“The Ironic Progress of Ellison’s Invisible Man”
There are many ways to examine Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man and although each would sufficiently weave into the context of other topics, points and social enquiry, the focus will undoubtedly end with the likely discussion of the main character’s identity. By tracking the storyline and quotations from the text, the reader will have a more informed sense of the thought process bringing to light the struggle of the main character with his own identity. Ralph Ellison remarkably shows multiple ways of “seeing” this character and his struggles through imagery, objects and internal monologue that the reader can use to follow the ironic progress and the development of his identity. In not having a name throughout the entire novel, the reader can already understand how significant the idea of being “invisible” really is. By Ellison choosing not to name his protagonist, he proclaims a major purpose of the novel which is to discover the identity of his narrator. The reader can also understand how this novel could widely be synonymous with most anyone and everyone, rather than someone in particular. Ellison chooses to leave the narrator without a name to represent many historical figures, slaves, role models and those confused in modern societies who walk in the shadow of not knowing themselves or the history from which they come. This is the true responsibility of the novel, to shed light on the ironic truth of understanding IM’s relation to that society and inevitably, that society to each of us in our own way. Ellison shows the reader through his unnamed character and the objects that he encounters how this lack of understanding can feel like imprisonment inside one’s own self, and by extension, the social self. Through the objects that IM encounters, he shows ironic progression of having ability to learn both how he sees himself and how he allows others to see him, while remaining powerless and ineffective in his own insight. Even in the foreshadowing Epilogue, IM remains partially unaware of what his identity is, saying “what do I really want” (575) and in answering himself, he shows he is learning something after all, stating “certainly not the freedom of Rhinehart, or the power of Jack, nor simply the freedom not to run” (575). Just as there are many faces of this novel, there are many sides to examine the responsibility and the irresponsibility of grandfather’s last words alike and how they come to represent IM. IM informs the reader early that “responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (14). In examining the objects closer, the reader will understand just what state of mind IM has come from in order for him to understand to whom and how he wants to be responsible. In that progression, IM will shed light on certain personal and social irresponsibility so that the reader may examine and recognize for themselves.
The first chapter is dedicated to allowing the reader see how confused and unrecognizable IM is as a student, a grandson and an individual in a racially biased society. His grandfather dies and gives him an inexplicable speech imploring that IM “keep up the good fight” (16) and to “live with [his] head in the lion’s mouth” (16) as their “life is a war” (16). His grandfather tells him to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). IM and the reader have no idea what to make of his grandfather’s confessional last words that he has “been a traitor all [his] born days, a spy in the enemy’s country” (16) ever since he “give up [his] gun back in the Reconstruction” (16). This speech shows the naiveté that IM starts measuring in his own self and in the events and objects that surround him throughout the novel. The reader is instantly clued in to how naïve IM really is when he is “warned emphatically” (16) to forget what his grandfather has said to him and ironically, is rewarded for his doing the opposite of his grandfather’s words. The irony is that he cannot understand it however the way it is written, the reader can infer the meaning and see this cycle begin the progression of the main character. The reader can see IM’s lack of vision the way that despite what he feels as “guilty and uncomfortable” (16) about the puzzle that is grandfather, he receives positive recognition whenever things go well for him. IM recognizes that the “most lily-white men of the town” (16) approve of his actions and “everyone loves him” (16) for his “desirable conduct” (17), just as his grandfather had been. IM is still puzzled as to why his grandfather would ironically call this behavior “treachery” (17) and now also afraid that whites would look on him as a “traitor” (17) and that he “would be lost” (17). This is the irony of how IM sees and does not see himself in the beginning of the novel. The reader can sense that IM has an inclination that his “perfect” behavior might not be the right way to go. This is shown by IM’s internal monologue that he believes what he is doing to be right and what the whites have wanted. IM cannot recognize the racial situation he lives under or the “fight” that his grandfather wishes him to continue. On graduation day, IM gives a speech showing that “humility was the secret, indeed, the very sense of progress” (17). He is so conflicted with the identity and what to believe that he is thinking that he does not believe this idea, “how could [he], remembering [his] grandfather?” (17). This confliction sets the tone for how Ellison will reveal the progress or lack of it to the reader throughout the novel and through the objects he comes in contact with.
