The Other Invisibles of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Gabrielle Bellot on the Othering of Caribbeans and Africans in America
The first time I read Invisible Man, I was entranced by its black-white symbolism, which seemed to never end, but instead simply became smaller and subtler, like a reflection in an elevator’s facing mirrors. When I reread it, I still felt that pull of someone who yearns to solve a labyrinth, but I also saw myself, more clearly, in it: I understood its contours in a deeper way, the way one can at once be forgotten and feared by a society, invisible and incandescent, hated either way. An invisible-visible woman, a trans woman with a foot in two countries, two shifting realities.
The title, in its semblance to Wells’ fantastical novel, captured a country’s contradictions. I loved it. It wasn’t just that Ellison was a brilliant stylist, with an obsessive but efficacious eye for showing, through those repeating mirrors, America’s wondrous and terrible symmetries, how blackness was inextricably intertwined with almost every facet of American history, as he would venture into more detail in an essay for TIME, in which he argued, rightly, that America would be unthinkable without black people, despite the quixotic fantasies of certain white Americans.
I felt that interconnectedness both as someone who could straddle racial lines due to the indeterminate olive-brown of my skin and as a trans woman. The way hyper-visibility can, seamlessly, become invisibility. The way so many aspects of how and why we mistreat each other are woven, be the threads great or gossamer. When you are a member of a marginalized community, it is easy to feel at once the indifference, casual or studied, of the world passing by, and, too, the way you can never quite blend in, for you become visible precisely at the moment you break societal rank, the moment you step where your class is not supposed to. Ellison, I thought at the time, was crooning my evening-song, my soul-vespers.
But I began to notice something else. There was another invisible-visible class in the book, a class I was connected to, so effectively and casually outré in the novel that you might be forgiven for forgetting they are there at all: immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. With one exception, Ellison described them in brief, sharp flashes, but in those I saw a peculiar, revealing theme: we were always connected, in some way, to violence, as well as disconnected from the narrator’s American world. It seemed minor, yet pointed to a larger problem.
This was not incidental. In 1960, eight years after the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison was speaking with Harold Isaacs, to whom Ellison ironically implied—likely without entirely realizing he had done so—that his novel also contained another vision of the black Other: its terse and stereotypical depictions of non-American blacks. For Ellison, those of us who had immigrated to America were culturally different, if not outright alien, and this sense of Otherness occasionally took shape as a distant disdain—particularly towards those black immigrants who refused to become Americanized—that some critics interacting with Ellison picked up on. Ellison often described us as “British” and African-Americans as “American,” a distinction that the novelist believed tainted such immigrants’ views of America. In a 1973 interview with Hollie West, for instance, Ellison expressed disapproval for the black Trinidad-born activist and militant Stokely Carmichael in part because he thought Carmichael, “with his predominantly West-Indian background,” was not “conditioned to understand” America because of the “culture” he had grown up in; in 1970, he had lambasted the “hell of a lot of condescension from this West Indian boy towards blacks,” a phrasing peculiarly suggesting Carmichael was not black because he was West-Indian. A Trinidadian, it seemed, was inescapably doomed to misunderstand the fundamentals of American politics.
Ellison often lumped together West-Indians with Africans. Thus, as he told Isaacs, Caribbean and African individuals on the campus at Tuskegee were equally foreign and British (as opposed to American) to him:
…we had African princes walking around the campus. We had a girl from Sierra Leone and West Indians—we tended to link them all together. The sense of the alien was strong. It was not antagonism but a matter of totally different cultural backgrounds. I didn’t share much of the interest in these people… Usually, I thought them quite British. I had no cultural identification with them.
While Ellison claimed this “sense of the alien” was not in the service of antagonism, his othering language—“them,” “these people”—does feel patronizing, a tone that the artist Richard Kostelanetz noticed when writing a letter in The Antioch Review to the Trinidad-born American historian Arnold Rampersad about, among other things, why Ellison may have seemed somewhat supercilious in Rampersad’s presence when the historian attempted to interview Ellison in the 1980s for a Langston Hughes biography. Kostelanetz was blunt. “Ralph,” he wrote, “as an African-American didn’t much like West-Indians… Recall the characterization of Ras the Exhorter as a Caribbean loony in Invisible Man… I can’t think of any Caribbean-American writer that Ralph liked, either in print or conversation.”
