To be blind does not always mean being unable to literally be without sight. Blindness can come in other many forms as well, one of them being through willful ignorance. People can choose to not believe, or not see something simply because they do not want to face the truth and/or reality of it. The phrase, “to turn a blind eye,” quite literally means that one simply chooses not to see something for what it is or acknowledge it’s existence. Much of the Civil Rights Movement and the various other fights for equality in the United States during the twentieth century were the result of millions of people turning a blind eye; willfully choosing not to see the racism, prejudice, xenophobia, injustice, and the many other ‘ugly truths’ that people did not (or do not) wish to acknowledge, confront, and ‘see’. In Ralph Ellison’s Bildungsroman novel, Invisible Man, the audience is able to explore how willful blindness has helped to perpetuate racism and unfair stereotypes, as we see many characters whose collective choice not to ‘see’ has great impact upon the people and community around them. Invisible Man explores the effects of blindness by willful ignorance on an unnamed Black narrator in pre-Civil Rights Movement racist America.
The title Invisible Man refers to the main character, the unnamed Black narrator. In the prologue of the novel, he describes himself as an invisible man, and he explains how his invisibility came to be. He is invisible simply because he is Black, he is invisible because others refuse to see him. He is invisible to White America because they do not wish to acknowledge that a black man is an actual person, not just a living racial stereotype. In their failure to see him (and the rest of the black community) as real people, they are blind. They choose “not to see” black people because acknowledging them as real people, as equals, would mean upsetting the status quo and confronting an uncomfortable truth that they have long been too scared to face. The white people in the novel (namely, his doctors and the bored housewife) refuse to see a black person for anything other than a racial stereotype, when it is clear that our narrator is most certainly a person who is not afraid to assert his individuality. When considering the novel, it is important that we understand the importance of the narrator not ever revealing his name. Rather than attribute this story to one certain individual, Ellison allows this story to take on a life of it’s own and speak for anybody. Blindness due to willful ignorance comes in many different shapes and forms, it is not just limited to racism. The invisible man (person) could walk among us, he could be anybody.
The novel begins with the narrator giving an account of his education and how he came to be at the Black college he studied at. After giving a speech at his high school graduation, he was invited to give the same speech at a party honoring his community’s citizen leaders (who are, of course, all white), at which he is awarded a scholarship to a Black college. At the event, he and several other black boys are made to participate in a ‘Battle Royal’, where they are blindfolded and forced to box and fight each other for the purpose of entertaining the crowd. In other words, the white leaders use their social status and power to reduce the boys to the damaging racial stereotype that black men are savages and beasts. When the Battle ends, the humiliation continues. The boys are “rewarded”, they are allowed to pick up as much money as they can grab onto, on a rug that has an electric current, to the delight of the white audience. This is one of the narrator’s first encounters with blindness: he and the other boys have their sight momentarily taken away, symbolizing the fact that they do not understand that the white men at this party are taking advantage of them, humiliating them, and exerting their power over them. The narrator is not yet able to see, or even really understand, what has transpired. He does not see that the scholarship represents these men falsely justifying what they have just done to him and the other boys. He’s thankful for this opportunity. The white men think it is okay to treat them like animals, because they have done a good samaritan deed by sending the narrator to college. The narrator is not yet able to see past this guise, he is still ‘blind’.
It is not until around the middle of the novel that the narrator begins to experience a sort of ‘rebirth’, where he begins to shed his innocence and becomes more aware of the blindness of others, as well as the blindness he himself had. He is in the hospital due to a work-related accident, and he has temporary amnesia. He does not remember anything and is unable to properly communicate with the doctoral staff. Because of his inability to communicate, they, like the white man at the Battle Royal, succumb to thrusting racial stereotypes upon him (when they give him electric shock treatment, they remark how “they [black people] really do have rhythm”). Of course all black people have rhythm, according to the staff. They must, because they’re black. Upon leaving the hospital, something has changed within him. He talks of using words and expressing attitudes that are foreign to him. He remarks that he feels liberated, he no longer feels afraid; the narrator has been able to break free of the shackles of his college and the white men in his life (realizing that he cannot and should not expect anything from them). He has finally started to gain his ‘sight’.
After he leaves the hospital, the narrator gets heavily involved in local social activism, and joins an organization known as the Brotherhood, founded with the purpose of helping the local black community. At this point in his life, after his ‘rebirth’, he begins to become increasingly aware of the blindness that affects everyone around him, not just white people, but his own as well. In Chapter 16, he speaks at a Brotherhood rally where he implores the audience to “look around.” Ironically, the spotlight in the room makes it so he cannot even see his audience, so he literally becomes a temporary blind man trying to lead more blind people to see. He tells the audience how they are considered blind by others. “They’ve dispossessed us each of one eye from the day we’re born… we’re a nation of one eyed mice,” he tells them. “If we aren’t careful, they’ll slip up on our blind sides and-plop! out goes our last eye and we’re blind as bats. Someone’s afraid we’ll see something.” He urges the crowd to put up a united front: “let’s reclaim our sight; let’s combine and spread our vision.” The narrator is finally conscious of the blindness that plagues his world, and he understands how imperative it is that everyone else be made aware of it too. His speech suggests that they will never really be able to elevate their social status until they become conscious of the blindness that plagues them and begin to question the how and why of their community.
Towards the end of the novel, the narrator falls out of grace with the Brotherhood and they get him out of their hair temporarily by making him work in women’s rights acitivism. While he’s working in this position, he meets a bored housewife who aims to seduce him. She pretends to be interested in what he has to say about the “Brotherhood and ideology,” but what she really wants is for him to indulge her ‘savage black man’ rape fantasy. When describing to him how she feels, she uses words like ‘primitive’, ‘forceful’, ‘powerful’. She has no interest in him as a person, she just wants to use him because of the stereotype associated with men of his skin color. She seems to hold a twisted romanticized belief that all black men are savage and forceful men, and she uses the narrator in order to get that out of him for her own benefit. She does not care about him or the work he is doing; she is only interested in having him fulfill a stereotype for her. She is unable to see that he is something other than a sex object.
As the novel draws to a close, the narrator begins to realize that he cannot remain an individual and work under the Brotherhood simultaneously. The Brotherhood is a well-oiled machine, and you must talk a certain way and act a certain way in order to keep their esteem. The narrator is too much of an individual for them; he is not afraid to speak his mind and criticize them when he feels like it. When one of their fellow ‘brothers’ dies and the narrator speaks at his funeral, the Brotherhood are upset with his eulogy for going against popular Brotherhood opinion. One of the leaders, Brother Jack, informs him that he was not “hired to think” and implies that the narrator is there just to serve as a mouthpiece. Brother Jack and the narrator go back and forth, arguing about the role of the Brotherhood in the black community, with Brother Jack ultimately saying that the Brotherhood tells them what to think, suggesting the black community are mindless sheep who need to be told what to do and what to think. Keeping the narrator’s speech in Chapter 16 in mind, this is very problematic for him and he realizes he can no longer have anything to do with them. He is ultimately driven underground while trying to escape their clutches, adding another layer of invisibility to his life.
The metaphors of blindness and invisibility are extremely crucial to Invisible Man. The story is figuratively that of a blind man who learned to see. At the beginning of the novel, he was unable to see society for what it was, he was blind-sided by the various masks and guises put up by others. Over the course of the novel, he began to learn to see, and as he did, he also discovered that people only really see what they want to see, hence his invisibility. At it’s heart, Invisible Man is a story of growing up, it is about a man finding his identity. In the case of the narrator, he evolved from a child-like state of idealization and naïvete to self-awareness and self-actualization.