At the early Battle Royal scene, IM is thrown into a ring to fight for a prize before being granted the privilege of giving his well-rehearsed speech. There are other negro boys there as well, all being taunted by a large and raucous white crowd of elite businessmen. IM is oblivious of the derogatory remarks and racially biased tension being thrown at the young group of boys, as well as the very nature of the battle royal itself as a way to denigrate them as negro people. He can only think of perfecting his speech. Once the embarrassing and denigrating battle royal is over, IM is granted time to make his speech and does so with a mocking audience. He makes the mistake of replacing social “responsibility” with a more intense social “equality” (31), infuriating the white men who question him about his intent of the words. IM cannot not recognize that these white men are mocking him by calling him “boy” (31) and they ask him if he is “sure about that ‘equality’ [being] a mistake” (31). Being without a sense of identity and without a notion of what he wants to stand for, IM simply agrees with them and confirms “oh, yes sir” (31) that it is a mistake he makes while “swallowing blood” (31). He is told that the white men “mean to do right by [him] but [IM] got to know [his] place at all times” (31). IM says “thank you sir” (31), concludes his speech and is given a calf-skin briefcase by the men. IM is told to keep it and to “consider it a badge of office” (32). This is the first recognition IM receives in the form of an object and feels a grave misplaced sense of responsibility in having it. He does not see the racial tension swelling or the bias before, during or immediately after the battle royal. He cannot understand the irony of having a briefcase for his white recognitions in a society of racial denigration. Despite his naïve events of the day, he dreams that his grandfather tells him to open the briefcase and read what is inside of it. He recognizes that there are envelope inside of envelope, inside still more envelope until IM reaches a note and is asked to read it aloud. The note says “to whom this may concern, keep this nigger-boy running” (33). With this IM wakes with his grandfather’s laughter ringing in his ears. He recognizes something isn’t right, however has little clue as to what that might be. The briefcase becomes a way the reader can follow the ironic progress of IM as he begins to put critical identity possessions inside of it.
Ellison does a remarkable job at juxtaposing the objects so the reader gets a deeper sense or intent to each item being collected. One such example is of the two shackles that are given to IM, each with very different connotation and each with a new recognition by the main character. The first is given when IM goes off to college, meets the college president, Dr. Bledsoe who becomes a role model for IM until IM takes a school elite into an extremely impoverished and struggling area of town. IM and this elite, Mr. Norton are vexed by problems of a local farmer and then the vet at the local bar, causing Mr. Norton much angst. IM is reprimanded by Dr. Bledsoe, who in turns speaks down to IM and pulls out a shackle which he proudly calls a “symbol of our progress” (141). Bledsoe tells IM that he believes that IM has “got to be disciplined, boy” (141), linking the idea of progress to the notion of being acceptable disciplined. The shackle is described as having “smooth” (389) edges, showing the reader that it had been freely and gently removed by choice. This is ironic progress in the way that the shackle represents to this point the progress Bledsoe and IM has made, despite not having to fight for recognition. A lesser ironic point is how a black leader would ever call someone with whom he has care over a “boy” and Bledsoe uses this term several times to an unknowing IM. IM just cannot place the problem or connotation of the language.
This contrasts dramatically with the second shackle that IM is given later in the novel by a black member of the Brotherhood named Brother Tarp. The Brotherhood recruits IM to make speeches and to incite passion in the other members of the Brotherhood for a call to action. Brother Tarp literally has had to escape the chains by saying “no to a man who wanted to take something from [him]” (387). The shackle is “what it cost” (387) for him to say no to the man, to say “hell no” (387). This is ironic to IM since his grandfather’s words were to “overcome ‘em with yeses” (16) and here is a man having to fight the “good fight” by saying the exact opposite. Tarp says that he thinks of the shackle in “terms of but two words, yes and no” (388). He gives it to IM for luck and IM can see the distinct difference between this shackle and the one on Bledsoe’s desk. This shackle “bore the marks of haste and violence” (389), showing two ways that black men have struggled to be recognized historically. Tarp’s shackle has been “attacked and conquered before it stubbornly yielded” (389), meaning it has been hammered until broken away for sake of his freedom. For IM, this is ironic progress in that he cannot see what is being lost around him and yet Tarp’s shackle is a reminder of what has been personally lost, meaning his wife, his boys and a piece of land. IM reluctantly accepts the gift and recognizes that he feels he “neither wanted it now knew what to do with it” (389), although there is no question that he will keep it if for other reason that Brother Tarp’s gesture is deeply significant and compels IM to respect it. Here IM cannot understand why he would want the shackle or why it would be given by Brother Tarp. He ironically cannot see the representation of the struggle, the fight for a freedom.
