Sight/Blindness - A Final Project By Gabe and Josh

the final verse of this song, not included in this version, goes:
There are some who are in darkness
And the others are in light
And you see the ones in brightness
Those in darkness drop from sight

Entry One

During Chapter Seventeen, IM slowly begins to identify with, or at least see, another ideology, one which contrasts with the Brotherhood’s platform. Ras the Exhorter exemplifies this ideology in claiming that the Brotherhood does not care for IM’s individuality and personal interests. Ras screams that the Brotherhood is “tricking [IM]” and giving IM money that “bleeds black blood” (373; 371). He views the Brotherhood as a politically corrupt organization bent on shaping the public’s opinion. Even after Ras tells IM to “open (his) eyes” and see the Brotherhood’s fraudulency, IM calls him a crazy man “full of pus, black pus” (372; 375). IM rejects Ras’s outlook because it directly questions the methods of the Brotherhood, the organization with which IM strongly affiliates. The Brotherhood blinds IM to the fact that Ras represents his real cause of “fighting for the liberty of the black people” (375). After encountering Ras the Exhorter, IM feels he is “running a foot race against himself” (380). Similar to Chapter One, IM dreams of reading a letter stating to “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (33). The Brotherhood creates a new name and false identity for IM, keeping “This Nigger-Boy” running and searching for his true self.

Unsure whether to choose his new publicized self-image or his private self, IM uses Brother Tarp to mediate between these two separate identities. Brother Tarp gives IM his hammered down shackle which he has kept by his side for the past nineteen years. Tarp had used the shackle as “a keepsake and a reminder” of those horrific years of enslavement (388). The shackle helped Tarp “remember what we’re really fighting against,” white oppression (388). The shackle helps IM remember the past and all the subjugation his race encountered, clearing his eyes and allowing him to start to recognize the Brotherhood’s true nature.

However, Brother Wrestrum despises the shackle given to IM by Tarp. Upon first seeing the battered shackle, he says, “but people can see it!,” clearly upset with its visibility (392). Wrestrum voices his disapproval because he feels that the shackle might “dramatize our differences” and make some recollect the cruel institution of slavery (392). Wrestrum wants slavery and African-Americans’ history to be unseen and forgotten. Attempting to alleviate past racial differences between members of the Brotherhood, Wrestrum wishes the Brotherhood was blind to its turbulent history. He notes that a reminder of slavery could sever the connection that each member of the brotherhood, whether black or white, feels. Moreover, Brother Wrestrum proposes to make each member of the Brotherhood wear an emblem to recognize them as members of the Brotherhood. Wrestrum advocates for a visible pin because Brother Tod Clifton attacked a white member of the Brotherhood during a streetfight. Wrestrum understands “things like that is bad, Brother, very bad” because they reinforce the stereotypes of blacks as reckless and savage (396). Sight, even oversight, remains a vital aspect of the Brotherhood because the Brotherhood needs to uphold its public image. Wrestrum advocates the need “to watch ourselves”, as the Brotherhood wants to ensure that the token, black spokesperson (IM) garners the support of the people, but more importantly, does not cause misunderstanding (393).

Later, during the meeting in which Wrestrum accuses IM, Brother Tobbit tries to restore IM’s confidence in the integrity of the Brotherhood: "Be assured that you can depend upon the fairness and wisdom of the committee" (406). However, as “Brother Tobbit’s voice [drifts] from the end of the table,…there [is] smoke” between IM and him (406). IM “could barely see his face,” showing that the statement of the Brotherhood’s decency is clouded and inaccurate. Although the Brotherhood does not officially charge IM with furthering his own self interests, it reveals prejudice against him. Also, since smoke hovers over the table, isolating IM, the Brotherhood may be blind to IM's individuality and uncaring of his personal needs.

