Why Would He Speak for Me? A History Boy, 05/04/2014

It took me a while, as I’ve been working on several other things, but I finally finished Invisible Man the other day, and I have some closing thoughts on the book. I hope they’re more enlightening than the last post I wrote about the book and Ralph Ellison a month ago, which mostly just revealed my own ignorance about the reception and interpretation of his work. So with the full knowledge that my thoughts will be little more than amateurish in their expression, I’ll set them down here for the weekend.

If anything can be judged from my own
ignorance, it seems that black literature is
too often relegated only to black markets.
The last line of the novel is probably the most famous, apart from the obviously famous opening line, “I am an invisible man.”* It goes, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Whether he speaks for me may be up for debate if you’re being extremely charitable. But as you might have been able to tell from that very naive post last month, Ellison hasn’t ever really spoken to me.

* It sort of bugs me that the first lines and last lines of great novels often become their most famous calling cards. The same suspicion applies to how early scenes are the most famous, as in Don Quixote’s windmill scene, and the madeleine sequence at the start of In Search of Lost Time. Is this just a sign that most popularizers of great literature don’t expect readers to actually get that far in the books?

I’ve only read the book now that I’m 31 years old. I grew up in a Canadian province where the Indian and Chinese populations were higher than the African-descended. My school curricula before university concentrated on Canadian literature, with a healthy dose of works from and about Newfoundland. None of the American literature on the program touched black life. When I got to university, I left the formal study of literature for philosophy, and didn’t even think to ask questions of the value of diversity for the tradition until long after my undergraduate years were over.

So does Ellison’s invisible man speak to me? I had certainly never heard his voice or read his words. Apart from sometimes seeing him in documentaries and general articles about the history of American literature or black culture, I was exposed to nothing of him. Ellison’s work was worse than invisible to me; it was simply absent.

Black perspectives in politics remain very foreign to me, although I still try to sympathize. I consider myself to have achieved some small progress in understanding because I can no longer believe in the validity of any of the old arguments I hear too often in the media (and occasionally from some folks around me) that justified the unequal social arrangements between white and black neighbourhoods and people. I got into quite a few arguments over the George Zimmerman trial last year. Such quibbles as I heard over whether he was technically guilty under Florida’s criminal law, for me, threatened to erase the genuine cultural impact of Martin’s killing, and belittle the profound social symbolism so many people expressed, instead writing it off as mere popular ignorance of the law’s details. 

But the book was beautiful, and presented the figure of someone who, because of how everyone around him perceived him, was essentially invisible. The agency of his personality and his entire community was discounted for the sake of a purpose that had nothing to do with them. People were treated as instruments. That, if anything, speaks to the universal character of his problem.

Invisible Man strikes me as a better novel than Camus’ The Stranger to deal with the complex individual and social dimensions of existential questions, matters of who and what I am and we are. Existential problems all too often focus solely on an isolated individual personality; but their subject matter, our self-conceptions and individual natures, are deeply integrated with processes of social, historical, and political genesis. Camus offered only one dimension of this problem. Ellison touches on almost all of it. There is truly no reason not to teach Ellison as an example of how literature can best examine problems in existentialism and exploitation.

At least, I can’t think of a good one.

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