In Invisible Man, race is a constant subject of inquiry. As a young black man in the middle of 20th century America, the narrator most often confronts the idea of race through experiencing the racism of others – from the degradation he experiences in the battle royal to his realization of his token role in the Brotherhood. However, the novel also explores the question of whether race might be an authentic marker of individual identity, outside the context of racism and other narratives imposed by others. The narrator quickly realizes that his blackness is highly significant, but cannot easily decipher what it should mean to him.
At the novel’s beginning, a younger narrator’s take on race is relatively simple. In his graduation speech, he is happy to repeat Booker T. Washington’s words, explaining that blacks should cheerfully cooperate with the whites that are in power. As the narrator travels through the world of the novel, he meets an array of characters shaped by the complex history of race, and his views grow more complex. The most important of these figures are black, though also included are overtly or unintentionally racist whites, like the pompous Mr. Norton. Characters like Dr. Bledsoe and Lucius Brockway are characters that control their small domains within the white system but are either cynical or unaware of their compromised positions.
Many of the experiences of the novel revolve around the narrator’s acceptance of one notion of race, only to discover that there exceptions and difficulties in the ideas he encounters. For example, Ras the Exhorter offers the inflammatory message of rejecting whites wholesale. This has a seductive appeal for the narrator, despite being irrational and dangerous. Near the novel’s end, the narrator attempts to enact his grandfather’s strategy of “yessing them to death,” but his plan backfires during his fling with Sybil, the wife of a powerful Brotherhood member.
Ellison offers no solution to the complicated legacies of race. Although the narrator withdraws into his hole at the novel’s end, he still boldly states, “I couldn’t be still even in hibernation. Because, damn it, there’s the mind…It wouldn’t let me rest.” Ellison hints that the only way to find an authentic relationship with race is to puzzle it out for oneself, and only an active, individual mind can locate his own relationship with history.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in Invisible Man
I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.
I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country…Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you 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.
I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more fimly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.
I didn't understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the "peasants," during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.
Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!
The white folk tell everybody what to think—except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about.
If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White
I was puzzled. Just what did she mean? Was it that she understood that we resented having others think that we were all entertainers and natural singers? But now after the mutual laughter something disturbed me: Shouldn’t there be some way for us to be asked to sing? Shouldn’t the short man have the right to make a mistake without his motives being considered consciously or unconsciously malicious? After all, he was singing, or trying to.
Why did he choose to plunge into nothingness, into the void of faceless faces, of soundless voices, lying outside history?...But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, the lies his keepers keep their power by.
Men out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten…who knew but that they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something precious? The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because, living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it….What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?
His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool…The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it.
I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me. It was as though I’d learned suddenly to look around corners; images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experience. They were me; they defined me.
I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.