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How Invisible Man paved the way for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

Vanessa Willoughby

April 14, 2021, 11:56am

On this day in 1952, Random House published Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The novel is narrated by a nameless Black man living in 1930s America. The narrator explains, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Proper sight, or the lack thereof, is one of the many themes explored in the narrative. No matter where he goes, whether at college in the South or in the cities of the North, he constantly encounters a grotesque distortion of his personhood. He is forced to fight in a “battle royal” in order to earn a scholarship to an HBCU. The narrator is blindfolded along with a group of other young Black men while the organizers, a group of white men, watch. Years later, he’s kicked out of college after, essentially, breaking the college president’s unspoken expectation that he follow respectability politics. At the end of the novel, the narrator falls down a manhole. The police cover the manhole, trapping him below.

Another theme is the insidious legacy of whiteness as of form of physical and mental, emotional, and psychological violence, from police brutality to medical abuse to stereotypes and tropes. Nearly 70 years have passed since Invisible Man debuted, but we’re still embroiled in the same racism and white supremacist society that Ellison depicted. The same cycle of grief and pain keeps happening, a Groundhog Day loop of an unarmed Black man or woman dying at the hands of cops, followed by a flood of short-lived and carefully crafted social media allyship, concluding with brands and companies promising to “do better.” We hear you. We’re listening. But do they actually see us?

What makes a literary novel stand the test of time? It’s a tricky thing to pinpoint, but I’m one to believe that it has to deeply speak to the human condition, to the anxieties of mortality, to the joy and the anguish of being alive. It’s no surprise that Invisible Man has inspired the storytelling abilities of various rap artists, in particular Kendrick Lamar. The Pulitzer Prize winner’s third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), still feels like a response to Ellison. One track in particular, “King Kunta,” is often cited as proof of a link to Invisible Man. In the song, Lamar tells us:

When you got the yams (What’s the yams?)
The yam is the power that be
You can smell it when I’m walking down the street

In Invisible Man, the narrator buys a baked yam from a street vendor in New York City. The yam reminds the narrator of his childhood in the South; he decides he will enjoy his food without guilt or shame. The yams serve as a metaphor for authenticity. They also, as seen in Things Fall Apart, symbolize power and prestige. And in the context of hip-hop music and in other verses featured in “King Kunta,” yams refer to cocaine or heroin and are associated with desire. Like Ellison’s narrator, Lamar struggles with being true to himself while juggling the rigid expectations of other people and the arbitrary rules of an anti-Black society.

In an article for the (now defunct) Medium publication Cuepoint, writer Andreas Hale says, “Kendrick Lamar has become the modern figurehead from which Ellison’s novel takes its namesake.”

I’m not sure if the rapper would wholeheartedly endorse such a grand proclamation—wouldn’t doing so just be an example of buying into other people’s perceptions of his identity? Regardless, both the album and the novel are not definitive narratives of the sole “Black experience,” but serve as evidence of its multitudes.

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