Up to this part of the novel, IM has been preplanned, well-rehearsed and tries to keep his perspective in the same light. An object that Ellison uses to show the reader this ironic transition of a sort by IM becoming more free-thinking is the blueprints. When IM is sent away from the school with letters from Dr. Bledsoe to various men in the city who would “help” those sent to them, IM meets a man pushing a cart piled high with rolls of blue paper and singing the blues. They begin to speak as the man asks IM about his life in very coded language that IM does not understand. IM wants to leave yet finds “certain comfort in walking along beside him” (175), so he asks about his rolls of blueprints. The man explains that people get rid of their blueprints because “they get in the way and every once in a while they have to throw ‘em out to make place for new plans” (175). He goes on saying that “folks is always making plans and changing ‘em” (175). IM agrees, thinking about the letters Bledsoe had given to him, then objects “that’s a mistake” (175), arguing that “you have to stick to the plan” (175). Even though no blueprint ends up in the briefcase, this is a key piece of ironic progress for IM in that this man is outright showing him the need to change plans and ideas and IM still thinks that the best way to be recognized and seen is by sticking to the plan of returning to school and Bledsoe. The man looks at IM gravely and says “you kinda young, daddy-o” (175) giving a clue to the reader that IM is still not recognizing another answer to help with his confliction. IM thinks to himself that he “liked his words even though [he] didn’t know the answer” (176) to their meaning. The progress in this scene is that IM is now recognizing parts of himself in the blues songs and coded language and that he has “known the stuff since childhood, but had forgotten” (176). Still, IM is ironically proud to have “resisted the pork” (178) at the drugstore he eats at on the way to the meeting with Emerson thinking this is recognition of a sort. He thinks this is an “act of discipline, a sign of change” (178) that is coming over him, as Bledsoe would want in order to vindicate him and get him back into school. He is emulating Dr. Bledsoe and thinks that the “secret of leadership” (179) is somehow attached to “keeping them guessing-just as they guessed about Dr. Bledsoe” (178) and how Bledsoe is “never out of [their] minds” (179).
The plan changes almost immediately for IM as he carries the last remaining Bledsoe letter to Mr. Emerson, and is intercepted by the assistant. The assistant asks IM if he has read the letter, which IM immediately defends that he has not. He is asked how many letters he has carried and replies that he had seven, to which to the assistant recognizes the irony of the situation and is angered now, even though that IM cannot see. IM maintains that he does “expect to hear from the others” (185) although he has not and this Emerson letter being his last. This is ironic progress in that IM is learning the ideas of what he believes is leadership through Bledsoe, the importance of planning and recognition, yet he cannot see or recognize how these letters are meant to simply “keep this nigger-boy running” (33). IM still believes that he should see Mr. Emerson, despite the assistant’s words of wisdom to not see Mr. Emerson and even asks the assistant “what have you got against me?” (189). This is yet another ironic moment that IM cannot recognize. IM is forced into reading the letter in hopes of helping him to recognize that the letter is meant to denigrate him, in hopes of pulling him out of the darkness of his ignorance. IM reads the letter and is stunned. The ironic progress in this scene is that even though IM believes “the truth is the light and light is the truth” (7), emulates Bledsoe as a truth and recognizes certain traits of the truth, he is still unable to recognize the advice from the assistant that “there is no point blinding yourself to the truth” (192). Here again, someone is pointing out the weakness of the main character and showing him a way out and despite his successes and recognitions, he still will not see through his own truth.
