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Ain Shams University Faculty of Al-Alsun Department of English Beyond Ethnicity: Aesthetic Individualism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man Submitted by: Shaimaa Suleiman Under the supervision of: Dr. Irini G. Thabet 2013

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Broadly defined, the term 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic group' refers to "a collectivity of people who share some patterns of normative behavior and form part of a larger population" (Saram 5). An ethnic group is held distinctive due to the unanimous subscription of its members to a set of traditions exclusive to this group. "Such traditions", George De Vos explains, "typically include 'folk' religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, and a common ancestry or place of origin" (De Vos 9). Invariably, ethnic groups, especially when persecuted, develop a system of communal or collective identification in which individual identity and group identity become nearly indistinguishable. This system of identification, however, raises its polemics most visibly in the United States, a country which bears simultaneously a history of promoting individualism and a history of ethnic persecution.


Page 1: Aesthetic Individualism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Ain Shams UniversityFaculty of Al-Alsun Department of English

Beyond Ethnicity: Aesthetic Individualism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Submitted by: Shaimaa Suleiman

Under the supervision of: Dr. Irini G. Thabet


Page 2: Aesthetic Individualism in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Table of Contents

I. Introduction 1

II. Invisible Man 9

III. Conclusion 25

VI. Works Cited

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I. Introduction

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Broadly defined, the term 'ethnicity' or 'ethnic group' refers to "a collectivity of people

who share some patterns of normative behavior and form part of a larger population" (Saram

5). An ethnic group is held distinctive due to the unanimous subscription of its members to a

set of traditions exclusive to this group. "Such traditions", George De Vos explains, "typically

include 'folk' religious beliefs and practices, language, a sense of historical continuity, and a

common ancestry or place of origin" (De Vos 9). Invariably, ethnic groups, especially when

persecuted, develop a system of communal or collective identification in which individual

identity and group identity become nearly indistinguishable. This system of identification,

however, raises its polemics most visibly in the United States, a country which bears

simultaneously a history of promoting individualism and a history of ethnic persecution.

Individualism refers to the ideological stance or outlook which holds "the individual" to

be "the primary element of society, taking precedence over the collective" (Heller 213). Such

stance stems primarily from the view that the individual is constantly in an eternal struggle

with collective forces external to himself. These forces attempt to shape for the individual an

identity essentially and exclusively defined by his affiliation to a collective entity, thus

hindering and negating his natural entitlement to independent self-fashioning. Taking "the

fundamental premise that the human individual is of primary importance in the struggle for

liberation" (Brown 9) as its point of departure, individualism promotes the individual's

inalienable right to pursue, on his own terms, values of uniqueness, self-reliance,

independence and freedom. The basic contention of individualism hence rests upon the simple

principle that human identity is achieved rather than ascribed.

Although originally a European term which came into use as a reaction to the French

revolution, individualism found and still finds its most vigorous expression in the United

States. It was in the U.S. that

[Individualism] became a symbolic catchword of immense ideological

significance, expressing all that has at various times been implied in the

philosophy of natural rights, the belief in free enterprise, and the American Dream.

(Lukes 59)

Commitment to these basic values of individualism is, in fact, what informed the authorship

of the most influential document in U.S. history, the Declaration of Independence. The

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Declaration famously asserted the principle that "all men are created equal; that they are

endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life,

liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", thus initially establishing individualism as the

cornerstone of American culture. A theoretical statement of the aspects of American

individualism, nonetheless, was not made until Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalist

philosopher and essayist, published his most famous essay Self-Reliance. In his manifesto of

staunch individualism, Emerson unapologetically defended individualist virtues of self-

confidence, self-worth, non-conformism and, ideally, self-reliance. He decried the pressure

exercised by society and its institutions to suppress man's unique identity.

American individualism, however, remained a rather problematic value for ethnic

groups who form a considerable portion of U.S. population. As indicated, all accepted

definitions of an 'ethnic group' denote a strong ethic of communal devotion underlying all

interactions between its members. "Persons born into such [groups] generally share a

collective identity and constitute a distinct people" (Esman 16). Yet, this dominantly

collectivist nature of ethnic groups is not without its reasons. In fact, it is when "the

community is threatened" that "individual identity and collective identity become fused"

(Esman 20) in what is known as ethnic solidarity, the threat in this context being posed by

racism, "the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism" (Rand 120).

Racism arises from and projects a collectivist sentiment. It de-individualizes the

allegedly subaltern group by evaluating its members by the characters and actions of their

collective of ancestors. Meanwhile, it reveals a sever lack of individuality on the part of the

racist group:

The overwhelming majority of racists are men who have earned no sense of

personal identity, who can claim no individual achievement or distinction, and

who seek the illusion of a “tribal self-esteem” by alleging the inferiority of some

other tribe. (Rand 121)

No ethnic group in the U.S. managed to escape institutionalized racism, discrimination as well

as social prejudice and oppression. African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and

Asians were all forced to endure the de-individualizing implications of both racism and the

communal obligation of struggling against it with their respective groups. It was, therefore,

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established among citizens of dual identity that self-worth is to be only gained through ethnic

solidarity. Nonetheless, yearning for a distinctive identity forged after the long-standing

tradition of American individualism still lurked in the deepest level of their consciousness.

Some hyphenated Americans believed that a valid counterargument to racism consisted in

pursuing individual, rather than group, rights; and promoting individual uniqueness in a

culturally plural America.

This tension between the collectivist and the individualist elements of ethnic identity is

particularly reflected in the conflicting criteria which informed the production of ethnic

literature in America. The definition and purpose of such literature had undergone several

permutations, swerving between the collectivist and the individualist sides. The collectivist

criterion regards ethnic literature as a statement against oppression and discrimination, a voice

given to the dispossessed, and a record of the collective ethnic struggle. It places more

emphasis on the historical, political and social context of literature than on its aesthetic value.

Instead, ethnic literature in such context maintains an aesthetic of its own that rests on

ethnically distinctive features derived from folk tradition. Ethnic writers, according to this

criterion, are ascribed the social responsibility of acting as spokespersons for their

communities. Conversely, the individualist criterion argues for a literature that allows for

multiple readings in various contexts, including but not limited to the ethnic context. Ethnic

writers, according to this approach, are left to draw on multiple sources for aesthetic

inspiration and associate themselves with the literary tradition they see fit. Notwithstanding

its individualism, this criterion does not call for a complete isolation from ethnic concerns. On

the contrary, it attempts to espouse individual talent with a moral concern with fighting

racism as an infringement of individual rights and freedoms.

In African-American literature, the vastest of all sub-categories of ethnic literature in

the U.S., the conflict between the collectivist and the individualist strains was the subject of

countless literary altercations. The question of 'art or propaganda' was emblematic of such

tension and informed various attempts at defining the nature and purpose of black literature

and the responsibility of the black writer. The rise of the art-propaganda question in African

American literature goes back to the year 1895 when Victoria Earl Matthews in her famous

address, 'The Value of Race Literature', called for a more aesthetically sophisticated race

literature (Ervin 36).

