Does this ever happen to you? You take a book out from the library, start reading, and almost immediately realize (prompted, perhaps, by the urge to underline something) that this is a book you’ll return to again and again, it ought to be annotated, ever on your shelf, and perhaps you should stop reading immediately, go buy the darn thing, and process it pen in hand. Well, that was me and Invisible Man. Library property notwithstanding, I couldn’t help folding up bottom corners of important pages, and I’ve been renewing its check-out online all summer, since I read it in June. The time has come for me to record what needs recording, unfold those folded pages, and let Invisible Man appear to the next thirsty reader.
(Irony of ironies, when I first went to check this book out, four or five copies were actually missing–invisible–from the library. Maybe because it’s so good? But definitely time to get mine back into circulation.)
I picked it up on a tip from visiting scholar Adam Bradley–the author of The Book of Rhymes and The Yale Anthology of Rap. He was at Michigan to give a lecture and we got talking about his early work in the Ralph Ellison archives at Harvard. Ellison, he insisted, had much to say about hiphop. After a first unsatisfying stint with Ellison’s Collected Essays, I finally found my way to Invisible Man. Now, three months later, bear with me as I work through my enigmatically dog-eared but un-annotated copy, as I rewrite, riff and remember…
He was an odd old guy, my grandfather, and I am told I take after him. It was he who caused the trouble. On his deathbed he called my father to him and said, “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” They thought the old man had gone out of his mind. He had been the meekest of men. The younger children were rushed form the room, the shades drawn and the flame of the lamp turned so low that it sputtered on the wick like the old man’s breathing. “Learn it to the younguns,”” he whispered fiercely; then he died. (16)
That, there, was the first shock: learning, so early, so explicit, so extra-curricular. And learn what? The art of signifying, of subterfuge, of saying yes and knowing no, of nodding along but knowing so. This page, appropriately, I left un-marked. But my first dog ear returns to a similar concept, after I hard realized with much joy that our titular character would spend the first part of his story at school.
“Ordered you?” he said. “He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse? Couldn’t you say they had sickness–smallpox–or picked another cabin? Why that Trueblood shack? My god, boy! You’re black and living in the South–did you forget how to lie?”
“Lie, sir? Lie to him, lie to a trustee, sir? Me?”
He shook his head with a kind of anguish. “And me thinking I’d picked a boy with a brain,” he said. “Didn’t you know you were endangering the school?”
“But I was only trying to please him…”
“Please him! And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?” (139)
(Check out Melissa Harris Perry on Clint Eastwood treating President Obama as an “invisible man” in her blog post and on her show.)
And then a moment that really struck me, the vignette that not only launches our hero into politics but reminded me so strongly (now, one year later) of the stated goals and principles of Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, this section of Invisible Man warrants its own post, essay, critical study, as the invisible man and a crowd of citizens functionally occupy an eviction.
“We’re dispossessed,” I sang at the top of my voice, “disposessed and we want to pray. Let’s go in and pray. Let’s have a big prayer meeting. But we’ll need some chairs to sit in…rest upon as we kneel. We’ll need some chairs!”
“Here’s some chairs down here,” a woman called from the walk. “How ’bout taking in some chairs?”
“Sure,” I called, “take everything. Take it all, hide that junk! Put it back where it came from, It’s blocking the street and the sidewalk, and that’s against the law. Put it out of sight! Hid it, hide their shame! Hide our shame!”…
“We ought to done this long ago,” a man said.
“We damn sho should,”
“I feel so good,” a woman said. “I feel so good!”…
“It’s a good idea.”
“Let’s have a demonstration…”
“Let’s parade!” …
“What’s going on here?” a gold-shield officer called up the steps….”You,” he called, pointing straight at me.
“We’ve…we’ve been clearing the sidewalk of a lot of junk,” I called, tense inside….
“You mean you’re interfering with an eviction,” he called, starting through the crowd.
“He ain’t doing nothing,” a woman called from behind me.
I looked around, the steps behind were filled with those who had been inside
“We’re all together,” someone called, as the crowd closed in.
“Clear the streets,” the officer ordered.
“That’s what we were doing,” someone called from back in the crowd.
“Mahoney!” he bellowed to another policeman, “send in a riot call!”
“What riot?” one of the white men called to him. “There’s no riot.”
