In 1865 slavery was abolished in the United States of America; however this act did not prevent white people from treating black people as inferior or having stereotypical ideas towards them. The events in Invisible Man occurred in the years between the 1920s and the 1930s which was also the time in which Jim Crow laws of segregation were introduced, along with African Americans suffering racism in all fields of life in the American society.
Ellison’s main character can be considered as one of those who happened to go through similar situations of living in racist societies and seek for an individual identity to represent them in the American society which is the main theme of the novel. That is to say, the narrator embodies the life of every African American living in America. In fact, the protagonist’s attempt to escape north was an aspiration to build his own identity away of all the racism and segregation laws he faced during his days in the south. Unfortunately, he did not achieve his goal. The invisible man was a victim of those laws. The best example of the narrator struggling from racism can be seen in the prologue where he incidentally bumped into a white man in the streets leading the white man to insult him for the reason of not having the same skin color. In the next day the Daily News published about this accident stating that the white man was bitten by a black man while in fact he was not but rather he was bitten by his prejudices and stereotypes. In other words, the white men have fixed ideas about black people such as black people are violent by nature and savage which in fact just stereotypical ideas.[footnoteRef:1] [1: Ward, S., Phillips, B., Mannheimer, K., &Boomie.(2002). Invisible Man Ralph Ellison. New York: SparkNotes LLC. ;Abbott, A. S.(1993). Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. New York: World Library, Inc. ;Ellison invisible man]
According to Gayatheri .T in her journal “Racism as an Obstacle to identity in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man” the reason that led Ellison to present his protagonist as a nameless character with only few information about his past is to prevent the reader from treating him as a person in addition to deny the narrator from the identity. Therefore, in order to identify the protagonist the reader tries to connect him to a society or a group he belongs to.
Throughout his journey, the narrator passes through series of communities from the college of Negroes to the Liberty Paint Plan and till joining the Brotherhood. Hence the protagonist goes under a psychological evolution: First, from being a naïve student in college of Negroes to a simple worker in the Liberty Paint Plan and eventually an orator in the Brotherhood. By the end of his adventure, the protagonist gradually comes to realize that as a black man he is supposed to act differently according to each institution and that his identity is not only being limited by mere racist ideas and attitudes but also by people’s more general ideologies, which had a great influence on the development of his identity; as the he contemplates; “everybody wanted to use you for some purposes.” (294) the white society create him according to their needs and not allowing him to be himself leading him to suffer from an identity crisis.
The protagonist in his manhole realizes that throughout all his life he has been living with a self-imposed identity by social expectations, communities as well as individuals. The narrator declares “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”.573 through this quotation the invisible man declares the reasons behinds adopting invisibility, although he did not choose to be invisible in the beginning of the novel. He was busy switching identities throw to him by white people in order to satisfy them yet never getting the change to demonstrate his own.
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon is an outstanding work about the aftermath of colonialism on colonized people, but it is also concerned with how race and racism are constructed on the psychological level, both in the individual and the collective unconscious. Fanon argues that once the black man acts and thinks as a white man, he finds himself as a phobic object. Fanon illustrates: “A normal Negro child, having grown up within a normal family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world”[footnoteRef:2]. He continues: “The Negro is unaware of it as long as his existence is limited to his own environment; but the first encounter with a white man oppresses him with the whole weight of his blackness”[footnoteRef:3]. For Ellison’s nameless protagonist, these realities occurred to him both before and after moving from his home in the South to Harlem city. [2: Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lamm Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 463.] [3: Ibid.466]
Kun Jong Lee’s article “Ellison’s Invisible Man: Emersoniaism revised” states that the narrator utilized the Emersonian theory to mediate his past and seek for his identity (331). Lee argues that racial differences are obvious and that despite the social movements in the American history, the concept of racial segregation did not disappear. Emerson claims that “Nations and races, like individuals, have each an especial destiny: some are to rule and others be ruled. No two distinctly-marked races can dwell together on equal terms” 334. Regardless of the existing differences such the narrator’s fluent speeches that provided him a sort of an identity, Emerson asserts that segregation and racism are in the superior races’ side and by that making it the dominant race.
During his the life the invisible man continuously finds himself going through a variety of dramatic events. A naïve black student who accepts the life of obedience with all its complexity ad unpredictability, but by the end he decides to emerge from his underground “hibernation” and force the world to acknowledge his complex identity and acknowledge his existence outside their prejudiced expectations.