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Matthews's address came as a natural response to a tradition in African American

literary practice which rested upon highly politicized, later overly romanticized, interpretation

of Negro life (Matthews 37). This tradition mainly spanned the period from the Slavery Era

(1746) up to the few years preceding the New Negro Renaissance (1919). During this period

of African American history, the basic impulse for literary production was explicitly political

rather than creative. Understandably, literature "maintained as its central priorities the

abolition of slavery and the promotion of the black woman and man to a status in the civil and

cultural order equal to that of whites" (Gates 154). The literary genre known as the slave

narrative, written by both antebellum and post-bellum African Americans, perfectly embodied

such communal priorities. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, this tradition of literary

expression was exhausted. It became clear that African American literature needed a

reconcilement; it had to manifest craft and creativity while shaping and documenting the

racial struggle. This called Matthews to declare that race literature, without relinquishing its

direct relation to "the traditionary history of a people", should be developed so as to transcend

"the narrow limits of race or creed." The criteria for such development, Matthews maintained,

consisted in race literature's ability to "[reach] out to the utmost limits of soul enlargement

and [outstrip] earthly limitations" (Matthews 38).

After Matthews, the implications of the art-propaganda question evolved into a complex

conflict that intensified in the early twentieth century with the emergence of the New Negro

movement, alternatively known as the Harlem Renaissance. The New Negro movement was

born out of Alain Locke's contention that "the Sociologist, the Philanthropist, the Race-

leader", referring to W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey respectively,

had failed to account for the complexity of the Negro. Locke condemned the de-

individualizing effects the racial struggle forced upon the Negro artist. "The thinking Negro",

he suggested, was impelled to "focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in

the distorted perspective of a social problem"(Locke, "New Negro" 984). Accordingly, Locke

argued for a new literary tradition that promoted the 'self-reliant' individuality of the Negro

artist and synthesized the Negro and American components of his/her cultural makeup.

In 1928, Locke's defense of art against propaganda became more articulate. Propaganda,

he observed, "perpetuates the position of group inferiority … it is too extroverted for balance

or poise or inner dignity and self-respect" (Locke, "Art or Propaganda?" 49). Locke's ideas

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were countered by Du Bois who, in his essay 'Criteria of Negro Art', expressed his concern

that the heightened aesthetic consciousness of young artists was a conspiracy to appease

political agitation. Contrary to what he viewed as Locke's break with 'Truth' for the sake of

'Beauty', Du Bois argued that the two are indissolubly linked. This led him to infamously

conclude that "all art is propaganda and ever must be" (Du Bois 42). Amidst these literary

altercations within which Du Bois, Locke and others were involved, Langston Hughes came

up with a new paradigm for artistic creativity which appropriated Locke's individualist

cosmopolitanism and Du Bois's political obligation. He urged artists to "express our

individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame" regardless of the impression that left on

whites or blacks alike (Hughes 48). Hughes's was a last statement before the New Negro

movement came to an abrupt end against the backdrop of the Depression era.

Following the stock market crash in 1929 and the ensuing Harlem race riot of 1935, the

Black literary scene witnessed a radical change. Locke was forced to admit that art could not

transcend discrimination and mass brutalities, whereas the radical activism of Du Bois

evolved into a revolutionary aspiration for pan-Africanism. Moreover, Langston Hughes

"overtly politicized [his] work, aiming it more squarely at the working poor, and

experimenting with social and socialist realism" (Ross 166). A common, yet relative, Marxist

influence seemed to lurk behind the shift in Black literary outlook until it was given full-

fledged articulation in Richard Wright's 'Blueprint for Negro Writing'. In that essay, Wright

provided an overtly Marxist critique of the Harlem Renaissance / New Negro literature. He

contended that New Negro literature manifested the grave isolation of the black bourgeois

from the daily life of the masses. He, therefore, argued for abandoning that tradition of

"begging the question for Negroes' humanity" for another that promoted "writing for the

Negro masses, molding the lives and consciousness of those masses toward new goals"

(Wright 99). Valid aesthetics, according to Wright, were to be derived from Negro folklore

which represented "the collective sense of Negro life in America", thus deepening the Negro

masses' racial consciousness. Instead of embracing "the illusion that they could escape

through individual achievement the harsh lot of their race swung", Negro writers needed to

accept their social responsibility toward race (Wright 99). However, embracing the "Marxist

vision", he believed, "endows the writer with a sense of dignity which no other vision can

give" (Wright 102).

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With the publication of Native Son in 1940, Wright's Blueprint proved itself effective. It

theorized for a novel that officially knocked the death toll for a bygone era:

Native Son had almost single-handedly birthed and shaped a radically new agenda

and established for African American writing a new center of gravity, one pitched

toward the gritty realities of urban living for black Americans and filtered through

the lenses of urban sociology and the conventions of naturalism. (Gates 1358)

The social protest embodied by Native Son became a literary commonplace and was

definitively acknowledged as a new aesthetic practice. Writers whose work exhibited features

of the Wright aesthetic such as Chester Himes, Frank Yerby, Ann Petry were collectively

identified as the "Wright School". By and large, African American literature became

synonymous with protest.

In 1950, nonetheless, there loomed an opposing movement that aspired to topple

Wright's naturalist protest tradition. Ralph Ellison, J. S. Redding and James Baldwin, previous

admirers of Wright's Native Son and Wright himself, sensed a kind of uneasiness toward the

de-individualizing implications of the protest tradition. They rejected protest tradition on

ideological and aesthetic grounds. They expressed concern that protest muffled artistic

creativity and overlooked the cultural depth and complexity of the Negro experience in

America. It undermined the humanity of the black writer by pushing him into embracing the

Marxist ideology of political change, and of the black folk by portraying them as victims who

are helpless, forsaken, and weak and without agency. Thus, what was once a question of 'art

or propaganda?' became a question of 'art or protest?' In 1951, Redding voiced his

dissatisfaction with "the obligations imposed by race on the average educated or talented

Negro." "I am tired of giving up my creative initiative to these demands", he protested

(Redding 26). Furthermore, Ellison attacked what he believed was Wright's subscription to

the "abused notion that novels are 'weapons' … [unlike Native Son,] true novels, even when

most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life" (Ellison 114).

Ellison's rejected the didactic tenor of Wright's tradition with its emphasis upon ideology

rather than artistic craft. Similarly, Baldwin summed up the limitations of the protest tradition

in "its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its

insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended"

(Baldwin 23). The path, Ellison and Baldwin agreed, to dismissing the parochial insight of the

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protest novel and to depicting the diversity and humanity of Negro experience was through

ideological and aesthetic individualism.