Another object that Ellison uses to show progress for IM is the yam, which is also ironically left out of the briefcase yet shows his recognition of some of the truths as he is coming upon them. IM is now pensive and confused about the events of Bledsoe, the shackle, the letters, the blueprints, Emerson, the assistant and still broods over his grandfather’s words. He walks the streets thinking that truth and recognition are still a position he must attain and that he must stick to his plan to “do anything to attain a position on the campus” (259). He meets a street vendor selling hot yams like IM remembers nostalgically and after a series of memories he purchases one. The vendor offers IM more wisdom that he fails to recognize as the vendor asks him if that isn’t the best eating that IM has ever had. IM replies that he “can look at it and see it’s good” (264). The vendor retorts that “everything what looks good ain’t necessarily good” (264) and IM only gets the wisdom in the hindsight of the narration rather than in the moment. IM walks along munching the yam overcome by “an intense feeling of freedom” (264). The ironic progression here is that his instincts show him a certain truth, a certain freedom, and even though he now sees Bledsoe in a different light, he is blinded and cannot recognize why. There has been a few times now that IM has received an invisible “truth” that has not been recognized or validated by white consciousness and that he desperately needs however due to his blindness he cannot relate to them. The identity of IM is very much in question and the memories that come to him show he is happiest when in them, not being disciplined and rejecting them. For this particular moment, he almost boyishly accepts who he is as a Southern black man thinking to himself that “I am what I am” (266) and “to hell with being ashamed of what you liked” (265-266). IM is beginning to recognize his own identity as someone who “had never formed a personal attitude toward so much” (267). He admits that he “had accepted the accepted attitudes and it had made life seem simple” (267). IM is recognizing the need for individual identity and has come a long way from his original mindset of being agreeable yet ironically cannot maintain that idea for long.
This sets up the eviction speech that shows IM is recognizing and developing his own way of speaking and relating to the world around him. His speech shows that he is seeing now, at least clearer than when he begins his education at the university. This is an emotional speech and is more impromptu and more personalized rather than rehearsed or preplanned. Ellison uses the speech to show this evolution and progress and as always IM gets ironically taken back a few steps once he recognizes a piece of his identity. After the speech, IM is chased by a man who turns out to be Brother Jack, a leader in the Brotherhood and would like IM to become a member and “articulate the grievances of the people” (292). IM’s instincts alert that to not trust the man however as his ironic progression would have it, he joins the Brotherhood with his newly recognized identity and passion. The irony is that just as IM is discovering his own identity the Brotherhood and Brother Jack hands him a white envelope and tells him “this is your new identity” (309) and so IM finds an unmentioned name written on a slip of paper. Brother Jack instructs him to “start thinking of yourself by that name” (309) and blinded, IM does as he is told.
An item from the briefcase that conflicts IM regarding identity and social value is the piggy bank. The very description of the bank gives the reader an idea of where Ellison is going with the idea of the piggy bank. Ellison writes that the piggy bank is a “cast-iron figure” (319) of a “very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro” (319) with a single large “black hand held palm up” (319). IM is wondering why Mary would keep such a “self-mocking image” (319) around so he has become aware now of the racial implications of such objects. From these lines, the reader can see a few things that might help illuminate how Ellison is charging this bank with racial stereotyping from “early Americana” (319). This shows the black man as a heavy burdening social underling of a sort, with hands always at the ready for a handout.
The reader would miss this if not for a few other things in the chapter. The broken bank shows the lack of unity or the holding together of individual identity of blacks as a people. IM thinks to himself that he cannot show the bank or keep it out for Mary since it is broken. He thinks that he will “have to hide this mess!” (321). “Hiding the mess” is a prevailing theme in this chapter. Mary’s house is spotless. The irony of the bank and Mary is that Mary is the exact opposite of the bank. She does for people as much as she can and asks nothing from them in return. The bank does not resemble that type of character. When IM is having his conversation with her in the kitchen and offers her the hundred dollar bill, there is a moment when roaches are “trooping frantically down the steam line” (326). This is an interesting way to see roaches. Mary shouts “some folks just live in filth” (326), personifying the roaches, then adds “let a little knocking start and here it comes crawling out” (326). This is a profound way to see the roaches, as little dark bugs crawling down the “steam line” looking for handouts, so to speak. Ellison also shows that there is irony in how folks see their own, by the way of Southern blacks and Northern blacks. This is education and seeing for IM as he is recognizing his own identity and how he relates to the world and it to him, however yet again IM cannot see the correlation to his truth. When IM dumps the package with broken pieces into a trash can, he is immediately spotted and insulted by a “short yellow woman with a pince-nez on a chain” (328). Her shouts at IM tell the reader she is angry about blacks moving from the South to the North. She says “we keep our place clean and respectable” (328), likening the Southern blacks to the roaches “and we don’t want you field niggers coming up from the South and ruining things” (328). Ellison uses the image of the piggy bank and the reaction to it when it breaks in several scenes to show the reader the stereotype of the common blacks coming up from the South into the cities by steam lines, looking for work and a place to live. The local people are not happy to see them. They are taking their jobs, their places to live, their food as if looking for a handout. From these three specific scenes, the reader takes on the view that the Southern blacks are perceivably making the place filthy or untidy for the Northern blacks. The Southerners are a burden, a ruination of things looking for a handout as seen by the Northern blacks. The piggy bank takes on the personification of the black people moving North and the roaches take on the personification of the black people moving north. The ironic progress in this scene is how IM is recognizing a freedom of identity, an identity with a broken history, broken identity and mixed feelings amongst each other and yet he chooses to still hide his identity with the false name of the Brotherhood. Although he cannot see his truth, IM is fighting a certain good fight and is progressing toward knowing a particular identity and responsibility, even if it is through his own irresponsibility.
