In the mid-twentieth century, America was faced with a conflict of defining human rights, racial discrimination and racial equality amongst all races which gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement where both blacks and whites protested for equality and to end racial discrimination. Actions such as: the “separate but equal” doctrine, Brown vs. Board of Education, bus boycott by Rosa Parks, and the murder of Emmett Till were just a few events that took place in the mid 1900s (Thoughtco.com). Caught in the turmoil of oppression, Ralph Waldo Ellison wrote a book to socially protest how the party leaders betrayed African American “during the war years” and Invisible Man was a “response to the party’s betrayal (Wikipedia contributors). The profound novel, Invisible Man centered around an un-named narrator who depicts himself “invisible” due to the “biochemical accident to his epidermis” (Ellison 3). The novel takes place in New York during a time of racial conflict where the narrator exists in a tyrannical environment where whites controlled every aspect of the blacks’ life whether the African Americans knew it or not. The narrator journeys through a wave of racial discrimination as he struggles to be visually seen as a person because everywhere he goes, he is automatically given a name where he is viewed and manipulated in the eyes of his superiors. Ralph Ellison utilizes the motif of racial stereotypes, blindness and puppetry for the un-named narrator to find his self-identity amid the chaos of the world he struggles to live in.
After the exile of the narrator by Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator starts to work at a place called Liberty Paints where the white paints are “pure white” (Ellison 197). The narrator’s job there is to first of all, to “just do what he is told” and second, to mix “no more” and “no less” than ten drops of the substance into a bucket and stir it until the black substance becomes “pure white” (Ellison 200). The fact that the paint must be black in order to become white insinuates the necessity of blacks for the whites to become successful or “pure.” The way Krimbo treats the narrator with such force and superiority reflects how the white society treat the black community, and the whites deny their benefited gains from social injustices “although they damn well have, and do” (Boyagota 109). Krimbo also says that Optic White is the paint that will “cover just about anything” (Ellison 202), illuminating the idea of whites covering up their beneficial lifestyle from blacks who are blind from the ideology because they mimic how the whites live. After passing escaping the shock treatments from the doctors, the narrator is saved by Mary, a woman who takes care of him for a short time. In her house, the narrator finds a coin bank in the shape of a “very black, red lipped and wide-mouthed Negro” who is choking because of the coins “filled to the throat” (Ellison 319). This reinforces the stereotypical way African Americans were depicted—dark, big lipped, and the distinct “white eyes” mocks and generalizes how African Americans are supposed to look, and the way ideas are shown towards the African ethnicity is symbolized as the coins being shoved down the coin bank’s throat—overwhelming and forceful. By accidentally breaking the coin bank, the narrator sweeps it up and puts it in a cloth and tries to throw it away, but it ends up back to him, so he puts it in the briefcase Dr. Bledsoe gives him (329-331). The coin bank reflects the narrator’s stereotypical view by society. Just because he is black, people assumed that it was stolen money or a gun and immediately threaten to call the police because they think he’s some crook running from police.
In the beginning of the novel, the narrator participates in a Battle Royale, hosted by white trustees, for some scholarship money. Ten African American men were given boxing gloves and were then blindfolded with a white cloth (Ellison 20-21). This symbolizes how white supremacists can manipulate the actions of black people for their entertainment, while also showing how easily they can force each other to turn against one another. First, they’ll gang up on one, then turn “to fight one another” (Ellison 23). The cage fight also dehumanizes the students by calling them “niggers” and “sonsabitches” (Ellison21) which reinforces the disillusions the narrator experiences throughout the novel. Later in the story, the narrator takes a job offer in the Brotherhood where he is a spokesman. As he takes the stage, he is engulfed by the spotlight blinded because of how bright the light was (Ellison 341). This scene symbolizes the irony in a way that a blind leader is leading a blind audience. During this scene, the narrator speaks his mind, but is punished because his opinions were “wild, hysterical, politically irresponsible and dangerous” (Ellison 349). This action illuminates how much other people influence his actions because he is never given a chance to act himself, and when he does, he gets punished and furthermore adds to his disillusions. What is a person without being able to express their opinions?
At the end of the novel, the narrator witnesses Tod Clifton at the streets in attempt to sell Sambo dolls that seems to “move like dancers” (Ellison 440). Sambo dolls depict how the African Americans were supposed to look, with the “cardboard disks” (Ellison 431) making its shape, insinuates how whites look at African American—they treat them as “toys” that are readily disposable and replaceable in a heartbeat. Also, the doll was dancing, reflecting how the African community was supposed to act, and they are to entertain the white people without gaining any benefits. Clifton is embodied into the Sambo dolls as a last resort of trying to blend with the white culture, but in the end, “their entertainment led to his death” (Ellison 446). Later, the narrator realizes that the dolls are dancing through a “black thread” that “had been invisible” (Ellison 446). This realization reflects the irony blacks had been living at the time where they think they’re making their own choices, but their decisions are manipulated by the puppeteers—whites. For instance, at the Battle Royale where the “reward” was only fake “yellow coin” on top of an electric rug (Ellison 27). African Americans still must entertain the Caucasians when they are “rewarded” false pretenses that, in the end, benefit white societal gains.
Throughout the story, the narrator encounters racial discrimination and becomes all the stereotypes whether it be leading a handful of blind audience or entertaining the superior race or being generalized due to the “biochemical accident to his epidermis” (Ellison 3). The narrator struggles to find his inner self, his identity, because he is constantly forced to be someone he is not, and is automatically given a name, perhaps, in the situation that best suits the white community. As he conflicts his self-worth, ideas are shoved down his throat and is overwhelmed with what he must become to please his superiors and ended up not becoming visible, but embracing the fact that he is invisible.