Ralph Waldo Ellison's expression of individuality in art and ideology drew much on the

individualist tradition of his namesake, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ideologically, Ellison defined

the African American novel in terms of its commitment to reflecting what it meant to be both

a Negro and an American on one's own terms.

Being a Negro American involves a willed affirmation of self against all outside

pressure – an identification with the group only as extended through the individual

self which rejects all possibilities of escape that do not involve a basic

resuscitation of original American ideals of social and political liberty. (Ellison


Aesthetically, Ellison believed that the black writer should embrace a transnational

literary tradition, in which both Negro and American traditions were necessarily rooted, while

seeking to add his own individual contribution. He argued that "the black writer should not be

backed into a corner where the oddments and exotica of folklore presided over good writing"

(O'Meally 106). Accordingly, he openly admitted to have been influenced by writers outside

the black tradition such as T. S. Eliot, Malraux, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Emerson and

others. Yet, that did not mean that Ellison overlooked the aesthetic possibilities provided by

African American folk tradition. Folk tradition, he contended, provided the "humble base"

upon which "the product of individual artists" was based. Despite the riches of folk tradition,

"for the novelist of any cultural or racial identity, his form is his greatest freedom and his

insights are where he finds them" (Ellison, Shadow 172). Ellison, in fact, promoted an

individualist paradigm for writing which experimented with universal as well as ethnocentric

material and forms of expression.

Ellison's magnum opus, Invisible Man (1951), embodies his ideological and aesthetic

concern with individualism. It harnesses the aesthetic possibilities offered by the highly

creative form of meta-fiction to explore the definition, purpose and scope of the African

American novel. Meta-fiction employs intertextuality, self-conscious narration and ostantious

typography to "explore a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction" (Waugh 2).

Such features of meta-fiction, especially intertextuality, are informed by Ellison's deeply

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studious interest in African American forms such as blues, jazz, dialect, folktales and myth.

The allusive range of meta-fiction in Invisible Man, moreover, puts forth for reexamination a

vast literature that includes the works of Du Bois, Washington, Emerson, Twain, Dostoevsky,

Joyce and others. The novel examines the claims raised by the competing forces, white and

black, which attempt to categorize, exploit, essentialize and suppress the black writer's

individuality. Ellison's protagonist, a spokesperson-turned-writer, struggles against the white

racists and the philanthropists as well as the black accommodationists, nationalists and

Marxists. As a meta-fictional novel, Invisible Man is an epic portrait of the black writer's

ideological and artistic striving against suppression of individual authenticity and self-

affirmed identity.

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II. Invisible Man

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Metafiction, as defined by Patricia Waugh, is a term given to "fictional writing which

self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as artifact". Essentially, she

adds, metafiction is a literary form which celebrates "the power of the creative imagination"

(Waugh 2). Notwithstanding its metafictionality, Invisible Man slightly deviates from

Waugh's contemporary definition of metafiction in which foregrounding a novel's fictionality

is of primary importance. Ellison's work rather falls into the category of 'self-begetting

fiction', a sub-genre of metafiction proposed by Steven G. Kellman:

A fantasy of Narcissus become autogamous, the self-begetting novel projects the

illusion of art creating itself. Truly samizdat, in the original sense of "self-

publishing," it is an account, usually first person, of the development of a character

to the point at which he is able to take up his pen and compose the novel we have

just finished reading. Like an infinite recession of Chinese boxes, the self-

begetting novel again begins where it ends. … This devise of a narrative which is

in effect a record of its own genesis is a happy fusion of form and content. We are

at once confronted with process and product, quest and goal, parent and child.

(Kellman 1245-6)

Kellman, however, is cautious to point out what makes the self-begetting novel a distinctive

type of metafiction. With much correspondence to the American myth of the self-made man,

it "begets both a self and itself" (Kellman 1251). Penning a self-begetting novel, therefore,

becomes "an assertion of the individual's sovereignty in forging his own identity and a

reductive depiction of the forces which compel such assertion" (Kellman 1247). Interestingly,

Kellman also notices that most self-begetting works appear against a backdrop of exhausted


As a self-begetting novel, Invisible Man self-consciously operates within a circular

structure. The incidental details of the novel unfold between the prologue and the epilogue

where the narrator is depicted writing the novel itself. Both the prologue and the epilogue are

complementary and run simultaneously in time. In the prologue as well as the epilogue, the

narrator recounts his past experience in the outside world from "a hole in the ground"

(Ellison, Invisible 6). The narrator, thus, exhibits an awareness of that structure when he

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asserts that "the end is in the beginning" (Ellison, Invisible 6). Furthermore, the novel's

circular structure draws attention to itself through Ellison's conscious use of the boomerang

symbol. Throughout the novel, the protagonist "boomerangs" from one experience to another

in a quixotic quest for self-affirmation which, ironically, every time ends where it begins. The

narrator, Joseph Frank argues, is caught in "some type of social or cultural trap—a road opens

up before him only to end in a blind alley, a possibility of freedom tempts him but then only

imprisons him once again" (Frank 233). He starts college as a jobless, poor student and this is

how he ends up after he is deluded into believing that "within this quite greenness [he]

possessed the only identity" (Ellison, Invisible 99). Similarly, his experience with The

Brotherhood, which he naively evaluates as something making him "more human", ends

where it begins, with him being pursued by a shadowy figure (Ellison, Invisible 346).

All this time, the narrator has no control over the spinning movement of the boomerang,

until he chooses to write:

I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem

was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own. I have also been

called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called

myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I

am an invisible man. Thus I have come a long way and returned and boomeranged

from the point in society toward which I originally aspired. (Ellison, Invisible 573)

Only through writing this circular piece, the narrator creates and controls his own boomerang

rather than being boomeranged himself. Hence, "by designation a beginning and an end to his

story, he converts events that threaten to be chaotic into ones that reveal form and

significance" (Smith 43). This fulfills Ellison's vision of the artist as a man who stands up in

the face of formless chaos. The mission of art, particularly in the black artist's case, is to give

form to a chaotic existence plagued by racism and racial war by defining himself on his own


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Moreover, Invisible Man "dramatically embodies the narrator's gradual transformation

from speaker to writer," (Rice 25) with special emphasis laid on the communal and individual

implications of both roles respectively. In fact, the novel practically starts with the narrator's

denouncement of his previous career, using confessional first person narration: "I am an

orator, a rabble rouser – Am? I was" (Ellison, Invisible 14). A line of demarcation is carefully

drawn between speech, a group-oriented act, and writing, as a personal action with public

implications. Ellison, thus, implants several speeches, each emblematic of an ideology the

narrator naively embraces, within the novel to indicate the episodes leading to that


The narrator's first speech is the one he delivers at the Battle Royal in order to gain a

scholarship. The speech is clearly modeled after Booker T. Washington's "Atlanta Exposition

