Julia and Jeffrey on Freedom/Equality/Rights

Fighting for Racial Equality in Chapters 17 and 18

In chapters 17 and 18 of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man encounters conflicting ideologies on the best way to achieve racial equality for blacks. One on of the sides of this conflict is the black separatist Ras the Exhorter and his faction. Ras argues against IM’s method of working with the Brotherhood to further the cause of black freedom. He tells IM that he is “betraying the black people” by joining in with the white man by being a part of the Brotherhood (371). Ras is distrustful of the Brotherhood and of white people in general. He is disgusted by the fact that IM calls “these white men brother”, as white people “enslave” blacks and stereotype them as having “bahd hair” and “thick lips” (370, 371). Instead of working within the Brotherhood to give greater rights to blacks, Ras advocates a more direct method. He says that African Americans should “build a glorious movement of black people” in order to achieve their goals of freedom (371). Ras’s ideology stresses pride in black roots and culture. He wants IM and Clifton to embrace their blackness and join him in the fight against white power. Due to this radical ideology, Ras is in direct conflict with white society, “fighting for the liberty of the black people” (375). His method is violent and conspicuous, and requires a direct rebellion against white authority.

In contrast with this direct, violent method, IM’s work in the Brotherhood helps the black cause in a more subversive way. Instead of rebelling against white society, IM joins the white-dominated Brotherhood in order to help the black cause from within. He gains influence in the Brotherhood and harnesses the power the white people give him to help improve African American rights. IM notes that his name is getting around like “smoke in an airless room” (380). Using his newfound influence, he organizes rallies in Harlem to help the poor. When he calls the community leaders, they are all persuaded to come support the cause, falling in line easily “like prisoners” (379). He puts on parades with slogans and marching bands as well. Unlike Ras’s methods, IM allies himself with white people in order to make things better for black people, as he is giving himself more influence in white society, which he uses to help the black cause.

The subversion required for this method becomes more evident when IM gets a letter warning him about gaining too much influence. The letter states that IM should “go easy” or else the Brotherhood will “cut him down” (383). The writer of the letter is worried that IM is gaining so much influence that the white people will take notice and want to take his power away. The letter tells him to remain hidden and not draw any attention to himself so that he can continue to help African Americans gain racial equality.

Part of remaining hidden includes rejecting black folk culture, something that comes in direct contrast with Ras’s notion of celebrating black history. In the encounter with Brother Wrestrum, Wrestrum is shocked at the sight of a former slave’s shackle on IM’s desk. He says that black people should not “dramatize [their] differences” and should focus on the things that they “have in common” with whites (392). Wrestrum thinks that the shackle reminds the Brotherhood too much of IM and Wrestrum’s blackness, so it will draw unnecessary attention to them and work against their goal of being hidden and helping the black cause. Instead of embracing his blackness like Ras suggests, IM is forced to suppress it in hopes of remaining invisible to continue to manipulate the power of whites for the rights of black people.

Chapter 19

In chapter 19, the issues of racial inequality reveal itself in the encounter between Invisible Man and the white woman. Invisible Man is seduced by a white woman who invites him into her home to discuss the ideology of the Brotherhood. The white woman desires to sleep with IM, not because she overlooks that fact that they are of different races, but because she sees him as a “primitive” black male that she can use to satisfy her sexual fantasies (413). The white woman does not see IM as an equal being, but rather as an object she desires merely for the stereotypes of the black race. In stereotyping IM, she believes that he is in touch with his animal instincts and filled with sexual desire, something which the white woman finds alluring and attractive. The white woman tells IM that he “make[s] [her] afraid” and that his voice is “so powerful, so—so primitive!” (413). She sees him as an animal, also telling him that he has “tom-toms beating in [his] voice” (413). However, although she means to complement him, IM is offended by the fact that he is not being taken seriously by this woman. When she tells IM that his voice is primitive, he is angererd by the fact that his scientific arguments in the speech did not reach the woman. He believes that she is treating him like an object to fulfill her sexual desires, and not addressing him as an equal human being. In this way, the white woman feels both desire for IM's supposed animalistic ways, but also contempt in dismissing him as primitive, and failing to listen to the content of his speech.

