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In his seminal work Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison depicts the dramatic and enlightening account of the life of the novel’s main character as he grows in understanding of himself and the reality of the world he inhabits. This unnamed narrator, a black man in a white man’s America, initially sets his sights on becoming the kind of successful, notable black man that pleases whites before becoming disillusioned with this concept and struggling to retain his own identity. Throughout his trials, the narrator is subjected to the suffocating and ever-present subjugation of his race, even as he seems to be in control of his own choices. Interestingly, Ellison chooses to illustrate this developing racial power dynamic with recurring descriptions of black and white objects that serve as representations of the two races and their relation to each other in the novel. With extensive black and white symbolism and imagery that ultimately portrays the cruelly inescapable domination of whites over blacks in this time period, Ellison paints a nuanced picture of the racial power dynamic characterizing the United States of the early 20th century.
Ellison initializes this connection between the literal colors of black and white and the actual races with the symbolic object of a blindfold, creating a clear statement on the kind of treatment to which whites are subjecting blacks. Deceived by his school’s superintendent, the narrator finds himself in the midst of a “battle royal” with other young black men meant for the entertainment of a room of rich white dignitaries (Ellison 17). He is soon blinded with “broad bands of white cloth,” as are the other men forced to brawl (Ellison 21). This white blindfold effectively serves as a literal representation of what whites are doing to blacks figuratively: blinding them from reality for the purpose of controlling them. In order to keep the African American population complacent with the intolerable state of race relations in society, it is necessary to prevent them from seeing things for what they are. Whites trick blacks such as the narrator into believing that their current situation is not undesirable, but accomplished, allowing the white population to better keep them under their dominion. This initial portrayal of the racial power dynamic crafts a clear and straightforward image of who has the power and who doesn’t in 20th-century American society.
Later on and throughout the story, Ellison deepens this understanding by establishing a relationship between white clothing and power, thereby leading the reader to make the connection that all power somehow originates from whites. The first notable example of this relationship occurs at the Golden Day, the bar to which the narrator brings the sickly Mr. Norton for a drink after his visit with Jim Trueblood. Upon their arrival at the tavern, a group of irreverent black veterans, many of which appear to be mentally-ill, practically swarm the elderly Mr. Norton. Soon their caretaker, Supercargo, makes his bombastic appearance:
“WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE?” a voice shouted from the balcony. Everyoneturned. I saw a huge black giant of a man, dressed only in white shorts, swaying on thestairs. It was Supercargo, the attendant. I hardly recognized him without his hard-starchedwhite uniform. Usually he walked around threatening the men with a strait jacket whichhe always carried over his arm, and usually they were quiet and submissive in hispresence. But now they seemed not to recognize him and began shouting curses. (Ellison82)
Typically Supercargo dons an all-white uniform for carrying out his duties as attendant. In distinguishing himself this way, he can command authority among the men he is tasked to look after. However, when he is lacking the complete white suit from which he derives his power, this becomes difficult and even impossible, as his wards eventually turn against him. In this example, Supercargo’s white uniform is emblematic of the intimidating power that whites possess over their black counterparts, for once he is removed from his uniform, Supercargo seems to lose any control he once had over the war veterans. This relationship between Supercargo and white power becomes even more apparent as the veterans begin to take out their frustrations on this traditional power dynamic through beating Supercargo, a proxy or stand-in for the white man. Thus, the overpowering of Supercargo by black men does not signify a reversal of the power structure; rather, as he is no longer imbued with the authority of his currently absent white uniform, this scene serves simply as a kind of catharsis for the men, who still make the connection between their black caretaker clad in white and the domineering power of whites themselves.
Ellison adds another facet to the racial power dynamic in Invisible Man with the intermixing of black and white paint later on in the book. After giving up on his futile mission of delivering Bledsoe’s letters in the hopes of one day returning to school, the narrator takes up a job at Liberty Paints, manufacturer of the “Optic White” paint sold chiefly to the government (Ellison 201). This fact in itself reveals something of how Ellison sees the U.S. government’s role the racial power dynamic: it seeks to maintain power over blacks by painting itself white, effectively barring blacks from having a say within government by electing mainly whites to official positions. What reveals more insight, though, is the way in which this Optic White paint is made. As the narrator’s new (and short-lived) boss, Kimbro, demonstrates the steps involved, the narrator looks on in confusion, for in order to craft the purest white paint of all, according to Kimbro, one must incorporate a good deal of jet black liquid into the mix (Ellison 200). This detail adds an intriguing dimension to the standard power structure of white dominance over blacks. Through following this recipe for creating Optic White paint, Ellison leads the reader to determine that white society takes the contributions of what they see as the inferior black population and exploits them to become even greater, if not more powerful. It can be said, then, that, in a way, whites derive their power from simply taking advantage of what blacks have to offer in society without acknowledging the source. The complexity of this relationship between the races calls for imagery that is somewhat illogical; the narrator is so dumbfounded at the sight of the paint and black liquid interplaying in this way partly because this likely would not occur. The improbability of this kind of chemical reaction—at least to the average reader—makes it obvious that Ellison is not aiming to achieve scientific accuracy, but rather expound on the relationship between whites and blacks hitherto established with other imagery of this nature.