Ellison uses many other objects in the novel to convey identity and the idea of seeing however one of the key most important objects in the briefcase is the Sambo doll. The Sambo doll actually begins in the Battle Royal scene, in Chapter One, when the boys were instructed to fight for the loose coins. One of the men said “boys, it’s all yours” (26) and another chimed in, grinning at IM, “that’s right, Sambo” (26). From this early connotation the reader knows that this word is meant toward the young boys who know no better. This could have had several connotations, however no matter which way the reader chooses to understand the meaning, it is certainly negative and alludes to being controlled or manipulated, as shown by the boys of the Battle Royal. During the Battle Royal, the boys are made to entertain the crowd at the expense of physical pain and great embarrassment. In Chapter 20, the Sambo doll comes into the scene when Clifton is “entertaining” the crowd as well. Part of Clifton’s sales pitch is that the doll will “make you laugh” (431) and “keep you entertained” (431). The doll is much like the boys in Chapter One being jolted by electricity, moving much like the doll with “loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriating sensuous motion” (431). Each gets the same “chuckles of the crowd” (431) in an embarrassing display of trying to “be known” (434).
IM still believes that “only in the Brotherhood could [he] make [himself] known” (434) and only through the Brotherhood can he “avoid being empty Sambo dolls (434). The doll is a creature of manipulation, of mockery and Clifton uses it as a way to “fall outside of history” (434). Clifton is on display and “spun on his toes like a dancer” (436), like a Sambo dancing doll as he tries to avoid the policeman that is shouting orders to him. Ellison likens the street fight with Clifton and the cops like a Sambo doll dancing. Other men are also compared as they moved “like dancers” (440) as they were “swaying, going forward, their black faces secret” (440). Ellison describes them as “men outside of historical time” (440), that they “were untouched” (440) and “men of transition whose faces were immobile” (440) as the Sambo doll. The men in the subway, the boys on the train, the fighters, the “other men dressed like boys” (443) are all dressed in “exotic colored” (443) clothing and are “communicating ironically with their eyes” (442). This is a way that IM recognizes how comical or out of place some of the black people seem, as if caricatures instead of flesh and blood. IM mentions that ‘they’d been there all along” (443) and somehow, even when he was at work, he “missed them” (443), as if they too were “a construction of tissue, cardboard and glue (446). Here, IM is clearly seeing how he relates to the world differently than he had in the beginning and how it relates to him.
In Chapter 21, IM continues to question the purpose of the doll by asking “what made it seem to dance?” (446). IM notices that the doll has “two faces, one on either side” (446) to entertain with, “one face grinned as broadly as the other” (446). IM notices that it “grinned back at Clifton as it grinned forward at the crowd” (446) and that the doll “had still grinned when [IM] played the fool and spat upon it” (446) and lastly that it is “still grinning when Clifton ignored [IM]” (446). The irony is in the black thread which is used to work the movement. The fine black thread that makes it dance is “invisible” (446) as IM feels. The ironic progress here is that IM recognizes how the dolls are examples of personified manipulation between whites and blacks and to a larger extent, one group of people over another yet he cannot see that the truth to this manipulation is the black identity freely given in to the manipulation. The Sambo doll makes IM angry, and he shows his truest emotions that have been penned up or shown sporadically inside the novel to this point. IM is now recognizing how the oppression has been building around him, how the truth of his blindness has been in the way of him seeing. IM now sees that he has been “asleep, dreaming” (444).
