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Applegate (2004) notes that the invisible man is college educated black man who is undergoing a lot of struggles in his attempt to succeed in a society marked with high level of racism. The society has refused to notice his presence. According to Applegate, the book gives an account of both the physical and the psychological journey of the narrator. The author utilizes a number of flashbacks in trying to elaborate on the past happenings and to justify the narrator’s present state. Callahan (2004) also notes that this story has its setting in the United States during the era of the pre-Civil Rights. It is during this period that the Black Americans were barred by the segregation laws from enjoying the basic human rights enjoyed by the white citizens. This paper seeks to discuss how the narrator used his past to elaborate on his present.
A Brief about Ralph Ellison
According to Applegate (2004), Ralph Ellison was born in the year 1914 in Oklahoma City. From his early life, it could be seen that he was destined for prosperity. During his teenage days, Ellison gets interested in studying the values and attitudes of the Native Americans, the whites and the blacks. While in high school, he also develops a unique interest in music, which inspires him to join the Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship basis with the intention of becoming a symphony writer. Later, the scholarship does not work forcing him to fly to the North with the hope of saving some money for his tuition fee. Unfortunately, it became impossible for him to find any relevant job. It is during this time that he meets with Richard Wright who encourages him to be a writer. He, therefore, joins the field of writing, winning a number of awards with the Invisible man emerging as his best novel. In this novel, Ellison portrays a black individual craving for his identity in the larger society - something that is typical of what the Black Americans go through (Applegate, 2004).
Why/How Ellison Uses the Past to Explain the Present
The narrator begins his story by revealing that he is in a hideout. To enable the readers understand how he came to be in his present state, he begins to unveil some of his past experiences that may have led him to be where he is. He uses a number of past events in his explanation as elaborated below:
Experience during His Days in High School
At his 40’s, the narrator still clearly remembers his earlier goals while he was in high school. Though his long term ambition in life was to become one day a professional educator and orator, it becomes difficult to realize because of limited opportunity the society presents. To prove his capability, the narrator tells of the popular speech during his high school graduation, which gives him favor with his high school superintendent, who in turn invites him to give the same speech to a group of high class white citizens (Thomas, 2008).
Unfortunately, the much awaited event is not as he had expected. At first, he is forced to take part in a brutal blindfolded boxing match together with his classmates. He is sad when he later realizes that this event was done merely to entertain what he describes as the “smoker” (Thomas, 2008). Part of the entertainment program was also a compulsory watch of a sensuous dance, which was performed by a naked blonde woman (Hill, 2007).
After the boxing match, he and his friends are put to scramble for what they initially think to be gold coins just to later realize that they have been cheated. It is after all these humiliating experiences that the narrator, with the pain, is finally called upon to deliver the speech to some drunken white men. His trust of the white is portrayed when the poor narrator proudly accepts his prize irrespective of the experience he had been taken through. He later realizes that the prize was a scholarship to Negroes state college (Hill, 2007).
It was during the same night that he was visited by his dead grandfather who orders him to confirm the contents of the briefcase. Unfortunately, the narrator fails to get the scholarship but instead a note with the inscriptions “Keep This Nigger Boy Running.” This dream marks the beginning of another face of his life. He begins to stumble blindly through life without questioning the reason of all his misfortunes. Interestingly, these blacks and whites are people who claim to be guiding him. Their effect on his life ultimately turns out to be an unending exploitation and betrayal of his trust (Hill, 2007).
Events during His College Days
The narrator has also elaborated well on the fateful days he went through during his time in college. He recalls how one day, having received an order from Norton, his assigned chauffeur, he accompanied him to Mr. Jim Trueblood’s house. Cliffs-Notes (2007) reports that it is his obedience to this chauffeur’s order which later turns to be the reason behind his expulsion from the college. He is then given seven strange letters by his dean Dr. Bledsoe to accompany him to New York. Once again his trust in the whites betrays him here. He strongly believes that the letters are recommendations and therefore, never bothers to confirm their contents just to later realize that the letters are to confirm his expulsion from college (Thomas, 2008). This also shows the kind of injustice the Black Americans faced during his time.
