Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Now you see me...

It took me quite a while to get through my next mind-blowing, life altering read. Not because it wasn't a wonderful piece of literature, but because I just got so bogged down in the meaning that I had to set it aside for some lighter fluff now and again. And this is very difficult for me to do since I am such an OCD reader.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison tells the story of a young black man from the south in the 1950s as he struggles to discover the answer to the age old question: who am I? He begins by living the life of the "idealistic" black man, the reformed black man that goes to college and is everything the white man wants him to be: intelligent (to a point), clean cut, and subservient. Through a series of unfortunate events, he is expelled from school and sent to Harlem to work. There, he is in an accident at a factory and ends up in the factory hospital undergoing electro-shock therapy in order to "cure" him. For a while, he doesn't even remember his own name. It is at this point that he begins to question the nature of identity, what is it that makes us who we are? What's in a name? Etc. etc. etc. He walks through the streets of Harlem and wonders why all those things that black people enjoy are considered socially unacceptable and even abhorrent. He soon draws the attention of a mysterious organization called "The Brotherhood," whom he believes is striving for equality. He becomes their spokesperson, and he works hard to better the world for both blacks and whites together. Bit by bit, this reality begins to crash around him as he realizes what he thought was the truth was really their variation. He comes to describe himself as the "invisible man." People do not see him as an individual or even a black man, but a character of his surroundings, circumstances, or imaginings. He suddenly is forced to come to terms with the harsh reality of the world, and finally able to face himself and decide who he really is.
Yes, this is a frightening glimpse into the treatment of blacks in America from a black man's point of view, and it is despicable. But this book is about so much more than racism. It is about the degradation of a person's soul, exploitation, hypocrisy, and the journey to self realization. The nameless protagonist is an intelligent and well spoken young man that is jerked around throughout the book, wanting and needing to trust that those he encounters are truly in earnest to make the world a better place for his people. He genuinely believes that what he does is right, and then life bitch slaps him in the face. He is constantly questioning his own identity and struggling against anything stereotypical of his race that he deems shameful i.e. a preference of fried yams. At a young age, he is taught to suppress those tendencies in order to became a "better" individual i.e. a credit to the race i.e. what the white man expects. His world turns upside down again and again. You feel horrible and outraged at his circumstances, and at the same time screaming, "What are you thinking? These guys are totally using you!" The writing is impeccable and the story flows very well from one trying time to another. You'll be stunned, you'll cry, you'll even laugh, and in the end, you will be haunted.
Honestly, this book really should be required reading in high school. The language doesn't go over the top as far as obscenities and there really isn't any sex to speak of, so there should be no issue there. I wish I could have read this in high school myself as it is a brilliant essay on the nature of man from a very different perspective. It's difficult to explain racism when you never have to face it yourself or see it in everyday life. In reading this book, you will understand how racism reaches into the soul; how it effects the world, people's actions and thoughts; and how it makes a man invisible.

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