Entry Two

Ellison presents the theme of sight and blindness simultaneously in Chapter 19, as IM sees what happens around him yet this sight blinds his conscience. As the phone pierces the silence and IM remains caught in a budding affair, IM peers into a mirror where he sees himself “caught in a guilty stance” (416). Standing in between the woman and her bed, IM realizes that he is trapped, forced to blind himself to the societal norms he has encountered over his entire life. White males feel so protective over their females that contact with a white woman by a black man was viewed as the highest of crimes. Therefore, even though IM knows the immorality of the inevitable sex that will take place between him and the woman, he cannot stop himself from surrendering to his sexual desires. The mirror IM looks into, “like a surge of the sea, tossed [their] images back and forth”, causing the image of them having sex to be played in IM’s mind (416). IM feels certain of the sexual desires he will be fulfilling, yet his vision seems “to pulse alternately clear and vague” (416). The vagueness in part of his vision represents IM ignoring everything except for the woman “so striking that [he] had to avert [his] somewhat startled eyes” (411). By being blind to society’s constructs of racial segregation, IM allows himself to see only his intrinsic, sexual yearnings. Though IM does not want to jeopardize his inclusion in the Brotherhood, his sight continues to cajole him into risking his job. The woman discards her robe, and IM goes “breathless at the petite and generously curved nude, framed delicate and firm in the glass” (416). IM still looks through the mirror, which filters his sight, blinding him to the real, harmful effects of his actions while drugging him with the bare body of the woman. IM’s night spirals out of his control, and even the woman’s eyes “mysteriously smiling…above the rich red robe” cannot save him (416). He momentarily stops looking at her body and is transfixed by her eyes, yet his subsequent inability to suppress his sexual desires shows that his sight no longer helps him, but serves as a shade over reality.

In IM’s position, being seen by others fuels his success in the Brotherhood. Thus, seeing is usually associated with positivity and pride for IM. However, IM clearly does not want to be seen throughout Chapter 19, showing the sinfulness of his actions. After the husband leaves, IM keeps his eye “on that part of the darkness from where the light had come from” in an attempt to anticipate any return from the husband (417). When IM leaves he feels “unsure whether [he] had seen the man or had dreamed him” (418). Even after leaving, IM’s sight stays blurry and confused. Yet when he hurriedly dresses and begins to leave, IM looks “back through the dim light from the hall” to where the woman slept (417). IM’s need to see the woman once more before leaving shows his understanding of the wrong he has just done.

Not only does IM obsess over his sexual affair, but he obsesses over others’ perception of him. IM’s vision of himself becomes clouded when he recalls the downtown followers. He notices that “from the moment they turned their eyes upon [him] they seemed to undergo a strange unburdening,” a reaction that IM does not understand (420). The crowds display a “form of expectancy, a mood of waiting…as though they expected [IM] to be more than just another speaker” (420). He grapples with the thought that he is just a “pantomime more eloquent than” his oration. He thinks that his voice allows the followers to see living proof of the Brotherhood. Though IM does not find a solution to why the crowd reacts in the way they do, the people force him to wrestle with his role in the Brotherhood and his own expectations for himself. Ultimately, these thoughts pain him to such an extent that IM purposefully blinds himself by choosing to stop thinking about his downtown role in the Brotherhood.

Entry Three

Throughout Chapter 20 and Chapter 22, IM finally realizes his blindness towards the true nature of the Brotherhood, allowing him fully to see Brother Jack and the organization as blind anti-individualists. Upon IM’s arrival to Barrelhouse’s Jolly Dollar, two familiar faces claim that IM “goddam sho ain’t no kin of mine” (424). These characters feel that IM has let down Harlem and its people by belonging to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood no longer focuses all of its resources and time on the Harlem district. Instead, the Brotherhood has shifted its focus towards state-wide and national issues. For this reason, the men at the pub reject IM, a member and representative of the Brotherhood. IM does not understand this seemingly random ignorance because he is blind to the Brotherhood’s negative intentions. Moreover, when IM states he acted out of “his personal responsibility,” Brother Jack persistently mocks him in stating that IM is “an extraordinary tactician” and “a Napoleon of strategy and personal responsibility” (464; 464; 464). Brother Jack does not value IM’s personal decisions, saying that “the committee makes your decisions” (472). He even goes so far as to order IM to “stand on the decision of the committee” (472). Such an edict demonstrates Brother Jack’s disregard and carelessness for IM’s individuality. Brother Jack eventually states frankly that IM was “hired to talk” and “not hired to think” (470; 469). This outright declaration forces IM to realize that the Brotherhood is blind to his personal interests and thoughts.

