Ethnicity, Invisibility, and Self-Creation in Invisible Man
A community may be said to possess a genuine ethnic culture when it adheres to and closely observes a tradition rich with its own folklore, music, and idiom. In Ellison's Invisible Man, the concern with ethnic identity is strong and becomes increasingly urgent in the face of a "foreign" dominant culture. Ethnicity, as a means of self-affirmation is a possible stay against eclipse, invisibility. Ellison convincingly depicts the persistence of a vibrant African-American tradition. But the struggle against obscuration leads to a greater triumph. His characters achieve a sense of wholeness, as ethnic life is seen to complement the national culture. Through the idea of cultural diversity and oneness, Ellison propounds a vision of burgeoning selfhood and relationship. The threat of eclipse is replaced by the possibilities of self-creation and integration.
With the publication of Invisible Man in 1952, Ralph Ellison brought to the African-American novel a stature and dignity never achieved before. For the first time, a African-American writer, with creative verve and freedom, was able to overcome the self-consciousness of a minority culture, to realize the opportunities for greater awareness and fulfillment that are latent in a borderland existence. Ellison convincingly depicts the richness and beauty of African-American culture and tradition in the United States, and clearly shows the inappropriateness of neo-African nationalism. More significantly, he establishes the essential place of African-American culture in American society, and demonstrates the immense prospects that accompany marginal life in a modern world. Alienation becomes a condition of vision. Invisibility, instead of just representing the deprivation and dispossession of a minority group, also evokes, in contrast, a growing sense of cross-cultural ties, and ultimately identifies the situation of a modern man, isolated and alone, but not without the potential to be and to act. Ethnicity leads to a discovery of national identity and an understanding of contemporary life.
Ellison's novel is thus heraldic in many ways. It transforms the marginal life of the African-American into a statement of American culture. A vital folk tradition of the African-Americans promotes a broader idea of identity. Finally, the very creativity of African-American art that Ellison so dexterously develops and perfects becomes a celebration of America, of American imagination, and even of the modern consciousness.
To begin with, Invisible Man focuses on the way in which racial relations reflect the moral and social climate of America. Exploitation and subjugation testify to the degeneracy of the nation as a whole. The degradation of the African-Americans links up with the decline of other relations as well. The abuse of the youths at the battle royal scene, for example, parallels the victimization of woman (for a white woman is...