In the scenes that follow, Tod Clifton is killed and this weighs heavy on IM. In an effort to make things right, IM contacts the Brotherhood to have a funeral for Clifton however they do not respond. He begins to recognize another change of plan to “make it known that the meaning of [Clifton’s] death was greater than the incident or the object that caused it” (448). The irony here is that even though IM realizes that another new plan is needed and formulates one on his own, he still cannot see that he is trying to use this as a means of “attracting lost members back into the rank” (448) of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s main idea is the promotion of the greater community and not the individual. He thinks he can see that the Brotherhood is using the dolls “first to destroy” (448) Clifton’s integrity and “then as an excuse for killing him” (448). IM makes the decision to use the funeral as a means to individually identify with Clifton in an effort to “put his integrity together again” (448). This type of individualistic identifying is something IM has not done throughout the novel. The organization and actions of the funeral arrangement make IM move in “a kind of numb suspension” (449). As the irony has been all novel, IM is faced with having to answer to the Brotherhood after all. He has shown responsibility, identity and recognition to do what needs to be done as a leader that he has not before. His admitted failures are now progressions toward what he feels are necessary actions. His speech shows an unrehearsed, unplanned call to individualism and the value of having an identity.
Ironically enough, IM has to defend his position of arranging the funeral without the knowledge or consent of the Brotherhood. Brother Jack asks as to “what direction were [the crowd] moved?” (463) and IM still subverts somewhat in his answer “that’s for the committee to decide” (463). IM defends his actions by asserting that he had done as expected and tried to contact the committee for guidance, with no response. IM then asserts that he “went ahead on [his] personal responsibility” (463). This is direct confliction with the Brotherhood and IM is aware of that now and is accepting the responsibility of his actions, something he lacked in the beginning of the novel. There is a new sense of recognition from IM that he is of black history, a person in a group of oppressed, and is being oppressed now by the Brotherhood and his emotions are coming through. Brother Jack chides IM for his “riding race again” (469) and Brother Tobitt asks if they must listen to IM’s “racist nonsense” (469). IM replies that the Brotherhood is not listening, that Tobitt “get [his] own information straight from the source. It is a mulatto source” (469), showing that he recognizes the manipulation of the Brotherhood, something else IM could not have done early in the novel. Brother Jack argues with IM that he was “not hired to think” (469) and IM finally says it aloud in the novel that he recognizes, that he now “knows where [he] is” (469), that he is ready to stay “in order to fight” (478). The ironic progress of IM is coming full circle as he is recognizing the ploys of the battle royal, Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Emerson, whites, the school, Brother Jack and now the Brotherhood. IM is realizing just how he must “keep contact” (478) with the Brotherhood. He announces openly to Brother Jack, when his glass eye falls out, that if something like that loss of sight should happen to him, that Brother Jack should “recommend [IM] to your oculist” (477) so that “then [IM] may not-see myself as others see-me-not” (477). The end of this chapter shows that IM is “growing wilder and fighting” (478) as his grandfather asked in his last words. Through all of the earliest submission to direction and the manipulation of doing what others want him do, IM had lost his identity or in the least had been stunted from recognizing who he is and where he wants to be. IM recognizes some of the answers now to the mystery that is his grandfather’s last words something he could not have understood early in the novel. The chapter concludes with another sense of ironic progress as IM says “after tonight I wouldn’t ever look the same, or feel the same” (478) and despite seeing a sense of who he is and where he wants to be, IM is still unsure of what he would become, only knowing that he “couldn’t go back to what [he] was” (478). He admits that whatever he was “wasn’t much” (478) but he had “lost too much to be” (478) what he was. He stays and despite all of this identity progress and truth recognition, IM still chooses to take on the disguise of Rinehart, the disguise of not being himself.
