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Black Existentialism and The Jazz Aesthetic in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"

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What is seen through a jazz aesthetic is what is seen now by many: conflict, difference, failure, mistakes, suffering, meaning, beauty, commitment to justice, grief, outrage at suffering and injustice. The form of jazz can provide a modality of critique, of social engagement that enables the actualization of Foucault’s dream, his dream of a criticism that “would try not to judge but to bring an idea to life…It would multiply not judgment, but signs of existence.”(Welch, 88)

In this context, jazz aesthetic in inherently based in duality: it provides a platform wherein the individual experience is privileged, while simultaneously attempting to encapsulate collective experience. This “modal criticism” is concerned with explicating individual meaning, that is, how an individual should both determine and access an awareness of his or her own subjective reality. A distinctive brand of existentialism accompanies Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, in the form of the nameless protagonist, an African American man who assigns himself the ultimate existentialist task: to realize the he must honor his individual complexity and remain genuine to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community.

Ellison, in his introduction, introduces his mission statement: “So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both Black and American.”(Ellison, xviii) His literary enterprise resonates directly with W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of “double-consciousness,” a concept that was inaugurated in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois devotes his text to the reconciliation between an African heritage and European pedagogy; it is, effectively, a theoretical model for understanding the psychological and sociological divisions that are prevalent in American society.

An examination of Du Bois’ contribution to Africana critical theory and “black existentialism” in conjunction with 20th century French existentialism provides a theoretical lens through which Ellison’s narrative can be interpreted; the protagonist struggles to procure a conception of his own identity in a predominantly racially oppressive American society. The encounters with various communities, from the Liberty Paints factory to the Brotherhood political group, dictate to the protagonist rigid behavioral standards for the black population. As the protagonist attempts to define himself through the expectations imposed upon him, in each instance, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and pressures him into a state of perpetual inauthenticity.

Invisible Man is in essence, an analogy drawn between the “invisibility” that the protagonist applies fastidiously to his experience, and the modal criticism of the jazz aesthetic, which are rigorously applied to the African American social chronicle. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself tends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Ellison asserts himself as an artist and an individual; he is an heir to a distinctive African American literary culture and to the American heritage within the Western European philosophical tradition. Thus, Ellison alludes to a conceivable reality but at the same time contests the validity of the forms we use to give shape to it.

Central to Du Bois’ text is “double-consciousness”, the collective mediation of the two cultures that comprise African American identity; early African American populations regarded Africa as a location of origin, whereas America was scrutinized as a place of unwilling enslavement. Though these populations intended to return to Africa, the results of slavery and southern acculturation rendered their identity as distorted. The intentional repression of vernacular speech, the institution of alternative names, and the conversion to Christianity ensured a divergent African cultural legacy. Du Bois compensates for this estrangement in the form of “double-consciousness”:

The Negro is a sort if seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, —a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Du Bois, 32)

Duality punctuates Du Bois’ text: contained by Jim Crow America’s color line, within the “Veil of Race,”(Du Bois, 79) black individuals are judged by their skins and not by their souls. But “above the Veil,” in the “kingdom of culture,” souls persist “uncolored,” enjoying “freedom for expansion and self-development.” (Du Bois, 33, 98) Du Bois placates reliance on this freedom, and that it will one day “rend the Veil”; this comprises the very substance of the sorrow songs of the slaves. These ancestral voices, the greatest expression of American art, claims Du Bois, declare “a truer world” where “men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins” (Du Bois, 197). Essentially, Du Bois sets himself a double venture: he operates both within and beyond the Veil, celebrating the “Negro soul” in the former, while preparing black Americans for the opportunity to dominate “above the Veil,” where the commanding human soul multiplies, protected by “the centres of culture.”(Du Bois, 97)

In philosophical terms, particularly existential thinking, the work of Jean-Paul Sartre is significant to consider. Existentialism and Human Emotions demonstrates Sartre’s attempt to cultivate a unique brand of existentialism to replace traditional approaches to morality; the result is a faction of ethics dependent on “authenticity”. His brand of ontology is concerned with a combination of “existence precedes essence” and the concept of “bad faith: he claims that an individual’s existence predetermines their essence, that there is virtually nothing to dictate an individual’s character and intentions except for their own self conduct and cultivation. Sartre asserts:

The essential consequence…is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. (Sartre, 52)

Du Bois endorses a similar doctrine of philosophy in The Souls of Black Folk, however, extends the “individual freedom” to the collective freedom of the African American race. While attesting to the “longing” of the African American to overcome the social and psychic divisions imposed by American society, to “merge his double self into a better and truer self,” Du Bois envisioned that truer self as one in which the doubleness of African and American elements would continue to coexist:

In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world (Du Bois, 215)

The message that “Negro blood” insists on sending is conveyed through the jazz aesthetic; jazz music is the embodiment of the existential terms outlined by Sartre and Du Bois, as it is a platform for showcasing the individual cultural experience, and by extension, the communal African American narrative. Ellison’s prologue delegates the necessity for musical expression, wherein the narrator states:

Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.”(Ellison, 8)

Ellison addresses two major thematic concerns that characterize the novel: invisibility and the jazz aesthetic. The narrator is cognizant of the jazz dynamic that occurs in Armstrong’s music; unawareness of one’s invisibility enables the possibility for great artistry, but awareness of invisibility leads to comprehension. This cyclical relationship also characterizes Ellison’s novel more broadly, as it begins and ends in the same situation; it documents the protagonist’s awareness of invisibility to the eventual embrace of a state of invisibility, enabling him access to a larger perspective. Louis Armstrong is frequently considered the most influential soloist in the history of jazz; he is accredited with nearly, single-handedly transforming jazz, which originally evolved as a collective, ensemble-based musical act, into a medium for individual expression in which the soloist occupied the forefront position within a larger band. The reference to Armstrong establishes a “soundtrack” for the novel; Armstrong’s vocation as a soloist mirrors the “double-consciousness” that saturates the content of the novel, as he contends with an individual and collective mode of expression, and Ellison’s inclusion of “Black and Blue” represents one of jazz’s earliest attempts to make an open commentary on the subject of racism.

Ellison’s prologue squarely situates the novel within larger literary and philosophical contexts; existentialism, or, the search for salvageable individual meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, has reached the height of its popularity at the time of Invisible Man’s 1952 publication. Ellison proposes to undertake an existentialist examination of individual experience, but through the lens of race relations in postwar America. Sartre’s ontology privileges the process of self-creation and artistic expression, as this acknowledgement of responsibility is crucial in alleviating inauthentic behavior. Sartre endorses “authenticity” when he asserts:

He must assume the situation with the proud consciousness of being the author of it, for the very worst disadvantages or the worst threats which can endanger my person have meaning only in and through my project; and it is on the ground of the engagement which I am that they appear. (Sartre, 53)

Sartre’s model expresses existentialist thought through the act of “authoring” one’s situation and accumulating individual purpose “in and through one’s project”; his claim for authenticity lies inherently in artistry and authorial intention. “Black and Blue”, a 1929 jazz standard composition by Fats Waller, and improvised distinctly by Louis Armstrong is directly referenced in the prologue, which suggests that Ellison was adherent to notions of “black existentialism”. Armstrong drawls the following lyrics:

I’m White inside, but that don’t help my case/That’s life, cant hide, what is in my face/How would it end, ain’t got a friend/My only sin is in my skin/What did I do, to be so black and blue. (Armstrong, “Black and Blue”)

The track narrates the question of black suffering as a philosophical problem. Black individuals often faced double standards in their efforts to attain equality in the wake of enslavement, colonialism, and racial apartheid. “Black and Blue” lyrically recognizes the contradictory dichotomy of African American identity; it indicates, “skin color” as the determinant of accessible agency in American society.

