The Question of Race in Invisible Man and Black Boy
In the early twentieth century black American writers started employing modernist ways of argumentation to come up with possible answers to the race question. Two of the most outstanding figures of them on both, the literary and the political level, were Richard Wright, the "most important voice in black American literature for the first half of the twentieth century" (Norton, 548) and his contemporary Ralph Ellison, "one of the most footnoted writers in American literary history" (Norton, 700). In this paper I want to compare Wright's autobiography "Black Boy" with Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" and, in doing so, assess the effectiveness of their conclusions.
Both books have many striking parallels. Each tells the story of a young and intelligent picaresque character who goes through a painful odyssey of racism and prejudice during which he intellectually matures. Disappointed by institutions like family, church and political parties, mainly because they try to deprive them of their individuality by instrumentalizing and categorizing them, both protagonists grow more and more disillusioned. At the peak of their cynicism they eventually reject the American society as a whole. They now have only two logically consistent ways out of their dilemma: Flight or fight.
Ellison's protagonist chooses to take the first way. He believes that he can now finally see how society really works and he finds that in it he plays the role of an "invisible man". His invisibility is due to the fact that the other people are blind for the characteristics that distinguish him as an individual human being and instead apply to him the same stereotypes they associate with Afro-American people. Furthermore, they seem not able to recognize the fact that, since the circumstances of life are always in a state of flux, the people are changing too. All chapters of the protagonist's life end with the same kind of disappointment and contribute to his disillusionment. This finally leads him to believe that history is boomeranging and that society therefore can't be changed. No one except for him (and a crazy doctor) seems to have the necessary distance to see what is really wrong with the world and so he hides away into a dark hole. There he stays, literally enlightened by 1,369 light bulbs, stealing power from the power plant and enjoying his individuality.
Richard Wright chooses the other way. Cynicism is only a period in his life. From his early childhood on he has always had a strong will and successfully resisted all attempts to break him. Instead of obeying to authorities and silently accepting the social circumstances of his life he has always fought back. Cynicism means passivity and Wright can't afford to end up in passivity, be it only because, other than the invisible man, he has to care for his family. Driven by great physical and intellectual hunger he grimly swims against...