The briefcase holds the pieces of IM’s individually perceived identity as well as the pieces of perceived white recognition now and IM still struggles with seeing how one relates to the other. The last major object in the briefcase holds a key to understanding IM’s earlier statement that “responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (14). This is a unique form of irresponsibility that IM takes on in the closing chapters with the disguise of Rinehart. These are things IM adds to his nature to become different, rather than take them away or hide them, as he has done throughout the novel. Through his progress of accepting his identity and ridding himself of slight conflictions, IM now shows the ability to see, to recognize events and manipulations around him for what they truly are. The disguise is ambiguous because it is a broad macro-type of an identity and also a complex truth because the real character is never revealed yet has many identities: “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rine the Reverend” 498). One of the earliest things IM notices about the glasses is the way they are made with “green glass so dark that it appeared black” (482), as if IM were now seeing things through a “black filtered” lens, a blackness. Throughout the novel, this is something IM has not been very able to do very well or at all. He admits that the glasses help him as he is “plunging into blackness and moving outside” (482) among the street and people will recognize him as someone else. He adds the “widest hat in stock” (483) thinking that this will grant him more access to this new identity, that he will be very noticeable now, only that “they’d think [he] was someone else” (484).
He likes the disguise as Ellison demonstrates by writing that IM’s “eyes adjusted quickly” (484) and that even with the faces around him becoming “a mysterious blur” (484), IM is quickly comfortable in this disguise. The hat gives IM a sense of belonging and a new sense of freedom that he has had very little of to this point in the novel and he thinks that “they see the hat, not [him]” (485). This new identity has IM feeling as if “there is a magic in it” (485) because it “hides [him] right in front of their eyes” (485). IM takes on responsibility of the identity and feels “as though by dressing and walking in a certain way” (485) that he has been “enlisted in a fraternity” (485) in which he becomes so easily recognized, “not by features, but by clothes, by uniform, by gait” (485). The entire novel he has been plagued by his lack of identity, his being black or other-looking than those he comes into contact with, so with this new identity, he fits in, he is accepted. This shows his irresponsibility of recognizing his own true self.
This new identity is not without problems though as IM realizes as he is about to square off in a fight with Maceo at the diner. While this argument and standoff is taking place, IM asks himself “why am I acting from pride when this is not really me?” (489). This shows his continued ironic progress as he now has identity and a certain sense of belonging yet is realizing that it is not true to who he really is. IM is easily recognized by a man as not being Rinehart, further detailing what this would mean if he was to be a “Rinehart”. The man explains that in order to be Rinehart, IM would have to have a “smooth tongue, a heartless heart and be ready to do anything” (493). This grows as doubt in IM’s mind as he begins to question his identity yet again. He questions “what on earth was hiding behind the face of things?” (493), thinking that maybe this isn’t such a good idea and “if dark glasses and a white hat could blot out [his] identity so quickly, who actually was who?” (493). The complexity across those recognized characters of Rinehart that IM had been mistaken for are becoming more blurred than the faces along the street.
The disguise becomes a mold making IM feels as if he “had just been removed from a plaster cast” (499) and he is “unused to the new freedom of movement” (499). He is impressed with how simple and how complex this Rinehart identity is and how the community sees him: “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rine the reverend” (498). IM wonders if Rinehart could truly be the substance of a real identity at heart and yet the covering, in the form of the simple disguises, “could he be himself both rind and heart?” (498). IM believes that he can experiment making himself “anew” (499) and that with “all boundaries down, freedom was not only the recognition of necessity it was the recognition of possibility” (499). IM is taking on the embodiment of possibility now, knowing that all the while he “had been trying simply to turn [the glasses] into a disguise but they had become a political instrument instead” (499). He now thinks that if “Rinehart could use [the glasses] in his work, no doubt [IM] could use them in [his]” (499). IM sees the truth that with the Brotherhood he is seen “outside of history, but inside of it they didn’t see” (499) him.
In the end, IM is still unsure of what his grandfather’s words mean saying that his grandfather must have “hid his meaning deeper than [IM] thought” (574). This is also Ellison showing the reader that the novel is far too layered to be just about race. Ellison’s objects have shown the responsibility of being inside the white consciousness and graces of such actions as well the hidden wisdoms of invisible and often irresponsible actions of the struggling blacks not easily seen. IM listens to a man scream, “if it become a sho’ nough race riot I want to be here where there’ll be some fighting back” (552). The novel is about the responsibility of action and not acting. IM realizes that the Brotherhood had wanted the cultures to fight one against another, thinking that “it was not suicide, but murder” (553) the Brotherhood wanted. This is the irresponsibility of being invisible and IM takes responsibility for it now, responsibility for “that huddled form lighted by flame and gunfire in the street” (553). By IM taking responsibility, he is acknowledging that indeed “responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (14). The irresponsibility is a “denial” (14) of the recognition, of the invisibility an individual has to relate to the world and have it relate to them.
