Writing the Other: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Hello Everyone,

This blog is hitting close to home. I just read a book about the black experience in America, and now I’m blogging about it days after the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police. As I sit to write today, I’m feeling a lot of anger, but rather than make this blog about my own opinions; I want to let Invisible Man speak for itself about the challenges of being a black man in America. 

If you are an ally of the black community and want to educate yourself about African American history, reading Invisible Man is a great place to start. This book is wonderful because it puts you in the mind of a young black man and lets you see the world through his eyes. Ellison tells us a complex and many-layered story. I’m sure I’m not going to do full justice to it here. This article is merely a starting point for helping you understand Invisible Man and the issues it describes.

Ralph Ellison was an African American novelist who wrote several books and essays about the black experience in America. He served in World War II and began writing Invisible Man when he returned home. It was published in 1952 and spent 16 weeks on the best seller’s list. In 1953 Invisible Man won the National Book Award. It is still considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. 

The book follows an unnamed black man as he struggles to form his identity and find his place in Anglo-American and African American society. When we first meet him, he is attending a black college in the South. He is intelligent and ambitious and has high hopes for his future and the future of his people. He believes, as he has been taught, that if he becomes educated and does his best to live a useful life, he will be doing his part to “elevate his race”.

Later the young man realizes that the leadership of the college is not practicing what they preach. They subscribe to the ideology that blacks should try to behave like whites and be “humble” (read servile) towards them.  After a series of illustrative incidents that lead to his leaving the school, he goes to New York to look for work. His experience there is one of disillusionment with one ideology, followed by enthusiasm about another. Eventually, he becomes disillusioned with ideology in general and realizes that no single ideology can ever be a fit for an entire group of people, or even for one individual.

This is a book designed to demonstrate rather than tell. It forces the reader to see injustices that one might overlook in real life. Ellison shows us how the game is rigged against black people in America; how every time they fulfill one white expectation of them, they violate another. He shows us the clash between individual identity and stereotyped racist expectations. The main character finds that his complexity as an individual is limited whenever he tries to fulfill the whites’ expectations. He decides that all definitions of blackness, both those imposed from without and those that come from the black community, keep black people from fully expressing their identities. 

Towards the end of the book, the narrator watches as his friend is shot by police. He then becomes involved in the more violent side of the protest, but ultimately is not fully satisfied by that either. He realizes that he is invisible because when people look at him, they don’t see who he really is, they only see the racist stereotype they’ve been trained to see. Ultimately, he concludes that the most effective thing he can do to conquer racism is to force people to see him in all his human complexity. 

The purpose of this blog is to review books as both a reader and a writer. Invisible Man provides a lot of food for thought from both perspectives. As a reader, I was impressed by the power of Ellison’s writing. He accomplishes what his character wants to do– making the reader see the main character as a person rather than a stereotype. It’s sad to me that the injustices described in a book from the 50’s are identical to what I see on the news today. 

For writers, this book is a wonderful example of “show don’t tell.” As I mentioned earlier, Ellison doesn’t just tell us that there are injustices; he shows us the character experiencing them. The characterization is very well done throughout the book.  If you are writing anything about a group of people ( real or imagined), who have been oppressed, marginalized, and abused, this book will help you understand the complexity of racism and write it accurately. Of course, Invisible Man is specific to the African American experience, and I’m not suggesting that it is a one size fits all answer to understanding prejudice. 

There are some similarities between the experiences described in Invisible Man and other experiences of prejudice. For instance, in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, the Native American author, and his interviewees describe being stereotyped and struggling to figure out what their identity as individuals and as a group should be. They also describe instances where groups who were supposedly working to help them did more harm than good. These are the types of overlaps in the experience of racism and prejudice that we can use as writers to create a believable and relatable society. If you are lucky enough to have never personally experienced prejudice, these books will show you how it feels. 

Invisible Man is just as important today as when it was published. I hope this blog inspires you to read it (if you haven’t) and use what it can teach to inform your advocacy and your writing. 

If you have read Invisible Man, please tell me what you thought. Are there any other books about the African American experience that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments, and please read my note below about the future of the blog.

Happy Reading!

Update On Reading The Write Way

I’ve decided to start a new “season” with the blog. Up until now I’ve been reading books from a variety of genres and trying to learn from what each genre does best. I’m hoping that you have enjoyed the journey with me and feel that it has improved your writing. This next season is going to be about reading different types of fantasy literature. This genre is dynamic and has changed enormously over the past 40 years. There are many sub-genres and they all have something to offer to readers, and to writers as well. If you are interested in writing fantasy then I hope this next season of the blog will be useful to you and show you the many options you have in the genre. If you are not a writer, then please join us to find your next favorite book (but beware of some spoilers.)

I am still putting together a definitive list of books for the next season (it will be posted on this page when it’s ready). My next blog is going to focus on two books: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin Craig and Uprooted by Naomi Novik. We are going to dive into the enchanting world of retold fairy tales and look for tips on creating our own.

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