The Brotherhood and IM serve as a metaphor for Sambo and its strings, allowing IM to further understand the inherent imperfections of the Brotherhood. Similar to IM’s college life where he took orders from Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe, IM carries out the deeds of the Brotherhood in speaking as a black member of the community, communicating the Brotherhood’s ideology. When IM first peers over the hoard of people surrounding the stereotypical dancing Sambo Doll, he notices that “some mysterious mechanism” moves the doll “up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion,” completely controlling its actions (431; 431). Like the mechanism, the Brotherhood controls IM’s movements in an attempt to appease and deceive the people of Harlem just as Clifton does in peddling the doll. Furthermore, IM perceives the murder of Clifton as racially justified while the Brotherhood, which does not actually witness the killing, falsely sees it as an act deserving of praise. The Brotherhood penalizes IM for publicly denouncing the murder of Clifton rather than promoting it as being morally justified. The Brotherhood and Brother Jack think Clifton deserved to die because he was “a traitor” and because of his public promotion of black stereotypes in the selling of Sambo dolls (468). The Brotherhood feels as though IM did not correctly voice its opinion on the murder, as the Brotherhood views the murder as righteous and equal. With no witness during Clifton’s murder, the Brotherhood is blind to the real, racist component of the murder. IM, the only true witness, thinks Clifton “was shot because he was black” (469). Had Clifton been white, he would not have been murdered. Although the Brotherhood feels misrepresented by IM’s vilification of the murder, IM saw the true nature of the murder, where a white man acted wrongfully because of racist tendencies. The Brotherhood’s blindness to this reality manifests itself metaphorically in Brother Jack’s glass eye. The eye “[erupts] out of [Brother Jack’s] face” at the moment when Brother Jack lectures IM on the Brotherhood’s intentions and principles, demonstrating the blindness of these statements (472). The eye represents the Brotherhood’s narrow and singular perspective, which disregards IM’s empathy for the individual. Even the leader of the Brotherhood, Brother Jack, is blind, illustrating that blindness is the sine qua non for membership in the corrupt organization.

Entry Four

Though initially purchased as an escape mechanism for IM, the sunglasses serve as much more than a simple disguise which hides him from Ras and Ras’s men. The sunglasses, though dark and mysterious, ultimately give IM sight and a new perspective on life. IM initially feels blinded by the shades, as they “were of a green glass so dark that it appeared black” (482). Distracted by trying to lose the men who follow him, IM “[plunges] into the blackness,” at first only appreciative of the anonymous status the glasses bring (482). IM sees faces as a “mysterious blur”, and becomes aware that people now recognize him “by clothes, by uniform, by gait” (484; 485). The sunglasses reveal that humans judge by superficial appearance, and that when a person hides his eyes, the person becomes unrecognizable for his true identity. The pedestrians in Harlem “see the hat, not [IM],” as IM’s clothes work like magic, “[hiding IM] right in front of their eyes” (485). Impressed by the effectiveness of the sunglasses, IM also notices “the merging fluidity of forms seen through the lenses” (491). At this moment, IM begins to realize the greater significance of the sunglasses. The glasses reveal the lack of uniqueness in Harlem, a place once seen by IM in singularity and hope. Now, after starting to uncover the Brotherhood’s anti-individualist sentiments, IM’s vision through the glasses is utterly clear: New York blinds itself to the individual in an attempt to help “the greater good”.

