Ellison’s Invisible Man, Always Relevant

Ralph Ellison

A couple of weeks ago I alluded to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (60 years old last week) in an attempt to understand Obama-derangement. I see that David Denby in this week’s New Yorker also appreciates the novel’s continuing relevance, not only to current race relations but to the figure of Ellison himself. Ellison’s dramatic account of how people project different images onto black men describes what readers would go on to do, often unkindly, to Ellison himself. You can read the entire article here, but below Denby applies Invisible Man to the Trayvon Martin shooting and to Barack Obama’s confusion as a young man:

What I want to say on the anniversary of Invisible Man is that everyone should get off Ellison’s back. Just get off his back. Stop lamenting what he didn’t do and celebrate what he did do—which was to create a work of art that, as it happens, has never been more “relevant” than now. Ellison’s hero is “invisible” because no one has much interest in seeing him as he is in all his ornery individuality. Virtually everyone—black and white alike—wants to use him, to make him over in their own image, to turn him into a portent, a warning, a threat, a possibility. Has not the same thing happened to Trayvon Martin in the last few weeks? (It has happened to George Zimmerman, too, which makes the case more complicated.) Ellison, like his hero, didn’t want to be used. He was wary and experimental, looking to break the code, to find the key to making his way in a white-dominated society, a problem that also intrigued the young Barack Obama. In Dreams For My Father, Obama writes, “There was a trick somewhere, though what the trick was, and who was doing the tricking, and who was being tricked, eluded my conscious grasp.” It is a sentence that could have been uttered by Ellison’s hero at his most baffled.

I’m in the process of putting together a book list for my contemporary English-Language Literature survey for next semester. I’d been planning on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Beloved but Invisible Man, long though it is, is tempting.

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