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In The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison outlines the experiences that have shaped his life as African American man. As a result of racism, discrimination and/or prejudice that has been perpetuated through the generations he feels nonexistent. He feels like he is not accepted as a contributing member of society so he adopts the term invisible man. In addition, his motivation to combat these injustices are fueled by the last words of his grandfather. His mindset was shaped at an early age, he struggled with how to carry out his grandfather’s wishes and be true to himself. Ralph Ellison’s encounters negatively impacted his life, his interactions are the motivation for his behavior, anger he exhibited and, the rationale behind his thinking.
Ralph Ellison’s life’s work was motivated by negative influences that shaped his thinking. The character was motivated by his grandfather’s last words encouraging him to stand up to white men for his rights. His grandfather did not want him or his dad to assume a passive role when faced with racism. While trying to carry out his grandfather’s wishes he is manipulated by white American men who view him and other black men as insignificant, inferior, disposable and/or inhuman. They are used as entertainment. Ellison is injured to the point that he is throwing up blood. Ellison is so fixated on delivering his speech that he engages in this behavior as a prelude. He is oblivious to the fact that he has been manipulated and humiliated until he reads a note that was included in what he thought was a scholarship “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running”. This immediately makes him think of his grandfather and the advice he gave on his dying bed.
Ellison was motivated by the words of his grandfather’s words. When Ellison was younger he overheard, his grandfather expressing how he felt like a coward for not standing up to his slave owners. He believed a way to overwhelm the slave owners was to be passive aggressive. He instructed Ellison’s dad to “yes um to death”, undermine them, and agree them to death and destruction. He did not want his son (Ellison’s dad) to feel as cowardly and powerless as he did. He told him to “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth” (Ellison 264). His grandfather wanted them all to be fearless and stand up to their oppressors. Ellison took these words to heart, he wanted to fulfill the wishes of his grandfather. He begins speaking out publically, he felt like he was making progress because he receives the praises of white Americans. This could have been intentional, allowing his to speak but not really taking his words seriously.
As a result of his advocacy efforts, he did not know how to feel. He was not completely proud of himself. He felt like his actions did not match his thinking. He did not want to be viewed as a coward or traitor like his grandfather. He wanted to make a better impact than his grandfather. The final words of his grandfather were becoming a curse instead of a betterment. He felt like his words were being received by the white American audience but wasn’t sure if they could see through to his covert behaviors. He felt like he was not demonstrating the actions expected by white Americans “sulky and mean”. Even though he tried to demonstrate humility as the secret to progress, he struggled with embracing that as a philosophy because it clashed with his grandfather’s ideals. The white Americans could see through his approach; they could have chosen this as a subtle way of teaching him a lesson. Instead of responding to his behavior themselves in a different way like lynching or outright murder; they allowed him to be beaten by people of his same racial background and then they left him with a racist final thought. The irony could be that white America exhibited what his grandfather mentioned, appeasement (they invited him to speak) and then led him to death and destruction (with Battle Royale).
Ellison developed deep-seated anger resulting from his experiences. Despite his approach of humility before the Battle Royale and the crude scholarship joke, his behaviors shifted to becoming what he described as “sulky and mean”. Ellison firmly believed he was not respected as an African American man and the origin of his doubtful feelings stemmed from the interactions of white American men. During a violent altercation with a white American male, Ellison becomes enraged when the man “bumps” into him and does not acknowledge that he bumped into him or offer an apology. This incident exhibits how African American men are viewed by white Americans as invisible, inhuman and unworthy of an apology. Ellison’s raging response could be indicative of him finally standing up for himself. He could feel vindication for how he has been treated in the past. This was his time to say enough is enough, I am tired of being treated this way and attempting to hold them (white males) accountable for their actions.
The negative encounters led Ellison to adopt the term invisible man. He believed that he was invisible because of the “peculiar disposition of the eyes of which he comes in contact with” (Ellison 258). So basically, the way he is viewed by his counterparts is not favorable. He’s pleased when he reads the newspaper article indicating a white American man was mugged by an “invisible man”. It reinforces that he can take action and not take any responsibility for those actions. As an “invisible man” he decides to live as a man without responsibility. He resides in a residential area occupied by white Americans, he considers his living space to be a warm hole and ultimately he does not pay for space or the electricity. He feels like he is beating the system. This gives him a feeling of power (Wallace). He is living in their area under their noses for free. Responsibility-free. He assaulted a man who he felt disrespected and avoided responsibility. Living as an invisible man enable Ellison to live secretly taking his power back but at the same time, it can be viewed as his internalizing the beliefs that America white-imposed upon him.
Even though Ellison felt like he was not being viewed respectfully as an African American man. His approach to obtaining respect could be viewed as cowardly. Instead of outwardly advocating for equal treatment he felt like he won in a different way. He got satisfaction in knowing that he could take action secretly (negative and/or positive) and not accept the responsibility for it. By operating under the term invisible man, he could operate under the radar to receive results. I can see how the feelings for the term (invisible man) were manifested but the actions demonstrated by Ellison don’t reflect the strength of African American people. During those times, African Americans spoke out, protested and they stood up for their beliefs. They did not adopt a way to beat they system or beat people their own game as a solution. In essence, how does his behavior add to the betterment of other African American men who felt like they were invisible in the eyes of white America? His behaviors served a purpose for him but not all African Americans men in general. Living rent and responsibility free shows his ingenious thinking but his lack of outward actions show his passiveness. His grandfather said “live with your head in the lion’s mouth” I don’t think this demonstrates that level of courageousness or bravery.
In conclusion, Ralph Ellison’s encounters negatively impacted his life, his actions are manifested by his behavior, anger he exhibited and, the rationale behind his thinking. At a hotel event on his graduation day, he anticipates delivering a speech to a receptive audience but instead is severely beaten and publicly mocked. His grandfather wanted them all to be fearless and stand up to their oppressors. As a result of his advocacy efforts, he did not know how to feel. He was not completely proud of himself. He felt like his actions did not match his thinking. Ellison developed a deep-seated anger resulting from his experiences. The negative encounters led Ellison to adopt the term invisible man. It reinforces that he can take action and not take any responsibility for those actions. As an “invisible man” he decides to live secretly as a man without responsibility. I think his actions portrayed the opposite effect than he expected because even if you have power as an invisible man it is not beneficial in combatting the problem of racism and prejudice for all African Americans.
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