The theme of the loss of identity or the sense of finding an identity in this society is also prevalent as IM feels that he has not been a leader while in his previous leadership roles as a speaker and a member of the Brotherhood. Only in this chaos, in this good fight, is he a leader, “only in the stripping away of [his] illusionment” (559) can IM “illuminate the blackness of his invisibility-and vice versa” (13). IM feels responsibility for being a part of the Brotherhood’s plan of chaos, feels like he has a “bottomless capacity for being a fool” (559). IM feels that now he finally knows that all of the items in the briefcase are pieces of a responsible and irresponsible self, of the old him, “the way it’s always been” (566) and thinks that this is a “kind of death without hanging” (566) rather “a death alive” (567). IM believes in action, believes in light and recognition of one’s self, thinking that “to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death” (7). The items he burns from the briefcase are all pieces of his conscious identity or the perceived recognition by white society that he has himself agreed to take on. One is no better than the other in trying to “keep this nigger-boy running” (33). Here Ellison shows the reader that individual identity is of as great an importance as the value of how those around the individual come to recognize that identity. The extremity of light and recognition of truth is as important as the extremity of darkness and recognition of a hidden truth. IM comes to think that he has been “pulled this way and that for longer than [he] can remember” (573) and that his problem is that he “always tried to go in everyone’s way but [his] own” (573). How one sees themselves if important to how they think and act and which way they go.
By Ellison using the means of various objects, the reader knows that in order to really know one’s identity one must have direction through the understanding of one’s own recognition. IM has had the “freedom of a Rhinehart” (575) and the “power of a Jack” (575) and does not want them, nor does he want “simply the freedom to run” (575). This is about standing up for what one believes in. With identity comes the responsibility to stand up for more than just one’s self or one’s own desires. The irresponsibility of this “sickness” (575) is that once realized, the end results are not so much up to color, or class or social denomination rather that “at least half of it lay within” (575) one’s self to act. This is a call to action by Ellison concerning how people not only see themselves, but how they act on their own accord. IM imparts both light and dark wisdom saying that “live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go on to the next conflicting phase” (576), meaning that you can act on your realizations or let them pass you by. By this, one never really attains a true sense of identity. The entirety of the novel comes full circle with IM understanding that “the world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before” (576) he had realized it and only now has he a better understanding of his “relation to it and it to [him]” (576).
This novel shows that IM’s ironic progression, although not all about race, is as much about race as it is about culture and stereotype of those people whose “fate is to become one, and yet many” (577). The truth is that the individual lost in the light of the truth or the darkness of never having seen it can be as much a cause to “keep the nigger-boy running” (33) as any external oppression. The lesson and most looming irony here is that the “true darkness lies within [one’s own] mind” (579). Whether one acts or not is of great importance to the people as a whole, be it racial or spiritual or violent. Too much of any one perspective can be damaging, “too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost” (580) and suggests that people should “approach it as much through love as hate” (580). In the end, IM approaches his identity “through division” (580) and accepts that he will “denounce” and “defend” (580) it, he will “hate” and “love” (580) the light and truth of recognizing how his society works. IM believes that “the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived” (280). Through IM, the reader can infer that the truth is freeing one’s own self from the darkness of confusion surrounding stereotypes, racists and can be successful in all “societies as well as for individuals” (580). The reader also sees that truth is freeing one’s own self from the blindness of the light of exposing truths as well. The “hibernation is over” (580) as “hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action” (13) and IM concludes he must go to the surface to fight that good fight every so often. He concludes that it is the “winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country” (577) that “life is to be lived, not controlled” (577) and that “humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat” (577). Finally, although the reader will never have the entire answer of grandfather’s last words preplanned or rehearsed out for them, there is some recognition in the fact that this novel speaks across all boundaries of identity and responsibility. IM says is fighting the “good fight” now as he could not have in the beginning and “who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, [he] speaks for you?” (581). The reader puts down Ellison’s novel knowing that in order to stay in the good fight and in recognition of their own identity, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of acceptance and change, between the giving up and individual agreement and between staying the invisible man and just another “nigger-boy running” (33).
Causes William Lyles Supports
Social equality rights, religious freedoms and the gun tolerance and control.