Address", in which he asserts the separate-but-equal principle. In fact, the narrator cites

certain parts verbatim as when he says, "cast down your bucket where you are" (Ellison,

Invisible 30). A number of signs, nonetheless, indicate that the narrator speaks for what he

does not stand for. There is a certain unwillingness involved in this oration practice as he

speaks and fights "automatically" (Ellison, Invisible 24, 30). Even the voice of the cynical

writer cannot help but intrude upon the gullible protagonist: "I delivered an oration in which I

showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed

this!)" (Ellison, Invisible 17). This speech is "the audience's speech and not Invisible Man's,

[thus] he remains voiceless" (Morel 26). The narrator's other decisive speech is delivered

from the Brotherhood's platform. Unlike the previous accommodationist speech, this one is a

highly populist, determinately radical speech that drips of leftist racial rhetoric of militancy: "I

feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear

the footsteps of militant fraternity!" (Ellison, Invisible 364). Ironically, however, all he can

see is the bulk of the crowd, figuring like "faces become vaguer and vaguer"; and all he can

feel is "mechanical isolation" toward them (Ellison, Invisible 340-1).

Only during the speech at Tod Clifton's funeral does the narrator get to see his audience

as "individuals". He is able to name the colors that make up the diverse crowd: "the dazzling

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reds, yellows, and greens of cheap sports shirts and summer dresses" (Ellison, Invisible 460).

That speech is spontaneous, purely motivated by his terror and horror at the sudden brutality

with which a police officer claims the life of a black youth just because his skin color makes

him suspicious. The Brotherhood, naturally, decries the speech as a sign of the narrator's

political rashness.

The narrator's decision to narrate and write down the details of his life is, thus, a

decision that negates outside authority over his mind and retrieves his human agency:

He relinquishes the meaning generated by other ideologies in favor of one that is

primarily self-generated. … he creates for himself a persona that develops, indeed

exists, in contradiction to the images that other projected unto him. (Smith 43)

By mastering the literary craft, he is able to tip the scales by dominating the figures of

authority who exploited his voice. They become mere characters in a fictional piece that he

can freely manipulate and humiliate as he wishes. Begetting a clearly defined self through the

practice of writing fiction alters the sociological stereotype that renders African American

fiction as mere political statements with no literary or personal merits whatsoever.

An intrinsic part of Ellison's aesthetic individualism and his metafictional project in

Invisible Man is his conscious use of intertextuality, which sets him artistically apart from his

contemporaries. Intertextuality is "a term coined by Julia Kristeva to designate the various

relationships that a given text may have with other texts" (Baldick 128). Intertextual devices

include allusion, parody, pastiche, plagiarism, quotation and translation. A number of critics,

nonetheless, argue that intertextuality is not always restricted to texts, for the plain of

reference in the novel may as well extend to parodying literary genres and conventions or

employing forms borrowed from popular and folk culture such as music, myth, folktales and

archetypes (Clayton 3-4). For Ellison, the purpose of intertextuality is twofold. On the one

hand, it intensifies the metafictionality of the text by constantly indicating an authorial

presence that seeks to establish this "network of internal cross references" among the text at

hand and other texts (Kellman 1251). Intertextuality is, in fact, a conceit of Ellison's own

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resourcefulness and his capacity to master his craft as a black writer, let alone appreciate its

diverse history. An inherent quality of textual introspection and self-reflexivity also marks

such practice. On the other hand, intertextuality materializes Ellison's project of fiction that

reflects "the interaction between his racial predicament, his individual will and the broader

American cultural freedom" (Ellison, Shadow 112-3).

A rich reservoir of the black experience in the United States which Ellison is

particularly fond of drawing on is black folklore. The term folklore refers to "the tradition,

unofficial, non-institutional part of culture that encompasses all knowledge, values, attitudes,

assumptions, feelings and beliefs transmitted through word of mouth or customary example".

Songs, rituals, jokes, proverbs and tales specific to certain communities go under the category

of folklore (Brunvand 9). Black folklore in this sense serves as a chronicle of the wisdom,

struggle, triumph, disappointment, hope, betrayal, slavery and freedom of African Americans

in the United States. Unlike many of his contemporaries and critics, Ellison realizes that

folklore "depicts the humor as well as the horror of our living" (Ellison, Shadow 80; italics

mine). That a novel famous for its celebration of individualism depicts an ethnocentric aspect

of culture like folklore with such depth and emphasis might pose a serious paradox. Such

paradox, however, proves ostensible when Ellison's conscious artistry of adapting black

folklore to the American and Western myths and folklores is considered (Washington 215;

Morel 58). By so doing, Ellison intertexts black folklore in his novel in the form of references

to or direct quotations from spirituals, blues, jazz, sermons, jokes, sayings and trickster tales

to "bridge the gap between the uniqueness and universality [individuality and diversity] of

black experience" (Blake 121). With this free play on the diverse folklore tradition of the

United States and the world, he redirects the usual sociological reading of black literary works

popularized by the protest tradition of writing.

Black spirituals are the body of slave religious songs created by plantation blacks. They

are essentially "the product of Christian piety and the slavery experience" (Moore 19). Such

songs, by offering slaves a new hope of Christian salvation, serve as "shields against the

values of slaveholders and their killing definitions of black humanity" (Gates 8). Although

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pervasively religious, it is the spirituals that have given birth to secular rhymes and songs

which carry the same values of hope and endurance. Invisible Man abounds with references

that weave spirituals and secular songs, and infuses them with universal meanings.

One example appears in the prologue where the narrator, during a reefer-induced

fantasy, encounters "an old woman singing a spiritual" (Ellison, Invisible 9; italics in the

original). A slave, the female spiritual singer discloses to the narrator that she has been

promised freedom by her master as she has children with him, a promise that remains

unfulfilled. Her children, now grown, decide to kill the master with a knife. The female slave,

out of love for both her master and her children, poisons him instead. Her story is an allusion

to the secular rhyme, "Promises of Freedom":

Yes, my ole Mosser promise me;

But "his papers" didn' leave me free.

A dose of pizen he'ped 'im along.

May de Devil preach 'is fūner'l song. (Gates 28)

The song mirrors the struggle of the dispossessed narrator who is, like a slave, made to

"confront modern "Mossers" and "Mistisses," with their own dubious promises of freedom"

(O'Meally 82). Bewildered by the story, the narrator inquires the singer about the meaning of

"this freedom you love so well," but she refuses to give a clear-cut answer. The decisive

answer, however, comes from her son who very aggressively retorts, "Git outa here and stay,

and next time you got questions like that, ask yourself!" (Ellison, Invisible 12). This answer

introduces a twist; her son, at this point, redeems the narrator from the grave mistake of

romanticizing the past experience of slavery and, hence, seeking to define one's identity in

terms of that experience alone. This is what leads George Kent to conclude that although the

slave woman is "used to comment upon the pain of victimization, … she and her sons also

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define freedom … as the ability to articulate the self, and as a question that can be answered

only by each individual's confrontation with the self" (Kent 155).