Kostelanetz refers to Ellison’s opinion of West Indians as an “Ellison prejudice.” To be sure, a lack of enthusiasm for Caribbean writers does not mean that Ellison held West-Indians in contempt. (And Ellison somewhat enjoyed Claude McKay’s poetry.) But it is telling that Ellison could be described in this way by Kostelanetz at all, and that I, too, had sensed something similar, all on my own.
Ellison was not unique in this outlook. Many articles pondering what it meant to be American or West-Indian by both African-Americans and West-Indian immigrants appeared before and during the 1930s—the decade in which the action of Invisible Man largely takes place. Among the most prominent of such authors was the Caribbean-American freethinker and intellectual Hubert Harrison, who was born in St. Croix and moved to New York at 17.
Harrison was a fiery advocate of immigrants in the United States becoming Americanized. Caribbean and African immigrants, echoing Ellison’s later interview, were often lumped together as “British” or “European”—an irony, considering that our Mother Countries rarely considered us one of their own. In a 1927 response to an article by Jamaican writer Arnold Malliet, Harrison claimed that “most Americans assume that a West Indian is a ‘Britisher,’ owing allegiance to a British King, and chock-full of British culture; whereas there are Spanish, French, Dutch, Danish and (now American) West Indians.” Such assumptions reflected the palpable presence of Caribbean immigrants in the United States at the time; as Harrison wrote, “there are more than forty thousand West Indians in the United States of which about seven-tenths live in New York City alone.” Harrison also claimed, however, that “[d]espite the general belief, British West Indians are becoming naturalized Negro Americans at a fairly rapid rate” and that “whether naturalized or not they certainly do become Americanized—even despite the Garvey movement.” Harrison’s push, in his mind, was pragmatic: he imagined global Americanization was inevitable, so he would rather “choose” to integrate than be “forced” to when America became too powerful.
Other West-Indians disagreed. In 1927 Malliet released a series of articles under the blunt title of “Why I Cannot Become Americanized.” For Malliet, it was “unthinkable that a colored man born outside the United States of America could enter the country and assimilate American customs, ideas, etc.” This impossibility of assimilation stemmed from America’s fervent racism, he contended, both the quantity and qualities of which were profoundly different from racism in the Caribbean. So extreme was the difference that Malliet viewed becoming an “American” virtually as an act of racial and national treachery: “so long as the dominating race philosophy of America remains what it is,” he argued, “so long will I refuse to become Americanized.”
This rejection of cultural integration intersected with the rise of Garveyist Pan-Africanism, which posited that blacks in former or current colonies should return to Africa, symbolically reflected in the habit of some Pan-Africanists dressing in the garb of African royalty. The most recognizable visage of the back-to-Africa movement was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican by birth who refused to become Americanized. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ellison abominated Pan-Africanism, and his fury persisted long after Garvey’s demise. In 1970, in an essay commissioned by TIME with the extraordinary title of “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” Ellison dismissed “neo-Garveyism” as the “fantasy of a benign amputation that would rid the country of black men to the benefit of a nation’s health”—an image that defines African-Americans as Americans, and compares African-Americans “returning” to Africa to severing a national limb. In his interview with Isaacs, Ellison said he could “remember the Garvey movement” from boyhood: “We had some enthusiasts out there in Oklahoma. People wanted to go to Africa. The people I knew thought this was very amusing, going back to a place they had never been.” For the adult Ellison, Garveyism became less amusing than pathological and fantastical, the expression of a desire he considered alien to his own experience. Thus, Ellison contended in the same interview, “[t]he African content of American Negro life is more fanciful than actual,” as “the Negro is a member of an America-bound cultural group with its own idiom, its own psychology.” As Ellison told Isaacs, “I have great difficulty associating myself with Africa… I have always felt very Western.”
In Garveyism, Ellison saw potential for violence, and he often voiced his opposition—which earned him flak in turn—to the militant Black Power movements rising around him. “[I]t’s one thing to use violent rhetoric and it’s another to deal with the violence which is released by the rhetoric,” he cautioned in his interview with West; he feared that white “Americans, when they get panicky, will kill you,” a truth Ellison told West was simply foundational to American racial unease. His words held additional resonance, however, as they came months after policemen had fatally shot black students at Louisiana’s Southern University. “You be your kind of militant and I’ll be my kind of militant,” he said in response to West asking how he felt “about the criticism you sometimes got from black students who feel you haven’t been militant enough.” “It was always a question,” he answered, “of what to do when [the white man] got frightened, and our history has taught us he gets frightened awfully easy.”
