Tuesday, June 17, 2008

At a Loss for Words

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

This is one of those well known books that I had somehow missed reading along the way. About a year ago I read a review in the Washington Post Book World of a biography of Ralph Ellison that sounded really interesting. I had not even known that Ralph Ellison is from my own native state of Oklahoma, and was appalled that he is not celebrated more in our mutual home state. I really want to read the biography, but decided I should read his best known work before cracking it.

Invisible Man is one of those books that is quite a bit of effort, but well worth the time and energy. There are a lot of long descriptions and interior monologues that can be laborious to get through. I can't really say I enjoyed this, because it is sad and painful to read, but this is an important book. Clearly, I am not the first to notice this, since Invisible Man won the National Book Award in pre-Civil Rights America.

The reason I feel at a loss for words is the premise of the book itself. The unnamed narrator is a young black man who is just awakening to the many ways that African-Americans are not only mistreated, but also discounted, overlooked, invisible to the vast majority of white America. The narrator's ultimate disillusionment comes when he gets involved in the Communist party, believing that this is the place where his voice can be heard and systemic change can begin. Imagine his disgust when it becomes clear to him that, for all their politically correct rhetoric, the Northern Communists (known in the book as "The Brotherhood") do not have any more authentic regard for or respect for black people than the most racist Southern Klansman. It is not pretty. Ellison also effectively describes the tensions among African-Americans over the best ways to live alongside whites and make progress as a community. He is clear that we cannot assume that a people is of one mind about anything.

So we can see that it is hard to describe the book. Even to say "I feel like I understand the black experience so much more now" feels presumptuous, and for way too long so many of us presumed way too much. I do feel, though, that Ellison pulled back the curtain just a bit, that his story allowed otherwise oblivious Americans to begin to empathize with black people. This seems like a book that needs to be experienced and lived with rather than described.

The ending of Invisible Man is moving. In spite of all his frustration and anger, even when he does not know what his own future holds, the narrator comes to the conclusion that "the only way to overcome hate is through love." Amen to that.

Reverent Reader


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