Furthermore, Ellison skillfully enlarges the connotations of the spiritual the salve sings

when he maintains that it is "as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco" (Ellison, Invisible 9).

Weltschmerz is a German term universally used to describe the frustration resulting from the

perceived disparity between reality and the ideal vision of life. It is this frustration that

constitutes the essence of flamenco songs which, although they "portray simple lyrics of

suffering, persecution and injustice", are "sung and danced with a stoic sense of pride and

fiery passion" (Rinaldi 68). This is meant to imply that the sorrowful plight of slavery, even if

it is more material to blacks than other races, is not a particular matter; man remains a slave to

earthly limitations. By the same token, black spirituals cry of the same agony and sing of the

same triumph as the Spanish flamenco.

Jazz is a genre of music that fuses spirituals, work songs, blues and European classical

music. Jazz, although squarely rooted in group experience, is a quintessential medium for

individual self-expression; it is the musical equivalent of Ellison's vision of fiction:

[Jazz] heralds the human capacity to do more than merely survive, to create an

individual self or voice that can maintain itself, under pressure, with style and

equipoise, that can confront trouble and improvise ways of coping no matter what

changes or disjunctures may get in the way. (Gates 66)

According to Ellison, it is in these moments of brilliant solo performances that the black jazz

artist transcends the chaos of existence, as exemplified by racism and segregation.

The impact and value of the art of jazz is imparted when Ellison cites Louis Armstrong's

"What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" in the novel's prologue:

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What did I do

To be so black

And blue?

The song does bear the horror and humor of the black experience in America. While it

protests the marginalization of blacks ("My only sin is my skin"), it promises a sense of

overcoming and offers consolation through the ancient but effective practice of self-mockery.

In a laughing moan, Armstrong sings, "even the mouse ran from my house". Such bluesy

jokes elicit laughter, but soon the laughter dissolves. A striking realization dawns on the

hearer, of the repulsive conditions of poverty and lack of health care that some blacks labor

under because of their skin color.

A revolutionary aspect of Armstrong's jazz, according to the narrator, is that it "gives

one a slightly different sense of time" (Ellison, Invisible 8). He compares the music to a

boxing match between "a prizefighter" and "a yokel". After a long fight, the yokel eventually

knocks the professional boxer down because he is able to "step inside of his opponent's time"

and get advantage of him. This is characteristically what Armstrong does when he "slips into

the breaks". Slipping into the breaks is when "the improvising soloist (usually singular) fills

the otherwise empty sonic space with dramatic solo obligatti, usually without abandoning the

overall performance's established feel or its tempo of rhythmic propulsion" (Anderson 88).

Armstrong has slipped into the breaks of the supremely white American society the moment

his music has become an indispensible part of the mainstream of American music. By hinting

at this, "Ellison seeks to make the erstwhile cultural leadership of an otherwise all but

invisible and disenfranchised minority group more visible and more audible to a nation

divided over the black freedom struggle" (Anderson 87). The slight temporal distortion

resulting from slipping into the breaks, furthermore, enunciates the soloist's individuality as

evident in his ability to "crave out and occupy an alternative rhythmic space within a

collective performance" (Anderson 86).

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Moreover, the narrator fanaticizes that he "not only [enters] the music but [descends],

like Dante, into its depths" (Ellison, Invisible 9). In a sense, he literally slips into the breaks of

music and sees the source of its agony and hope. On one level, he encounters the spiritual

singer. On yet a lower one, he sees "a beautiful girl pleading before a group of slave-owners

who bid for her body" (Ellison, Invisible 9). When he reaches the bottom of the music he

hears a sermon on "the blackness of blackness". He remains there ambivalent and scared until

the spiritual singer son sobers him again. These levels, in fact, are the levels of the American

inferno of slavery and false promises of freedom. They are the source from which the

triumphant, yet melancholic, sound of the jazz soloist issues. Jazz, hence, becomes the symbol

of overcoming such hellish experiences. Like Armstrong, "who made poetry out of being

invisible", the narrator makes fiction out of his invisibility. This allusion to Dante's Divine

Comedy serves indeed to universalize Ellison's message that is meant to reach the biggest

segment of his non-black audience.

Trickster tales, especially animal tricksters, are immensely present in Invisible Man.

Tricksters, as defined by Cristiano Grottanelli, are "breakers of rules, but though they are

tragic in their own specific way, their breaking of rules is always comical". An animal

trickster "is a crafty, rather than a powerful, beast" (Grottanelli 119). In African American

folklore, trickster tales are established forms that date back to the early days of slavery. They

chronicle fictive tricks that slaves play to outdo their masters in order to impart a technique of

survival for the younger generations. Such tales, hence, "exalt the rising of the lowly, turning

the tables on the oppressors" (Nicholas 11).

One of the tales Ellison implants in his work is that of Bre'r Dog and Bre'r Rabbit. The

work is structurally and thematically built upon the story entitled "Why Mr. Dog Runs Bre'r

Rabbit". Bre'r Rabbit, who has just bought some fish, meets Mr. Dog on the way home. Mr.

Dog threatens him that he will not let him go unless he tells him where he has been fishing.

Consequently, Bre'r Rabbit tells him that he uses his tail to catch fish, which is a trick. Mr.

Dog, upon that revelation, uses the same technique but his tail is frozen in the water. After he

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releases himself, he angrily searches for Bre'r Rabbit. When he finds him, he punishes him by

keeping him running round the woods. The dog in black folklore, as O'Meally suggests, is "an

enigmatic and deceptive fellow" (O'Meally 82). The threatening image of the dog goes back

to the days when slaves used to be guarded by fierce and wild dogs.

The Invisible Man is made to run in circles by two authority figures who conjure the

image of the dog: Dr. Bledsoe and Brother Jack. While still under the illusion of Dr. Bledsoe's

accommodationist program, the Invisible Man dreams of his slave grandfather who hands him

a letter that reads, "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running" (Ellison, Invisible 33). This foreshadows

the letter of expulsion Bledsoe sends with the unsuspecting narrator as a letter of


Thus, while the bearer is no longer a member of our scholastic family, it is highly

important that his severance with the college be executed as painlessly as possible.

I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like

the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler.

(Ellison, Invisible 191)

The narrator tries to fit in at school and act upon the orders, even when he distrusts them. Yet,

he fails to trick Dr. Bledsoe and is instead tricked. As a child, he has been familiar with

Master, a bulldog he "liked, but didn't trust". He goes on to describe Brother Jack as "a toy

bull terrier", which indicates that he is untrustworthy (Ellison, Invisible 301). Like Mr. Dog,

in the folktale, Jack tricks not only the Invisible Man, but the entire Harlem community. After

the narrator's impassioned speech, he reminds him that "you made an effective speech. But

you mustn't waste your emotions on individuals, they don't count" (Ellison, Invisible 314).

