Book 103: Invisible Man



"For the first time, as I swung along the streets, I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn't worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me, that they would have begged the pardon of Jack the Bear, never glancing his way if the bear happened to be walking along minding his business. It was confusing. I did not know if it was desirable or undesirable..."

Dates read: November 10-13, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Awards/Lists: National Book Award, Time All-Time 100 Novels, New York Times bestseller, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I've never been followed around a store by a salesperson. I've never been afraid when I've been pulled over. No one has ever treated me like I don't belong pretty much anywhere I've ever wanted to go. No one has assumed that I speak for all other people that look like me. These, and countless other indignities I don't have to suffer, are facets of my white privilege. I will never really know what it's like to live as anything other than a white woman, and in the interest of learning about what life is like outside of those confines, I've found myself more and more drawn lately to stories about experiences of people of color.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man shouldn't be confused with H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. While the sci-fi classic deals with literal invisibility, the unnamed black man who narrates his story in Ellison's novel is only figuratively invisible. We meet him at the end of his story, living in a New York City basement that he's lit up brightly by siphoning power from the utility. Ellison doesn't belabor the metaphor...right from the start, the narrator tells us that it's his status as a black man in mid-century America that renders him effectively invisible.

The novel is made up of his story and how he came to recognize his own non-entity status. And it hits you in the gut right away: the first incident he relates from his life is when he's awarded a scholarship from a prestigious philanthropic organization in the small Southern town in which he grows up. He's invited to a country club dinner to make a speech about his scholarship, but once he gets there, he and several other young black men are forced to fight each other and be humiliated chasing for electrified coins. Only after he's been degraded is he allowed to give his speech and receive the scholarship and the briefcase. It's a horrifying sequence, incredibly difficult to read, and the book is just getting started.

This experience, and the ones that the narrator has at a black college and then in New York are rooted in a fundamental denial of his humanity. He's entertainment, or a tool, or an experiment, or just disposable. He struggles and fights and gets up after being knocked down over and over again, but he can't escape the fact of his race and the broad social structures designed to keep him and other black men firmly in the underclass. And while things have gotten better today, it's maybe not as much better as we'd like to think.

This is a hard book to read. Not because of the quality...Ellison's writing is incredible. But it's heavy and dark and the unending awfulness of what the narrator is subjected to is a lot to get your head around. I usually try not to get heavily into politics on this blog, but I read this book right after the 2016 election, and it really made me think about the racism that persists in our society. Despite the "grab them by the pussy" tape that we all heard, and the many sexual assault allegations against him, a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump rather than the candidate who has worked on women's and children's issues for her entire adult life. And while there are lots of factors that motivated people to vote for him, he was an open bigot as well as an open misogynist. It's hard not to see that as white women "choosing" the interests of white supremacy over feminism. I'm not saying anyone in particular who voted for Trump is absolutely a racist or hates women, I think it's easy to underestimate your own internal bias or internalized misogyny, a lot of it works on unconscious levels. If I were a black person in America, I have to think that I'd feel pretty invisible (at best) right now too.

Tell me, blog friends...what piece of fiction has especially resonated with you lately?

One year ago, I was reading: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Two years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology 

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