The Narrator’s Experience in New York
Having realized that his fate in the college is sealed, the narrator decides to settle in New York, where he thinks that things will be better for him. However, it does not take long before he comes into an experience with what he called “unlimited freedom for the blacks”. His first encounter is with Ras, a black man from West Indian, who was giving a speech to a group of men and women along the streets of Harlem. Ras’s massage was an appeal to the need for the blacks to unite together to overcome the barriers that are presented to them (Callahan, 2004).
While in New York, the narrator, just like other Black Americans, fails to secure a good job. He, thus, decides to accept a job in a paint factory just to later realize that he has been taken advantage of to work in an unsafe environment, which had elicited a strike from the white workers. It is not until long that the narrator nearly dies in an accident involving explosion. He is taken to the paint factory hospital, where he says that instead of being treated, he is being used as the hospital’s specimen by the white doctors in their experiments (Bloom, 2009).
Hill (2007) notes that from the hospital, the narrator finds favor with Mary Rambo, a black woman who treats him kindly, enabling him regain health. However, because of the determination to find his own identity, the narrator is forced to leave this woman’s premise to find something to do for himself. He joined the Brotherhood, which is a political organization claiming to be committed to equality for all. He is then appointed as the leader of the Harlem District. Hill (2007) reports that it is during this time that the narrator also encounters a woman called Sybil, who sees him as a potential sexual object.
Later, after the death of his co-leader Tod Clifton, the narrator realizes that the organization has never been committed to protecting the Black Americans as it purports. He, therefore, abandons it and returns to Harlem. Even here, he is confronted by Ras, who accuses him of being a betrayer. Fearing for his life, he begins to disguise himself and begin to use a hat and dark glasses. This again brings him problems as he is on several occasions confused with Rinehart, who was a corn man (Thomas, 2008).
The narrator later discovers an eruption of violence in the Harlem community, and he is attracted to take part in it. He, therefore, takes part in the bringing down of a Harlem tenement. He is later pursued as he is trying to escape. He finds rescue in a manhole, which finally lands him in his underground hideout. Even while being here, the narrator suffers horrific nightmares dreaming of being caught and tortured by some men. He finally decides to write down his past as a way of releasing his hatred and discovering his love for life (Thomas, 2008).
Significance of the Narrator’s Past
According to Bloom (2009), the tracing of the narrator’s journey from his initial rural South can serve two purposes at the same time. It reflects the earlier migration of the slave narratives and autobiographies which had been written by the African Americans, who had gone through almost the same experience during their time in slavery. His life history is also specifically identical to the escape routes that were used by desperate formally enslaved Black Africans to equally flee from bondage in the South to freedom in the North in the 1930s and 1940s. Hill (2007) noted that these Africans were migrating with the hope of securing better jobs and opportunities during the great migration.
The narrator has, thus, used his past in the novel to elaborate how much injustice is routed in this community. The Africans are totally sidelined in every aspects of life, including education, social and healthcare and even economically. Their state is worsened by the existence of the organizations, such as the Brotherhood, which though formed to fight injustice and inequality, turn to exploit the blacks whom they seek to use for their own political gains. The narrator seems to have used this one man’s struggle to demonstrate how Black Americans are denied their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are in turn enjoyed by their white counterparts. According to Thomas (2008), the Black Americans were until 1865 perceived not as men but as properties.
The narrator, like is the case with thousands of Black Americans, suffers because of his strange belief that he can only continue to live upon securing the support, recognition, and approval of the whites. This is what caused his unhappiness in many if not all occasions when he had other options. Black Americans just like the narrator have not stopped to view the whites with the inferiority complex. They believe the whites have the right and the ability to control their destinies. This is what made the narrator to spend 20 years trying to find his identity in a society in which he is not recognized as a human being. He later decides to embrace his past and to create his own identity by refusing to accept the whites.
In conclusion, the narrator has succeeded in bringing out the kind of injustices which the Black Americans go through. The situation may only be changed if the Black Americans themselves change their perception of their position in comparison to the whites. There is also the need to lobby for certain changes in the American Constitution to discourage such practices related to racial segregation.