Ellison’s narrative mimics that of improvisational jazz on both a thematic and stylistic level; the protagonist relates Armstrong’s music to his own desires and self-conceptions. Regarding the message of “Negro blood”, Ellison directly associates invisibility with the jazz aesthetic:

Invisibility…gives one a slightly different sense of time; you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear vaguely in Louis’ music. (Ellison,8)

Ellison’s ostensibly pivotal metaphor of “invisibility” adopts an aural dimension when he considers Armstrong’s lyricism and rhythmic dexterity at creating a “slightly different sense of time.” The literary translation and reciprocity of Armstrong’s artistry of swing rhythm permits access into the intellectual context where Ellison intertwines his musical and social thought. Wilfried Raussert, in his article “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity”, explicates the tensions and correlations that arise in jazz composition and the African American social narrative. In reference to Armstrong’s “swing” time signatures, Raussert predicates:

While the jazz band usually plays a slow rhythm on the way to the graveyard, a sudden shift to an intensified beat—due to playing double time—characterizes the music performed when the band accompanies the mourning community on its way back. Double time leads to an intensification of the beat. (Raussert, 523)

This “doubleness” is reminiscent of the “doubleness” theorized in Du Bois’ text; swing intonation adopts double time to procure the individual and communal dichotomy of aural experience. In applying musical features to his own narrative, such as the shifting, improvisational style, Ellison achieves a literary modality for the jazz aesthetic.

As Foucault aspired for a criticism that “would try not to judge but to bring an idea to life…It would multiply not judgment, but signs of existence”, jazz aesthetic, in the particular case of Ellison’s novel, is committed to rendering the existence of the narrator as purposeful. Ellison’s narrator is consistently subjugated by the limitations of ideology in the forms of the Dr. Bledsoe and the university institution, the Liberty Paints plant, and the affiliation with the Brotherhood. Throughout his encounters with these ideological systems, the narrator realizes that the racial prejudice of others causes them to perceive him only as they want to perceive him, and their limitations of vision consequently enforce limitation on his ability to act. Sartre’s entire philosophical doctrine if fundamentally concerned with the individual and his own self-perception; he asserts, “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.”(Sartre, 15) This is, again, the implication of the notion, “existence precedes essence,” wherein an individual’s purpose is dependent on his subjective existence, rather than the external and objective conception that accompanies him.

During the protagonist’s trial with Mr. Norton, they are befallen with severe racial segregation at The Golden Day; this is one of the various ideological systems that the protagonist encounters and fails to procure agency within. He engages in a discussion with a clinically insane veteran, who argues the following:

He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn’t digest it. Already he is – well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but also his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man! (Ellison, 94)

Since the veteran is deemed as mentally insufficient, he cannot participate in the social discourse of which he speaks. His complaint regards the protagonist’ unyielding servitude and dedication to Mr. Norton, however, the passage addresses a distinct philosophical predicament, one for which Sartre can account for:

There can be no other truth to take off from than this: I think; therefore, I exist. There we have the absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself…Secondly, this theory is the only one, which gives man dignity, the only one, which does not reduce him to an object. (Sartre, 36-7)

Since the protagonist “represses his humanity” in a space that “has no meaning”, existentialist thought may prescribe to him a solution; Sartre inherits the model that Descartes formulated, “I think, therefore, I am,” or, “I think; therefore, I exist,” which renders the invisible man as visible, in existentialist terms. Consciousness equates existence; in these terms, the protagonist prevails intellectually, as his thought processes comprise his “dignity” and humanism.

As the novel progresses, and the narrator enter into the Brotherhood, he seems to be exhibiting an advancement in the ideological systems that consistently oppressed him in his home community. This advancement, however, is an illusion; rather, the protagonist remains unable to act according to his own existential conduct, and becomes literally incapable of being himself. The Brotherhood advertises opportunities to fight for racial equality by working within the ideology of the organization; yet, the system abuses the narrator as a “token” black man in its abstract project:

Becoming aware that there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary; the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself. (Ellison, 380)

The narrator becomes aware of his own sense of “double-consciousness” as he makes reference to the duality of his character; the “old self” represents the African origins of Du Bois’ model, while the “new public self” signifies the forced integration into American society. Du Bois accounts for the “illusion” of human equality:

Human equality does not even entail, as it is sometimes said, absolute equality of opportunity; for certainly the natural inequalities of inherent genius and varying gift make this a dubious phrase. But there is more and more clearly recognized minimum of opportunity and maximum of freedom to be, to move and to think, which the modern world denies to no being which it recognizes as a real man. (Du Bois, 144)

The protagonist’s character corresponds to Du Bois’ theoretical framework; the veteran depreciation of the narrator’s intellectual capacity, and the “invisibility” that distorts him throughout the plot progression coincide to manifest a character that lacks the recognition of being “a man.” It is only through accepting and embracing the invisibility that the narrator may procure a feasible identity with the possibility for agency within the ideological systems that impose on him.