Perhaps Ellison saw the Jamaican-born Garvey and his ilk as emblems of anger and extremism, which he later wove—likely unconsciously—into the threads of his novel’s fabric. Perhaps he was echoing, reflecting his moderate conservatism, the stereotypes that the Jamaican-born Claude McKay mentioned in Home to Harlem of how some African-Americans viewed us: “West-Indians were monkey chasers.” (Ras the Destroyer is actually called “that monkey-chaser” by a character near the end.) Either way, it reveals a sad danger: The Other, in turn, Othering another, even one who looks so similar.
The first appearance of West-Indians in Invisible Man is in connection with physical violence. In the prologue, Ellison’s nameless narrator, upon “accidentally bump[ing] into a man,” becomes indignant and “sprang at him, seized his coat lapels, and demanded he apologize.” The man curses the narrator, so the narrator responds by pulling “his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West-Indians do.” Later, once the narrator has gone to New York, he stops before the scene of an eviction, and an otherwise nondescript “West-Indian woman screamed into my ear.” The woman, who is never seen again, is exerting a kind of brash, auditory violence. We have our share of loud people, to be sure, but the narrator’s incessant invocation of this imagery here and later implies he, and, unconsciously, his author, has resorted to stereotypy—itself a form of invisibility-visibility, as our truer, more complex selves lie hidden behind a single, simplistic narrative.
The most flagrant display of this theme appears in the phantasmagorical character of Ras the Exhorter, later revealingly renamed Ras the Destroyer. The narrator labels Ras someone who “‘spoke very violently and with an accent’”; before he knew who Ras was, he described him as possessing a “staccato West-Indian accent, at which the crowd yelled [in support] threateningly.” Later, during a moment of actual physical violence, a fight with the Brotherhood member Clifton, Ras says to Clifton and the narrator, “‘You t’ink I’m crazy, is it c’ase I speak bahd English? Hell, it ain’t my mama tongue, mahn, I’m African!” Here, Ras is committing “violence” upon standardized English, like Guyanese poet John Agard in “Listen Mr. Oxford Don”: an act of anti-imperial aggression upon the Queen’s English. Of the novel’s nonstandard Englishes, Ras’s vernacular is the most salient and caricatured, beyond that of the African-American character Trueblood. If Trueblood—whose name suggests some sort of American essentialism—can speak English in a less caricatured way than Ras, it is as if the narrator wishes to further emphasize Ras’s difference from African-Americans in how he is able to speak—or, rather, the way he supposedly isn’t able to.
That Ras was parodying Garvey or one of his imitators seemed clear enough to early readers that they simply took it as fact. Isaacs, in his 1960 interview, viewed Ras as the only character in whom “the African theme appears” and who is “patterned on one of several successors to Marcus Garvey in the 1930s.” Ras, like Garvey, seems to have come from Jamaica and frequently speaks in the brand of elevated Afrocentric rhetoric that was used to satirize Garvey’s Pan-Africanist rallying cries. “We sons of Mama Africa, you done forgot?” he asks Clifton during their fight. Rampersad, in his 2007 biography of Ellison, describes Ras as “a Marcus Garvey-like black nationalist who despises the white-dominated Brotherhood” and, later on, more pointedly, “Jamaican in his speech, like Marcus Garvey.” In a 1955 interview for The Paris Review, the interviewer asked Ellison point-blank, “Isn’t Ras based on Marcus Garvey?” Immediately prior to this, the interviewer had inquired if Ellison experienced “difficulty turning real characters into fiction”; Ellison replied that “[r]eal characters are just a limitation. It’s like turning your own life into fiction: you have to be hindered by chronology and fact. A number of characters just jumped out, like Rinehart and Ras.” In his answer about Ras’s semblance to Garvey, Ellison expanded on this notion of where characters come from:
No. In 1950 my wife and I were staying at a vacation spot where we met some white liberals who thought the best way to be friendly was to tell us what it was like to be Negro. I got mad at hearing this from people who otherwise seemed very intelligent. I had already sketched Ras, but the passion of his statement came out after I went upstairs that night feeling that we needed to have this thing out once and for all and get it done with; then we could go on living like people and individuals. No conscious reference to Garvey is intended.
Ellison’s answer is both decisive and vague. Ras may or may not embody Garvey himself, but he certainly exists as a response to Garveyism. Garvey is explicitly mentioned at two points in the novel—during the eviction scene in the form of “a yellowing newspaper portrait of a huge black man with the caption: MARCUS GARVEY DEPORTED” and during a discussion between the narrator and Brother Clifton, the latter of whom describes the Brotherhood’s future street meetings as “‘bigger than anything since Garvey… [who] must have had something to move all those people,’” though the narrator says he “‘never saw Garvey… he didn’t last.’” Clearly, Ellison had Garvey in mind while constructing the novel. If Garvey himself was deported, Ras was imported into the text to fill Garvey’s ideological position.
