,
and in this account Ellison silently laments the displacement of Black bodies
and therefore the loss of identity and reinstates himself within society from
the collection of Black experiences.

            Ellison’s
unique take on wake work in the American climate can be traced back to his work
in the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the 1930s. Ellison’s time collecting
and writing about the American experience became a source of information that
informed his knowledge of African American culture and positioned his politics
outside of the postwar liberalism, which shaped his critical outlook of social
organizations such as the New Deal (Butts 36). J. J. Butts elaborates on this
point when he explains that, “The ideal citizen of the New Deal welfare state
as imagined in its documents was historically knowledgeable, socially
progressive, and oriented toward modernization” (“Pattern and Chaos” 36).
Because of Ellison’s time in the FWP, the author’s work tends to be skeptical
of the optimism of these ideals and critical of their abilities “to downplay
important stories and disguise prejudice, and thus elided crucial elements of
ongoing dispossession” (Butts 36). To return to a previous quote from Invisible Man, the invisible narrator
critiques the

            In
many ways, Invisible Man is in direct
conversation with modern city planning, such as the Housing Act of 1949, a bill
which gave power to municipalities to buy, demolish, and resell slum areas to
private developers while not sufficiently compensating the newly displaced
residents who were unable to retrieve private residence elsewhere (Abramson
19). Urban renewal plans such as the Housing Act of 1949 kept poor African
Americans displaced and subjugated to racialized socio-economic power
structures, much like IM’s continual movement throughout the retelling of his
story. From the beginning scene of the Battle Royal, where IM is at the mercy
of the wealthy white crowd’s commands and the electrified rug of coins, to Mr.
Norton’s driving instructions, to Dr. Bledsoe’s letter, all throughout the
novel IM plays a passive role to the wills of socially institutional powers in
the formation of his identity and the direction and placement of his body. Only
when a crowd chases him into the underground is IM free to separate himself
from the imposed layers of identity, expressed in the burning of the items in
his briefcase to provide light against the darkness of the hole.

            As
an act that directly targeted poor Black bodies and that benefitted private
land developers, the Housing Act of 1949 was a political maneuver to reposition
the United States as global power during the Cold War (Abramson 11). As it
sought to eliminate racial divide through urban interracialism, the bill
resulted in nothing more than the relocation of African Americans. Myka
Abramson quotes Frank Horne, the head of the Race Relations Service of Home and
Housing Finance Agency at the time, warning that the bill would “clear entire
neighborhoods, change the location of entire population groups, and crystallize
patterns of racial or nationalistic separation by allowing private developers …
to prohibit occupancy in new developments merely on the basis of race” (11). The
effects of this bill created the environment which Ellison experienced during
his time at the FWP, and which IM finds himself moving through upon his arrival
to New York City. Most clearly seen in the eviction episode, IM witnesses the
displacement of an elderly, working class African American couple who have all
of their possessions thrown to curb as movers act at the discretion of their bosses.
As the crowd of onlookers begin to revolt against the faceless white movers, IM
feels repulsed by the vulgarity of the crowd’s violent actions as their active
protest against the hegemonic powers that be conflicts with IM’s embedded
social constraints from the Booker T. Washington upbringing he experienced in
the South. IM begins to preach to the gathered crowd to quell their anger by
reminding them that “we’re a law-abiding group of people” (278). At this
moment, the protagonist’s politics shift from passive onlooker, to law-abiding
dissenter. Under his speech, IM brings into question the dispossession of
African Americans in spite of their adherence to the law. The protagonist encounters
the fragility of African Americans’ place within society and of the
shortcomings of living as he was taught to live down South. The scene results
in IM’s first act of physical protest against racial oppression and leads him
to join the Brotherhood.

            All
of the episodes in Invisible Man have
lead the protagonist to the discovery of himself and his invisibility within
society, each in their own way peeling away the layers of racial prescriptions
of identity, leaving him with nothing but invisibility and his mind. Through
the story of Invisible Man, Ellison examines
the positionality of Black bodies within the American social landscape and posits
ways of protest from within the hole of slavery’s ongoing effects. Ellison’s
troubling ending leaves the future of IM to be determined and leaves his reader
wondering if the story was “all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving”
(581). The narrator’s closing remarks lead one to speculate that IM is
expressing his integral invisibility for society. IM’s recognition of his lack
of identity due to his placelessness echoes the works of the diasporic
community in their attempts to rebuild a place of home and in their resistance
towards the idea social progress via time and forgetting. By stripping away the
imposed identities, IM is able to reflect and build out of his experiences an
identity that is essentially his own. Although it begins with invisibility,
IM’s progression towards place and identity start where the story ends and
begins, away from social impositions and expectations. As IM begins is
reintegration into society, he recognizes his unique perspective to see around
social structures that allows him to speak for those silenced and forgotten.

            

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