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Review of ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison

I got the book from Benji Reid, a dancer –director friend of mine, having bought it for him a couple of months beforehand  from the poet Mark Mace Smith because…. it’s a long story, too long for here! Invisible Man features in its first chapter a ‘Battle Royale’, a macabre practice from US slavery/post slavery times in which black men were placed blindfold in a boxing ring where they were to attack each other, with the winner getting a prize, often a pittance. Abjection. Humiliation. Exploitation. Ellison delivers it with irony rather than rage. The novel is ‘an innocence to experience’ story, with a political subtext. A black college student gets wise. The story begins with him knowing his place, expressing humility and deference to the white man, abiding with the whole Booker T Washington ‘anti-revolution/ pull yourself up by bootstraps and keep your head-down’ philosophy. He moves to college where he encounters rich white college sponsors. There are aspects of A Tale of Two Cities as the black narrator shows a rich white sponsor how the black poor live – the shacks and the day to day deprivation. He then takes the sponsor to a club-brothel, where mentally ill blacks from an asylum are on the premises. As ‘crazy’ people this group can tell it as it is – they have the spark of rebellion and not much ‘step n fetch it’ in them. The story weaves its way back to college and another classic black genre trope occurs – the church scene. Except instead of church it is the University assembly speech. The Dean figure is black guy who learned to keep his head down and accumulate power by getting rich white donors on board. This Dean tells the protagonist he has to learn how to do this subterfuge, how to lie, how to fake humility. So Invisible Man starts to explore black consciousness of the times (1920’s/30’s), the complexity of black psychology when interacting with whites. Ellison’s explorations of consciousness call to mind the double-consciousness ideas of Franz Fanon. I read somewhere Ellison was encouraged to write by Richard Wright of Native Son fame. The riffs and streams of consciousness in Invisible reminded me of Ishmael Reed’s The Free-lance Pallbearers. I’m not sure about this book, for me it was  a little uneven- brilliant in parts, in other parts a little stodgy.  Ellison was of course way ahead of his time. PS I read in Wiki while checking the publication dates of Invisible Man that Ellison was influenced by TS Elliot and Dostoyevsky. Small...