Absurdity and meaninglessness are imperative characteristics in existentialist thought, as they aid in conceiving human purpose in a world that exhibits no purpose. Ellison’s narrative style is at times erratic and improvisational, imitating the unpredictable nature of the “solo” in swing and bebop jazz genres. The mode of conveyance borders on the absurd in some instances, such as the protagonist’s confrontation with Ras:

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. . . . And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others, whether for Ras’s or Jack’s. (Ellison, 418)

This excerpt documents the epiphany that the narrator undergoes; it represents a pivotal moment in the narrator’s existential breakthrough, as he realizes that his own identity is the source of meaning in his life and that acting to fulfill the expectations of external forces can only prove destructive. Ras’s threatening to kill the narrator provokes the narrator to perceive the world as meaningless and absurd and the complexity of American life as equally absurd. Ellison borrows the word “absurd” directly from the work of the French existentialists, such as Sartre, who characterized the universe as such and claimed that the only meaning to be found in existence is that with which the individual invests his own life. The only motivation to which the narrator can cling is an affirmation that his own absurdity is more important to him than Jack’s or Ras’s. The action of hurling Ras’s spear back at him demonstrates the narrator’s refusal to be subject any longer to others’ visions and demands—he finally commits himself fully to an attempt to assert his true identity.

The novel concludes in the same state at is began: the narrator is situated in the underground housing unit, intricately ornamented in thousands of bright lights. The light may be a mechanism to highlight the humanness of the narrator, as his skin and soul are rendered visible “beyond the Veil” of human existence. The epilogue determines the existential status of the narrator:

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. (Ellison, 417)

This is the protagonist’s final revelation; it encapsulates the “existence precedes essence” ideal that is intrinsic to Sartre’s doctrine and the “double-consciousness” of Du Bois’ argument. The invisible man adopts a self-perceptive attitude that privileges individual existence, and realizes the dual structure of his imposed identity, to which he ultimately rebels.

The prevalence of existential influence in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is not coincidental; rather, in contributing to a discourse that is philosophically, sociologically and psychologically established by figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Jean-Paul Sartre, Ellison’s brand of “black existentialism” becomes conceivable. Existentialism, in the three figures considered, has the tendency to focus on the investigation of human existence and the conditions that formulate this existence. Individualism is prevalent in determining human purpose; though this concrete individual existence must ne the primary source of information in the study of man, certain conditions, such as those regarding racial segregation in Du Bois’ text and the ideological systems that saturate Ellison’s narrative, are commonly held to be endemic to human existence. These conditions are frequently related to the inherent meaninglessness or absurdity of experience and its apparent contrast to predetermined progressions, which extensively present themselves as meaningful. Ellison, whether intentionally or not, envelops the theories of African American humanism and French existentialism. Jazz culture, as explicated by Ellison, adopts aspects from African American origin and European societal influence; by extension, the modal jazz aesthetic that conveys the Invisible Man, is the depiction of “jazz existentialism”

Invisible Man is in essence, an analogy drawn between the “invisibility” that the protagonist applies fastidiously to his experience, and the modal criticism of the jazz aesthetic, which are rigorously applied to the African American social chronicle. Each is a manner of giving form and significance to existence in the same way as narrative itself tends towards a similar ‘fictitious’ ordering of experience. Ellison asserts himself as an artist and an individual; he is an heir to a distinctive African American literary culture and to the American heritage within the Western European philosophical tradition. Thus, Ellison alludes to a conceivable reality but at the same time contests the validity of the forms we use to give shape to it.

Works Cited

  1. Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Vintage /Library of America,
  2. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage International, 2010. Print.
  3. Raussert, Wilfried. “Jazz, Time, and Narrativity.” Amerikastudien / American
  4. Studies45.4 (2000): 519-34. JSTOR. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
  5. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Citadel, 1985. Print. 1990. Print.
  6. Welch, Sharon D. “”Lush Life”: Foucault’s Analytics of Power and a Jazz
  7. Aesthetic.”The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology. Ed. Graham Ward. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. 79-105. Print.

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