“INVISIBLE MAN”: What the Great African-American Novel

“I am an invisible man,” wrote the American novelist Ralph Ellison, in the famous opener to Invisible Man.

You’ve probably heard of the Great American Novel, a title for which Invisible Man is a contender.   But it is, no doubt, the Great African-American Novel.

A young, never-named black man, the novel’s “invisible man” narrates what critics have called his “nightmare journey across the racial divide” with a “voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white.”

Ellison’s man-with-no-name is so likeable, he feels heroic.   He’s introspective, always questioning — himself, his surroundings, the people around him, his place in the larger world.

He guides us, with grace, humility, and passion, across the heart of an America we would otherwise never see.

An instant hit on its 1952 publication, Invisible Man won the National Book Award with a compelling theme:   that African Americans are often seen, even by one another, as black first, and human beings — with feelings, thoughts, souls — second, third, or never.

“I am invisible,” the young man-with-no-name explains, “simply because people refuse to see me.   When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

When the young man reflects on the condescending gaze of a wealthy, white New Yorker, for instance, he contrasts North with South through the way each looks at a black person.

“It was not the harsh, uninterested-in-you-as-a-human-being stare that I’d known in the South, the kind that swept over a black man as though he were a horse or an insect;  it was something more, a direct, what-type-of-mere-man-have-we-here kind of look that seemed to go beneath my skin.”

Such is the stifling nature of America’s dysfunctional relationship with skin color.   Ellison probes that relationship in ways both naked and profound.


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