The title “Ras” is almost certainly meant to evoke Ethiopian leader Ras Tafari Makonnen, better known by his baptismal name Haile Selassie, and the Rastafarian movement, a burgeoning new religion in the 1930s born in Jamaica and intimately braided to Garveyism. The Rastafarian movement took as its jumping-off point the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 as Ethiopia’s new potentate and, to them, God incarnate; his numinous regnancy appeared to confirm a “prophecy” Garvey had been making for nearly 20 years. In the 1950s, the Jamaican professor Robert Hill claimed, Marcus Garvey “seemed all but forgotten” except by Rastafarians, who “revered [Garvey]… as the prophet who had foretold the coming of Haile Selassie.”
As Colin Grant puts it in his biography of Garvey, Negro with a Hat: the Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, “Haile Selassie was an embodiment of a Garvey prediction. For nearly two decades Marcus Garvey had steered his listeners towards the passage in the Bible which foretold that ‘princes shall come out of Egypt.’ In 1930, with Selassie’s magnificent coronation, it had come to pass.” In 1935, when Mussolini had begun to assemble troops on the edge of Ethiopia, Garvey wrote a series of editorials in the Black Man championing Haile Selassie “as the messiah the black masses had been waiting for, who was now defying the might of a militarised European power, rendered most visibly so with news photographs of Selassie standing on an unexploded Italian bomb.” In Invisible Man, the title “Ras” is dismissively explicated by Brother Clifton after his fight with the Exhorter: “‘He gave [the title] to himself. Ras,’” Clifton mockingly tells the narrator, “‘is a title of respect in the East. It’s a wonder he didn’t say something about ‘Ethiopia stretching forth her wings.’”
By the end of the novel, Ras has metamorphosed into a more direct and monstrous parody, literally clad in the garb of “an Abyssinian chieftain”—Abyssinia a former name for Ethiopia. The narrator’s description of Ras leading a band of belligerent men on a chase is worth quoting in full:
They moved in a tight-knit order, carrying sticks and clubs, shotguns and rifles, led by Ras the Exhorter become Ras the Destroyer upon a great black horse. A new Ras of a haughty, vulgar dignity, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain; a fur cap upon his head, his arm bearing a shield, a cape made of the skin of some wild animal around his shoulders. A figure more out of a dream than out of Harlem, than out of even this Harlem night, yet real, alive, alarming.
“Come away from that stupid looting,” he called to a group before a store. “Come jine with us to burst in the armory and get guns and ammunition!”
The reference to “sticks and clubs” already invokes a kind of primitive violence. A satire on Pan-Africanists’ ostentatious attire, Ras is “alive, alarming” to the narrator—alarming because he is real, as if Cervantes’ knight, become black, had erupted, eyes aglow with Luciferian fire, into Harlem. The final visual of Ras is of an inimical, animalistic fanatic.
After escaping Ras and his men, Ellison’s protagonist overhears a conversation about Ras’s antics. Ras, “‘[t]hat crazy guy,’” is described as an animal associated with Africa—“‘he,’” one man says, “‘let out a roar like a lion.’” Shortly after, the man the narrator is eavesdropping on describes Ras speaking in an incomprehensible Caribbean or African language:
Here he comes bookety-bookety with that spear stuck out in front of him and that shield on his arm, charging, man. And he’s yelling something in African or West Indian or something and he’s got his head down like he knew about that shit, too, man; riding like Earle Sande in the fifth at Jamaica.
The speaker here is hilariously ignorant, yet it is hard not to imagine Ellison chucklingly sympathizing with this crude imagery, this colonial minstrelsy, as Ras rides out into his ken one last time like a chthonic clown, more the frightening, problem-causing Other than ever.
Invisible Man is a potent parable of our time, as relevant in the past century as our own. Its iconography of visibility is writ large in the fatal assumptions that lead to unarmed black Americans being murdered by police officers, a specter of Ellison’s white American who does terrible things when frightened, conjured in 2017 by the simple necromancy of the way things refuse to die, refuse to change, at core.
Yet it is also a quieter parable of another danger: of stereotyping and Othering in a way so simple and subtle that it almost seems, even to a master of an art, invisible.