This is a precursor to the political betrayal to the people of Harlem whom the Brotherhood

mobilizes for equal rights and then ignores because of matters the organization deems more

important. This also serves as a historical allusion to the Communist Party's shift of political

attention from the civil rights issue so as to respond to the necessities of Soviet Union foreign

policy during the war. As Daryl C. Dance concludes, "the similarities of theme appearing

throughout [trickster] tales from the slave anecdotes to the contemporary stories, suggest that

for Black Americans very little has changed" (Dance xvii). The message imparted by Ellison's

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use of trickster tales is that survival is not a matter of tricking the oppressor as much as it is a

matter of being conscious of the oppressor's tricks.

Invisible Man also alludes to a number of "unwritten jokes" (Ken 157). The notorious

Battle Royal scene, for instance, is partly based on the folk joke where a white man overhears

a black man expressing his desire for the forbidden white woman:

Black: Oh, Lord, will I ever?

White: No, nigger, never!

Black: As long as there's life, there's hope.

White: As long as there's trees, there's rope. (Dance 101)

In that scene, the narrator and a group of other black boys are placed in a farcical situation

where they are being forced to watch a white stripper, "a magnificent blonde—stark naked"

(Ellison, Invisible 19). Normally, the scene evokes in the narrator conflicting emotions

swerving between lust and fear: he "wanted at one and the same time … to caress her and

destroy her, to love her and to murder her" (Ellison, Invisible 19). Kent highlights the

significance of this scene as "a ritual to stamp upon them [the narrator and the boys] the

symbolic castration they are supposed to experience in the presence of a white woman" (Kent

99). Ellison, however, expands the significance of this racial joke to reveal the sexist aspect it

implies. Ellison not only dramatizes the white men's bawdy expression of lust for the striper,

but also hints at "the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror" (Ellison,

Invisible 20) A larger interpretation of the joke, thus, reveals that, beyond racial barriers,

"both [the black narrator and the white striper] are exploited objects for sensual

entertainment" (Tate 167).

Although "Ellison's spiritual roots are … deep in the black American folk tradition", his

involvement with the western literary tradition remains above all immense. Such involvement

"emanates from his sincere belief that it is the duty of every writer, black or white, to be fully

aware of the best that has ever been written" (Neal 120). By setting the works of Joyce,

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Twain, Dostoevsky and Emerson as intertexts for Invisible Man, Ellison actively defies

segregation rather than protesting against it à la Naturalists.

In a famous interview from Paris Review, Ellison states that while living in Dayton,

Ohio, in 1937, he "practiced writing and studied Joyce all night" (Ellison, Shadow 169). His

indebtedness to the legacy of James Joyce is indeed manifested through the thematic and

structural similarities between Invisible Man and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In

the prologue, Ellison's narrator describes an episode where he "accidentally [bumps] into … a

tall blonde man" who, as a reaction, utters a racial slur. Offended, the Invisible Man violently

demands an apology: "Apologize! Apologize!" (Ellison, Invisible 4). His demand instantly

reveals itself to the reader as a direct allusion to the opening nursery rhyme of shame and guilt

in Joyce's novel:

Pull out his eyes,



Pull out his eyes,


Pull out his eyes,

Pull out his eyes,

Apologize, (Joyce 5)

The confounding correspondence between the two, as Alan Nadel observes, consists in the

fact that "the cries for apology combine with the threat of blindness" (Nadel 35). Ellison's

narrator fails to evade the accident because of "the near darkness". He admits that the "man

had not seen me" and calls him a "blind fool" (Ellison, Invisible 5). The novel is abundant

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with imagery of blindness beyond this particular incident. Joyce's Stephen Dedalus is

subjected to the savage threat that "the eagle will come and pull out his eyes", which

necessarily leads to blindness (Joyce 5). Unlike Joyce, however, "Ellison locates these traits

[blindness and sightlessness] in the antagonist not the protagonist" (Nadel 35). American

society, as symbolized by the blond man, is past the threat of blindness; it is readily blinded

by racism, as a matter of fact. Joyce's threatening "eagle" is, in the context of Ellison's work,

reminiscent of the national bird of the United States chosen by its founders and symbol of

American pride. Ironically, this eagle pulls out America's eyes. America is blind by white

pride and, therefore, robs itself of its democratic pride. By refusing to grant Negroes freedom

and equal rights and treat them as individuals, America is guilty of betraying the basic

democratic ideal upon which it is founded.

Like Joyce's protagonist, Ellison's narrator is facing "the general challenge of balancing

the values of individual integrity and racial solidarity" (Anderson 84). Throughout the novel,

Stephen's individual freedom as demonstrated by an immense love for art and sensual beauty

is constantly stifled by religion, politics or problems pertaining to the Irish race. The Invisible

Man, like Stephen, is "boomeranged" from one experience to another where he seems to

conform but fails eventually. He is subject to indoctrination by Bledsoe, Brother Jack and Ras

as much as Stephen is by his father or at school. Ellison's narrator contemplates this

dichotomy after he delivers an emotionally charged speech, sponsored by The Brotherhood, to

mobilize the black residents of Harlem into action against the government. In this speech, the

potential race leader claims that he derives from his race's "fraternal land" what makes him

"more human" (Ellison, Invisible 346). Yet, he then ponders the phrase and wonders what it

could possibly mean. This brings him to the vivid memory of his teacher and "the blackboard

chalked with quotations from Joyce …" (Ellison, Invisible 354). More vividly, the narrator

remembers his teacher's insightful diagnosis of Stephen's, and the Invisible Man's, plight:

I could hear him: "Stephen's problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating

the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his

face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. The conscience of a race is

the gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record . . . We create the race by

creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created

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something far more important: We will have created a culture. Why waste time

creating a conscience for something that doesn't exist? For, you see, blood and

skin do not think!" (Ellison, Invisible 354)

These words evoke clearly Ellison's attitude to the "Negro problem" in America. Instead of

resorting to ethnic solidarity as a survival technique in the face of racism, Ellison believes that

salvation for Negroes begins with dismissal of the homogenizing ideologies cultivated by

pragmatic race leaders. Racial equality, according to Ellison, will free the black race but not

necessarily black individuals. Therefore, he urges the African American individual to "forge

in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race" (Joyce 228). Both Ellison's

protagonist and Joyce's re-create themselves through fulfilling the very personal vocation of

writing. Stephen rejects all the authoritarian voices ("my home, my fatherland, or my church")

and professes to "express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly

as I can" (Joyce 222). Similarly, Ellison's narrator heeds to "the compulsion to put invisibility

down in black and white" (Ellison, Invisible 14). They both reach a level of transcendence

where "the artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above

his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent" (Joyce 191).

