Rating: 4 out of 5
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I thought I’d review an African-American novel for Masterpiece Monday. Unfortunately, African-Americans and people of color in general are vastly underrepresented in the literary canon–and in my own blog. I hope to feature more ethnic writers in the future, and I encourage recommendations from you guys! (Well, except Toni Morrison…I still have the bad taste of Beloved in my mouth from high school).
So I chose Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, because it was published right before King’s March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It also has the most easy-to-remember first line ever, which I quoted in my AP Lit essay: “I am an invisible man.”
Indeed, the protagonist is never named, but he secretly lives in New York in the basement of a whites-only apartment building, which is illuminated by 1,369 lights from a power company. The man narrates his story, which includes his time spent at an all-black college, his job at a paint factory known for its white paints, and his shock treatments while recovering from a boiler explosion.
Eventually, he is recruited into the Brotherhood in Harlem, and he must struggle with the various members trying to make a difference in the black community. Although he’s often disillusioned by his fellow African-Americans, he remains determined to incite political change and overcome his metaphorical invisibility.
Even though this novel has scenes that are hard to stomach (especially Trueblood’s incestuous relationship with his daughter), Invisible Man is beautifully written. Ellison’s distinct voice tells what it was like to live in the mid-20th century as an African-American man. He doesn’t sugarcoat the racism in America, but he also doesn’t let one perspective dominate the conversation. Moderate and radical black activists are represented in the story, as well as those who submit to whites to simply get by in life.
Ellison also makes many historical and literary allusions, from everybody to Louis Armstrong, to H.G. Wells, from Marcus Garvey to Homer. But for someone named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, these cultural references seem to run in the family.
What people like Ellison and MLK Jr. demonstrate is that there is no reason to speak for somebody, when they can speak just as eloquently for themselves. I realize that I can never know what life as an African-American is like, whether the year’s 1950 or 2012, but I thank black writers for sharing a piece of them with the world, so we can learn from one another and encourage love for all human beings, no matter the color of their skin.
Favorite Quote: “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.”