Moreover, in chapter 23, IM is no longer blind to the act of deception and fraud. Through being mistaken for Rinehart on numerous occasions, IM sees that people can have multiple identities and do not necessarily act in conformance with their image. IM questions, “If dark glasses and a white hat could blot out my identity so quickly, who actually was who?”(493). This epiphany reveals that IM had been blinded in his sight. Though able to see what occurred around him on a surface level, IM could not see the internal workings of his peers. Later, at the church, IM discovers Rinehart’s public profession as reverend and sees the words “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” (498). These words resonate within IM, as they are a metaphor for his newfound understanding of the world through Rinehart. IM realizes his past, foolish perceptions, acknowledging that he “must have been crazy and blind” (498). IM’s unawareness that the “world…was without boundaries” caused him to accept people’s outright actions (498). Now, however, IM thinks that “perhaps the truth was always a lie” (498), recognizing that his superiors had deceived him his entire life. Moreover, IM realizes he had deceived himself by believing in the honesty and righteousness of others.

Not only are humans fundamentally corrupt, but they have been manipulating and exploiting IM. When Hambro lectures IM on discipline and sacrifice, two of the supposed tenets of the Brotherhood, IM cries out, “Look at me! Look at me!”, and explains that “everywhere [he has] turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice [IM] for his good – only they were the ones who benefited” (505). IM finally uncovers the white man’s blindness to the rights and desires of blacks. In this new state of visibility and seeing the world anew, IM is still looked upon by Hambro “as though [he] were not there,” representing the white’s view of blacks as invisible (505). To the Brotherhood, IM’s “ambition and integrity [are] nothing…and [IM’s] failure [is] as meaningless as Clifton’s” (507). Though IM once saw the Brotherhood as a “mere glimmer of a light” that represented hope for IM as an individual and blacks as a group, he now understands the hypocrisy of the Brotherhood in their seeming acceptance but actual exploitation of him (507). IM sees past the “polished and humane façade” of the Brotherhood, understanding that in the Brotherhood “[he] was” and “yet [he] was unseen” (507). This revelation forces IM to change how he sees the world, no longer blind to the cruel intentions of the racist world and the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood only cares about how the masses see it, not “giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to [IM]” (508). Feeling neglected, angered, and above all unseen, IM decides to utilize his anonymity and invisibility in the Brotherhood. “[I’ll] serve them well and [I’ll] make invisibility felt if not seen,” says IM, and he prepares to pollute the Brotherhood with his newfound perception of the world as full of deceit and trickery. Throughout this reading, IM’s sight changes and he becomes aware of his previous blindness and the blindness of the Brotherhood. Yet IM finally acquires the knowledge to shed all identities that have been given to him and create his own identity for himself. Choosing to appear invisible, IM enables himself to blind his peers from his true intentions of ruining the Brotherhood, so like his grandfather said, the Brotherhood would “vomit or burst wide open” (508).

Entry Five

At the conclusion, IM fully sees the Brotherhood and the meaning of individuality in their truest forms. This sight allows IM to understand how he assisted in the destruction of the black community of Harlem and how he came to support such a racist institution as the Brotherhood.