The impact of Mark Twain and his enduring American classic, The Adventures of

Huckleberry Finn, on Ellison is indubitable. In his essay, 'Twentieth Century Fiction and the

Black Mask of Humanity', Ellison hails Twain's novel for evoking "the compelling image of

black and white fraternity". The fusion in Huck's character between the virtues of humanism

and individualism is what makes Ellison regard Twain "as a highly moral an artist as he was a

believer in democracy". This retrospective review, however, brings Ellison to the realization

that Twain's is the century's last depiction of the Negro as "a rounded human being" who

transcends naturalist sentimentalism and white stereotypes (Ellison, Shadow 32-4).

Through his allusion to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ellison seeks to defy this

limitation of Negro portrayal and revise the American understanding of Twain's work. In

chapter nine, Ellison's narrator is encountered with young Emerson, the son of one of the

school's white trustees. He is sent there with Dr. Bledsoe's letter of recommendation, which is

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in reality the complete opposite. Young Emerson, knowing the real content of the letter,

vaguely implies to the narrator that meeting Mr. Emerson is unadvisable. When the narrator

protests against what he deems an arbitrary decision stemming from anti-black prejudice,

Emerson Jr. apologetically reassures the narrator that "with us it is still Jim and Huck Finn …

I'm Huckleberry, you see". Ironically, this is immediately followed by the narrator's

exclamation, "I tried to make sense of his ramblings. Huckleberry? Why did he keep talking

about that kid's story?" (Ellison, Invisible 188). Indeed, young Emerson is no Huck Finn. He

is rather subconsciously the liberal philanthropist, a young Mr. Norton in a sense. It is white

guilt, rather than a firm belief in equality, that compels him to offer the narrator his help. This

appears more clearly in such slips as "some of the finest people I know are Neg—" (Ellison,

Invisible 190). Unlike Huck, who, by insisting to keep Jim, "[makes] independent responsible

decisions in the face of a pervasively corrupt society", Emerson Jr. is incapable of such action

Nadel 127). "Ellison has stressed the importance of this decision not as fantasy but as action"

(Nadel 129). Young Emerson only secretly fantasizes about resisting the American racist

society but is put off by his fear of the social consequences. Therefore, he tells the narrator,

"you're free of him [Mr. Emerson] now. I'm still his prisoner … I've still my battle" (Ellison,

Invisible 192). The black narrator thus assumes the role of a black Huck, with its sheer

roundness; he frees himself and bears the responsibility of his own actions.

One of Ellison's major dissatisfactions with the policy of the New Masses, a leftist

magazine Wright has helped Ellison to work for, is that "they hated Dostoevsky, but I was

studying Dostoevsky" (Ellison, Shadow 86). It is understandable, thus, that the legacy of

Dostoevsky exerts such an immeasurable influence on Ellison's Invisible Man. Notes from

Underground is the immediate classic that Ellison's novel conjures due to what Joseph Franks

considers "the self-evident resemblances between the two works" (Frank 232).

Ellison's opening statement, "I am an invisible man" (Ellison, Invisible 3), evokes

Dostoevsky's "I am a sick man" (Dostoevsky 15). Both statements are written in the first

person, thus affirming the narrator's agency even when undermined by metaphysical

(invisibility) or physical (sickness) conditions. A more noticeable correspondence, however,

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is the "underground" motif in both works. The Invisible Man is a replica of Dostoevsky's

Underground Man. In fact, this motif, in the cultural context of Dostoevsky's use of it,

coincides with Ellison's attempt to make clear his position in relation to the dominating white

and black ideologies. The Underground Man, a member of the Russian intelligentsia, retires

to his hole in a symbolic indication of

… the impossibility he feels of being able to live humanly within categories that,

although he has learned to accept them about himself, have been imposed on him

by others … The revolt of the Underground Man is a refusal to accept a definition

of himself, a definition of his own nature, in terms imposed by the alien world of

European culture. (Frank 232)

Similarly, the well-educated Invisible Man escapes to his hole from the reductive definitions

imposed on the Negro individual. The accommodationist college wishes to eradicate his

Negro roots, Mary and Ras cast him as a Messianic figure who sacrifices himself for the racial

struggle, whereas The Brotherhood reduces him to a mere tool for their political interests. He

thus distrusts all these definition which "violate some aspect of his own integrity" as a Negro

and a human being (Frank 233). Moreover, there is an unmistakable structural similarity

between the two works. Invisible Man is an episodic novel; the narrator enters into several

episodes that are in fact encounters with several ideologies such as accommodation, unionism,

nationalism and communism. The same pattern appears in Dostoevsky's novel which is

divided in two parts; each parodying the narrator's encounter with a European ideology

imported to Russia such as materialism (Part I) and utopian socialism (Part II).

The diversity, moreover, that marks Ellison's literary influences starts with his name. He

is named Ralph Waldo Emerson after the great American thinker and proponent of staunch

individualism, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Harold Bloom maintains that Ellison's name "[reflects]

a father’s hope that his son’s life would not be constrained by the color of his skin and would

by its own virtue and power advance the standing of the black race in America" (Bloom 14).

It is, thus, no coincidence that the central metaphor of blindness upon which Invisible Man is

based emanates from Emerson's seminal work, Self-reliance. In his essay, Emerson decries

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the uncritical conformity to society's institutions as "a blindman's-buff". "Most men", he

proceeds to say, "bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves

to some one of these communities of opinion" (Emerson 23).

In Invisible Man, where "invisibility is a function of blindness", Emerson's "blindman's-

buff" is fully at work (Nadel 122). Part of the Battle Royal spectacle, for instance, is a boxing

match where black students fight blindfolded in an undignified manner to please the white

audience. The narrator, however, admits that "all ten of us … allowed ourselves to be

blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth" (Ellison, Invisible 21; italics mine). This

indicates that Negroes in America are not helpless as portrayed by some; they are capable

individuals who have the will to choose not to be blinded and forge their way on their own.

Furthermore, the statue of the college Founder has "empty eyes" (Ellison, Invisible 36). The

blindness of the statue mirrors the blindness of the Founder, potentially Booker T.

Washington, who manipulates blacks into upholding the myth of a progress that makes sure

they stay in their place, marginalized and "without individuality" (Ellison, Invisible 111).

Homer A. Barbee, the reverend who preaches a sermon exalting the heroism of the Founder

is, ironically, blind. The narrator remembers seeing "the blinking of sightless eyes" (Ellison,

Invisible 133). Barbee is one of one of the Founder's victims; he is blind to the Founder's iron

authority and his betrayal to his own people. Brother Jack, one of the novel's most darkly

intimidating figures and a representative of the Communist Party, wears a "blind glass eye"

(Ellison, Invisible 475). Jack, when this fact is revealed, is invested in an angry rant where he

tries to substitute the narrator's belief in "personal responsibility" with an ethic of "sacrifice"

(Ellison, Invisible 475). At this point, it becomes clear to the narrator that blindness is the

equivalent of sacrificing one's own individuality.

