“I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. . . . The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. . . . That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. . . . It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself. . . . But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.”
Dr. Bledsoe speaks these words to the narrator in Chapter 6 while rebuking him for taking Mr. Norton to the less desirable parts of campus. Bledsoe explains how playing the role of the subservient, fawning black to powerful white men has enabled him to maintain his own position of power and authority over the college. He mockingly lapses into the dialect of uneducated Southern blacks, saying “I’s” instead of “I am.” By playing the role of the “ignorant” black man, Bledsoe has made himself nonthreatening to whites. Bledsoe claims that by telling white men what they want to hear, he is able to control what they think and thereby control them entirely. His chilling final statement that he would rather see every black man in America lynched than give up his place of authority evidences his single-minded desire to maintain his power.
This quote contributes to the larger development of the novel in several ways. First, it helps to explain Bledsoe’s motivation for expelling and betraying the narrator: the narrator has upset Bledsoe’s strategy of dissimulation and deception by giving Norton an uncensored peek into the real lives of the area’s blacks. More important, this speech marks the first of the narrator’s many moments of sudden disenchantment in the novel. As a loyal, naïve adherent of the college’s philosophy, the narrator has always considered Bledsoe an admirable exponent of black advancement; his sudden recognition of Bledsoe’s power-hungry, cynical hypocrisy comes as a devastating blow. This disillusionment constitutes the first of many that the narrator suffers as the novel progresses, perhaps most notably at the hands of the Brotherhood.
“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”
Lucius Brockway makes this boast to the narrator in Chapter 10. The narrator has taken a job at the Liberty Paints plant, and Brockway is describing the properties of the “Optic White” paint whose production he supervises. This quote exemplifies Ellison’s use of the Liberty Paints plant as a metaphor. In both Ellison’s descriptions of the paint-mixing process and the relations between blacks and whites in the company, the Liberty Paints plant emerges as a symbol for the racial dynamics in American society. The main property of Optic White, Brockway notes, is its ability to cover up blackness; it can even whiten charcoal, which is often used to make black marks upon—to spoil, in a sense—white paper. This dynamic evokes the larger notion that the white power structure in America, like the white paint, tries to subvert and smother black identity. Prejudice forces black men and women to assimilate to white culture, to mask their true thoughts and feelings in an effort to gain acceptance and tolerance.
. . . the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro . . . stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth.
This passage, from Chapter 15, describes the coin bank that the narrator finds at Mary’s just before he leaves to join the Brotherhood. Ellison uses the coin bank as a symbol for the harmful racial stereotypes that the narrator has tried in vain to escape. The figure represents the servile, obsequious slave, eager to provide self-effacing amusement to white people, performing petlike tricks for them. Moreover, the bank establishes a black man as an object, a decoration and a trivial toy to be played with and used by white people. After the narrator leaves Mary’s, he finds himself frustratingly unable to get rid of this insulting coin bank. The bank thus illustrates another aspect of stereotype—its stubborn permanence, its horrible tendency to follow a person throughout his or her life.
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.
The narrator experiences this moment of epiphany during his confrontation with Ras in Chapter 25. This scene represents a key 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 others can only prove destructive. Ras’s threatening to kill the narrator makes the narrator see 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, 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.
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.
In this quote from the Epilogue, the narrator very neatly encapsulates the main source of his difficulties throughout the twenty-five chapters of the novel. He has not been himself and has not lived his own life but rather has allowed the complexity of his identity to be limited by the social expectations and prejudices of others. He has followed the ideology of the college and the ideology of the Brotherhood without trusting or developing his own identity. Now, however, he has realized that his own identity, both in its flexibility and authenticity, is the key to freedom. Rinehart, a master of many identities, first suggests to the narrator the limitless capacity for variation within oneself. However, Rinehart ultimately proves an unsatisfactory model for the narrator because Rinehart’s life lacks authenticity. The meaning of the narrator’s assertion that he is “an invisible man” has changed slightly since he made the same claim at the beginning of the novel: whereas at the outset he means to call attention to the fact that others cannot not see him, he now means to call attention to the fact that his identity, his inner self, is real, even if others cannot see it.