IM’s trip through Harlem demonstrates his ongoing vacillation between sight and blindness. At the end of Chapter 24, “something struck [IM’s] face” (534). Birds, perched on the underside of the bridge, excreted their waste upon IM as he walked below. Similarly, the Founder statue at the college had bird droppings streaking across its figure, hinting at a potential similarity between the Founder statue and IM. Both the statue, used by Bledsoe, and IM, an exploited member of the Brotherhood, are sullied by the droppings, which are now viewed as dirty and useless. Both the college and the Brotherhood only worry about using and manipulating him, so once IM parts with the Brotherhood’s ideology, his position as a leader has been debased. Though he once saw his position with the Brotherhood as something that would elevate blacks’ status in society, the bird droppings represent the final realization by IM that he had been blind to the Brotherhood’s corruption. Now seeing this exploitation, IM “ran through the night, ran within [himself]. Ran” (534). IM continues to run just as in chapter 1 whereupon he receives a letter instructing its reader to “Keep [this] Nigger-Boy Running” (33). IM runs without purpose “to what, he didn’t know,” still blind and confused as to his future direction and course of action (534). While IM runs amidst the tumult of Harlem, his vision is obscured and “still fuzzy,” illustrating his blindness in a more physical sense (538). Also, the men surrounding IM are blind as to why they find themselves rioting and protesting in the streets of Harlem. They assume the riots commenced due to “a white girl” and then because of “that great leader, Ras the Destroyer” (541; 541). Their apparent unawareness as to who actually initiated the riot reveals their blindness because, in reality, the Brotherhood started the citywide uproars. The Brotherhood simply uses the blindness of the society for its own ends, the extermination of the black Harlem community.

IM finally rids himself of his blindness by realizing the Brotherhood’s plot to annihilate the black population in Harlem. “[IM] could see it now” (553). “It was not suicide, but murder. The committee had planned it” (553). IM understands that the Brotherhood started these riots in an attempt to quell any rebellion or disagreement with its organization. The Brotherhood plots to let the black community tear itself apart by forcing white policemen to intervene and suppress the blacks until they relinquish and die. IM “[curses] Jack and the Brotherhood” and claims, “they’ll pay,” voicing his distress and anger (555). Seemingly upset with the Brotherhood, IM feels even angrier with himself for being “a tool” of the Brotherhood and aiding them in their selfish and anti-individualist cause (553).

Ras’s ignorance to IM’s newfound knowledge of the Brotherhood’s plan leads to blind rage. Even though IM declares that the Brotherhood “[needs] this destroyer to do their work” by fighting until police units repress their efforts, Ras still continues to riot and calls for the “[hanging of] the lying traitor,” IM (558; 558). His anger, accumulated from years and years of unrelenting inequality and demoralizing discrimination, blinds Ras to IM’s insightfulness and realization.

IM’s epiphany leads to his full vision and sight of the world. And, as a consequence, he burns the contents of the briefcase. IM realizes he no longer had “to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes,” showing that he completely understands the constructs of society (559). These powerful figures should not be envied, but understood and seen for what they are – people unwilling to accept individuality and small histories. IM sees these influential people in their purest form, but they do not see him. He has attained “invisibility,” the ability to be overlooked, but still present. IM decides not to let Ras hang him because he knows death “would not bring me to visibility” in their eyes (559). His goal is to be seen by the Jacks and Nortons of the world and for them to respect him, as well as all blacks, as individuals. IM starts “with his high-school diploma, applying one precious match” in an attempt to light his way out of the dark sewer. He burns each object in his briefcase, a prize given to him for following white order and doing what was asked of him. Over the course of the novel the contents of the briefcase have come to resemble black stereotypes, portrayed in the Sambo Doll and other documents. By burning these objects, IM eliminates the stereotypes and prejudices of his time, enhancing his ability to see clearly.

During the Epilogue, IM’s confrontation with Norton confirms his new ideology. Upon being asked for directions in the subway by Mr. Norton, IM states “don’t you know me?” and then questions, do “you see me?” (578). Mr. Norton does not see IM, further convincing IM that he is invisible and not seen as an individual, but as an object used by people like Norton. IM commits himself to no longer be used in this manner and to further the world in what ways he can. He believes he must respect all individuals and not engage in activities or Brotherhood-like organizations which neglect the diversity of the individual.

Ultimately, through his life underground, IM teaches that certain people are overlooked and unseen. People generally look up to see, but IM’s inhabitance of a basement full of light demonstrates that someone can still successfully act subversively while being invisible. Though underground and always overlooked, IM reminds us that a person does not need to be seen to enact change in society.

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