By drawing on diverse literary and non-literary sources that serve as a textual backdrop

for his novel, Ellison proves that the black writer's imagination transcends the color line: "if

we are in a jug, it is transparent … and one is allowed not only to see outside but read what is

going on out there" (Ellison, Shadow 116). With Ellison's brilliant use of intertextuality,

Indivisible Man becomes a miniature of the America he envisions, one whose "greatness lies

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in the diversity of individualism" (Leary 64). The colorful fabric of America's literature

necessitates the recognition of its colorful demography.

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III. Conclusion

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The term 'ethnicity' is used to refer to a set of distinctive cultural markers such as

ancestry, appearance, cuisine, dress code, history, language or dialect, religion, symbols, and

traditions commonly shared by a certain group of people. Due to such shared characteristics,

ethnic groups are communal by nature as well as by definition. Usually, this communalism

evolves into a complex system of ethnic solidarity when members of a certain ethnic group

are impelled by prejudice to become more vigilant of their distinctive characteristics. As a

result, individuals within ethnic communities generally veer toward group-oriented

identification. In the United States, where both racism and individualism are simultaneously

upheld, individuals who belong to marginalized ethnic communities have always been faced

with a serious paradox. They are clueless as to how to reconcile the communal (ethnic) and

the individualist (American) parts of their identity. Such individuals find themselves required

to live up to the communal obligation of fighting along with their struggling ethnic

communities for equality and liberation. Meanwhile, they are supposed to emulate the long-

standing American principle of individualism by defining themselves in terms of achieved

rather than ascribed identities. In the ethnic literature of the United States, this dilemma is

fully at work and is perfectly epitomized by the art-propaganda binary which dominates the

interpretations of ethnic literature.

Throughout the history of African American literature, there have been numerous

literary altercations over the definition and purpose of black literature. Debate has raged

unabated over whether African American literature is art or political and social propaganda,

and has been naturally informed by political, economic and social conditions. The

individualist side of the debate has argued for literature as a medium for the black artist's

innovative self-expression and a celebration of the artistic imagination's vision of the human

condition. The communal, and rather ethnically nationalist, side, nonetheless, has submitted

that black literature is purely a political statement whose sole purpose is to mobilize society in

favor of equal rights and political enfranchisement of blacks. The heated exchanges between

both sides are championed by renowned figures such as Alain Locke, Du Bois, Langston

Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. A famous and subtle example of

this conflict is Baldwin and Ellison's outspoken advocacy of giving precedence to artistic craft

over political protest, of which Richard Wright is a major proponent. Wright's school of

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protest fiction has been well established in the literary world by the time Baldwin and Ellison

decided to challenge it. Rooted in the naturalist literary tradition and the ideological tenets of

Marxism, Wright's protest has a set of major limitations. Both Ellison and Baldwin explain

that protest fiction confines the black artist to the parochial realm of his race's social and

political repression, thus actively exerting further repression by stifling the artist's imaginative

faculty. Furthermore, although protest novels seem to draw solely on ethnocentric sources,

their treatment of such sources remains shallow. The portrayal of the Negro in protest fiction

is strikingly reductive, depicting only the weak and vulnerable side of the black experience

and emptying it of the natural contradictions that define blacks as humans above all. Thus,

aesthetic individualism that innovatively synthesizes material derived from literary and non-

literary traditions, black and white, and leaves room for artistic improvisation and

experimentation has been deemed by Ellison and Baldwin as a method to redefine black

literature and the mission of the black writer.

Ralph Ellison's magnum opus, Invisible Man, embodies his belief in aesthetic

individualism that rejects and resists categorization and reduction of the black writer's

individual talent. He experiments with metafiction and metafictional devises such as self-

begetting and intertextuality, thus employing and reproducing a literary form new to African

American literature in the 50's. Within a self-begetting frame, the narrator provides a first-

person account of his remarkable transformation from the spokesperson of several political

organizations to be the writer of this novel, revealing in the process the de-individualizing

pressure exercised by such organizations and the ideologies they stand for. Moreover, the

novel self-reflexively explores how the narrator attains self-discovery and self-achievement

through writing. The black narrator's encounters with ideologies of accommodation,

nationalism and communism are dramatized through implanting several speeches, and are

simultaneously mocked by the writer's intrusive comments laying bare the short-sightedness

of these ideologies and their failure to serve the black struggle.

Furthermore, the use of intertextuality in Invisible Man is by all means revolutionary. It

defies the conventions of Marxist realism which, purely concerned with politics, lays little

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emphasis on the black writer's duty to assimilate diverse literary traditions and exhibit a

reasonable awareness of the textual heritage informing his career as a writer. Ellison, thus,

draws on numerous cultural sources ranging from Homer to racial jokes to serve as a textual

backdrop to the novel. On one hand, this intensifies the textuality of the novel, places it in the

international literary canon and pays a tribute to the innovative authorial presence behind its

creation. On the other hand, it establishes a dialectical interaction between the black tradition

and the larger tradition of American and world literatures. The novel, for instance, re-

examines and re-interprets black folklore. Instead of romanticizing folklore, Ellison

introduces a balanced vision of folklore as a symbol of black humanity bearing marks of the

black struggle as well as signs of hope, self-definition and overcoming. Ellison's complex and

multifaceted allusions to folklore further enlarge the connotations of black spirituals, jazz,

folktales and jokes by illustrating the individual aspect of these communal forms and relating

them to the larger heritage of international myth and folklore. Moreover, Ellison alludes to

works by Joyce, Twain, Dostoevsky and Emerson so as to show that what some African

Americans see as their ethnic plight of oppression, injustice, and inauthenticity is, in fact, a

universal plight that can be only overcome by self-confrontation and bearing one's own

personal responsibility. This diverse textual background, moreover, serves to illustrate that

diversity and pluralism, which preserve every individual's unique identity, are the key to

realizing the original democratic principle upon which America is originally founded.

To conclude, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man creates an aesthetic universe of its own

which only Ellison himself, as a self-achieved individual and artist, controls and manipulates.

It breaks away, aesthetically and conceptually, from all the reductive political and literary

norms to introduce a conscious black hero who defines himself by following his own

vocation. The novel establishes the principle that the individual's freedom is the core of

freedom and equality in society as a whole. The black artist's freedom to transcend the color

line and write creatively and imaginatively rather than act as a spokesman for a political cause

is, as shown in the novel, where the liberation of the black race begins. The novel also serves

as a miniature of the future America Ellison envisions—an America no less diverse than the

culturally plural tradition which molds the novel. Invisible Man's diverse heritage suggests

that American culture and African American culture are as much preconditioned by the

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presence of each other, and that both are inescapably a product of the universal human

condition which knows no color.

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