“If I say there’s a riot, there’s a riot,” the officer said. “And what re you white people doing up here in Harlem?” (281-283)
My next folded corner was prompted by a theme that has interested me since I researched feminist theology in college: the theme of self-actualization or coming out–what W.E.B. DuBois called that “second self” and what feminist theologian Judith Plaskow termed “the yeah, yeah experience” of realizing that other women have had the same experience of difference that you have. This is a theme you may hear more about from me: I’m not only interested here in the overlap between of-color, queer, and feminist literatures and ways of thinking, but also of the more general notion that every fully human adult person has to undergo some sort of coming-into-coming-out experience. Here’s Ellison’s take:
And the obsession with my identity which I had developed in the factory hospital returned with a vengeance. Who was I, how had I come to be? Certainly I couldn’t help being different from when I left the campus; but now a new, painful, contradictory voice had grown up within me, and between its demands for revengeful action and Mary’s silent pressure I throbbed with guilt and puzzlement. I wanted peace and quiet, tranquillity, but was too much aboil inside. Somewhere beneath the load of the emotion-freezing ice which my life had conditioned my brain to produce, a spot of black anger glowed and threw off a hot red light of such intensity that had Lord Kelvin known of its existence, he would have had to revise his measurements. A remote explosion had occurred somewhere…and it had caused the ice cap to melt and shift the slightest bit….Only a drop, perhaps, but that drop was the first wave of the deluge. (259)
And this one, which reminded me of my abiding sense that more people are different than not, that minorities are a majority, that the queer, disabled, of color, female, poor of the world added together make many more than the various normals do:
Let’s get together, uncommon people. With both our eyes we may see what makes us so uncommon, we’ll see who makes us so uncommon! (344)
At the end of this speech, our protagonist adds:
I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity!…With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. (346)
Beautiful lines which harken to Ellison’s commitment, stated in his essays and especially in his comments that “”Richard Wright is no spiritual brother of mine” (I paraphrase, I think), to a humanity that is beyond race, that uses race only to transcend it. But our narrator’s later reflections belie the newness, the novelty, of this novel, and I marked them for my craft-lesson frustrations with them, for their belaboring an already-made point:
Words, phrases, skipped through my mind; I saw the blue haze again. What had I meant by saying that I had become “more human”? Was it a phrase that I had picked up from some preceding speaker, or a slip of the tongue? For a moment I thought of my grandfather and quickly dismissed him. What had an old slave to do with humanity? (354)
And here, a joy of novel-writing that no essay can ever accomplish: fiction’s distinct dialogism, its capacity for dialogue, for two modes of thought within one piece of prose:
“And you, mahn,” the Exhorter said, “a regl’lar little black devil! A godahm sly mongoose! Where you think you from, going with the white folks? I know, godahm; don’t I know it! You from down South! You from Trinidad! You from Barbados! Jamaica, South Africa, and the white mahn’s foot in your ass all the way to the hip. What you trying to deny by betrayin gthe black people? Why you fight against us? You young fellows. You young black men with plenty education; I been hearing your rabble rousing. Why you go over to the enslaver? What kind of education is that? What kind of black mahn is that who betray his own mama?” (371)
More on learning:
“You’ll learn,” he said. “You’ll learn and you’ll surrender yourself to it even under such conditions. Especially under such conditions; that’s its value. That makes it patience.”
“Yes, I guess I’m learning now,” I said. “Right now.”
“Brother, he said drily, “you have no idea how much you’re learning– Please sit down.”
“All right,” I said, sitting down again. “But while ignoring my personal education for a second I’d like you to remember that the people have little patience with us tehse days. We could use this time more profitably.” (465)
And later, the question of leader vs. leaderlessness returns when our hero faces his superiors:
“Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!”
“You’ve said that,” I said, “and that’s the one thing you can tell them yourself. Who are you, anyway, the great white father?”
“Not their father, their leader. And your leader. And don’t forget it.” (473)
A Genesis shout-out:
And back and high on the wall above him there arched the words in letters of gold: LET THERE BE LIGHT! The whole scene quivered vague and mysterious in the green light, then the door closed and the sound muted down. (498)
And a reminder of the book’s weighty, tangible use of symbols::
I took a cab. Hambro lived in the West Eighties, and once in the vestibuleI tucked the hat under my arm and put the glasses in my pocket along with Brother Tarp’s leg chain and Clifton’s doll [a mammy figurine]. My pocket was getting overloaded. (500)
And the boomerang comes back again:
It was a joke, an absurd joke. And now I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack and Norton and Emrson merge into one single white figure….I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used….I didn’t know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I’d overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I’d agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I’d let them swoller me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them chocke on it….would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? (508-509)
And in anticipation of Lil Wayne…
“I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.” (571)
So I’ll end with an epigraph I’ve used before, on Signifying, from Weezy:
I see the end in the beginning
So I’m not racing, I’m just sprinting
Cause I don’t wanna finish
They diminish, I replenish. (“Let the Beat Build, Tha Carter III)
These have been Notes on a Future Seminar Paper. Peace, y’all.