Towards the conclusion of Ellison’s work, the author illustrates how the narrator figures personally into this racial power dynamic, again with colored clothing. After once again becoming disillusioned (now with the Brotherhood), the narrator is accosted by some of Ras the Exhorter’s men as he is walking through the streets of Harlem. To disguise himself he obtains a pair of dark sunglasses and a large white hat, leading to numerous instances of mistaken identity for a seemingly ubiquitous character known as Rinehart (Ellison 484). In the context of this escapade through Harlem disguised as Rinehart, his newly acquired white hat symbolizes the co-opting of the power associated with clothing of the same color for his own purposes of protection through invisibility. To most whites—as he soon comes to fully realize at the end of the novel—the narrator is practically invisible: people avoid noticing him, and even when they acknowledge his physical presence, they do not care about his personal concerns or ideas. This is made painfully apparent to the narrator, as well as the reader, with his later encounters with fellow members of the Brotherhood. Even though he obviously has the most pertinent and valuable experience among them, they refuse to accept his opinions on the actions the Brotherhood should take to better connect with the people of Harlem, preferring instead that he just reiterate what they want to hear. The Brotherhood (as a stand-in for white society at large) ignores the narrator’s ideas and perspective—in essence failing to truly see him. The hat utilizes this invisibility to his advantage as he attempts to avoid confrontations with Ras’s cronies and thus represents a re-purposing of a traditionally white power, adding yet another layer to the complex condition of race relations at play here. While whites maintain prominent control over their black counterparts, this does not prevent people such as the narrator from finding ways to exploit this very power dynamic and thereby benefit from it in some aspect.
The narrator’s newfound power through adopting white clothing is highlighted once again in the detail of his shoes provided purposefully by Ellison. After a woman realizes the he is indeed not “Rine the runner” on account of the lack of Rinehart’s signature shoes, the narrator becomes “aware of [his] black-and-white shoes for the first time since the day of Clifton’s shooting” (Ellison 492). This is one of the only times that both the colors black and white coexist on a single item of clothing, and it is the first time the book addresses the bicolor nature of his shoes, emphasizing the importance of this particular detail. The significance of his shoes lies in the fact that black and white share an equal place by occupying space on the same article of clothing. Not only does this reinforce the connection between the narrator’s newly-achieved empowerment and the color white, but it serves as a harbinger of what Ellison sees as the potential future of the racial power dynamic explored with black and white symbolism up to this point. Shoes, being the means with which one steps forward firmly, link the equality of the literal colors on the narrator’s footwear with the equality of the races that Ellison foresees for the future.
From the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the author makes the deliberate choice to describe and comment on the power relationship between whites and blacks that characterized the early-20th-century America in which the events of the novel take place through careful and consistent references to black and white objects, particularly clothing. Over the course of his story detailing the life and struggles of the narrator, Ellison develops this dynamic into something much more complicated. In so doing, he no doubt hopes to paint a more accurate picture of events as he himself experienced, for things in real life are hardly ever so simple. While whites do indeed maintain tight control of the power dynamic between them and blacks, even those subjugated by these forces find ways to exploit them for their own benefit and create some semblance of power. Nevertheless, throughout the novel it remains clear to the reader that the power and domination exerted by the white population—and even by the U.S. government—over the African American population and society is total and inescapable. Even men like Bledsoe and the narrator, who seem to possess some power in their positions for a time, only come by this power by the allowance and facilitation of whites. At the same time, however, with this same tool of color, Ellison expresses a resolute hope for an equality that awaits in the future. By constructing and developing this theme throughout his entire work, Ellison communicates to the reader the feelings experienced by the African American population during this period of United States history.
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