IM is also offended by her unintentionally racist comments, for she wrongly assumes that IM fits all of the stereotypes she has for black people and desires him for that reason. Although the fact that this white woman is desiring a black man suggests that racial boundaries have been broken, this encounter actually reinforces the inequality between the two races due to the woman's belief that IM is primitive and inferior. Her desire is not to have a relationship with IM on which they are both on equal footing, but to use IM as an object to fulfill her sexual fantasies. Her belief in the social inequality between them is evident when she complains about her husband, mentioning “the sickness of [her] class,” due to its disregard for freedom and necessity, as if to separate herself from IM and reinforce the fact that blacks and whites are unequal (415).

Contrasting with her beliefs of black inferiority, the woman is a believer in equal rights for women. She comments that “women should be absolutely as free as men,” showing her beliefs in freedom for women. The white woman also suggests that since her husband is out of town, the two of them are “free” to do what they want(415). However, IM remarks that “if [he] were really free, […] [he’d] get the hell out of here” (414). Despite his feeling of uneasiness and his desire to get out of her house, IM still feels that he is controlled by the white woman and is not fully free to make his own choices in this situation. In this situation, the woman seems oblivious to the fact that she is endorsing women's freedom while buying into stereotypical beliefs that limit the freedom of blacks. Her belief that women should be free contradict her belittling of IM by believing in black stereotypes.

Chapters 20 and 22

In chapters 20 and 22, the Todd Clifton is the central character around which the fight for black rights is centered. In chapter 20, Clifton is seen betraying the Brotherhood’s cause by reinforcing black stereotypes and working against the goal of racial equality. When IM returns to Harlem, he sees that Clifton has left the brotherhood to become a street vendor of racist dolls called Sambo Dolls. These dolls have a racist appearance with a “black, mask-like face” (431). The dolls also conform to stereotypes because they dance wildly, fitting in with the stereotypes created by the minstrel shows. Clifton uses this doll to entertain the white people around him, while degrading himself and his race in the process. Clifton is described as doing a “degrading act” in order to get the “chuckles of the crowd” (431). The doll’s supposed purpose, he tells his audience, is to “make you laugh, make you sigh”, and “make you want to dance” (431). Clifton is using this stereotypical doll as an object for entertaining the white crowd, putting on a sort of minstrel show that amuses the white audience while reinforcing stereotypes. In this public display, Clifton degrades himself and lowers his race, as he reinforces the stereotypes that white people have for black people.

This incident with Clifton shows the difficulty for blacks to fight against the system of racism and inequality that the white people have set up. While with the Brotherhood, Clifton was fighting to give blacks equal rights against the system that wanted to keep blacks suppressed. However, after years of fighting, is not evident that the Brotherhood’s struggle has helped black rights in a major way. Finally, when IM leaves Harlem and goes downtown, Clifton seems to give up the fight and buy into the system. He decides then to make a living off of reinforcing a stereotype by selling “vile instruments of anti-Negro, anti-minority racist bigotry” (466). Using Clifton’s example, Ellison is showing us how many black people give up in their struggle for greater rights and buy into the system in order to make a living more easily.

As much as Clifton works against racial freedom for blacks, he is transformed into a symbol for freedom in Chapters 21 and 22 when he is unjustly killed by a policeman when he is unarmed. IM uses Clifton’s death to reinvigorate support for the black cause in Harlem. He proclaims the injustices of the unarmed Clifton being “shot down by a policeman” (466). However, in chapter 22, the Brotherhood is angry with IM for glorifying Clifton’s death after Clifton had betrayed the brotherhood and made a mockery of his race by selling the Sambo dolls. Brother Jack accuses IM of “forcing a traitor down the throats of Negroes” by making someone who plays into black stereotypes a rallying symbol for blacks (467). IM argues against this logic, saying that “the shooting of an unarmed man” is “of more importance politically than the fact that he sold obscene dolls” (467). IM explains that even though Clifton might have been a traitor, Harlem was moved by his unjust death and rallied to the cause. However, the Brotherhood is afraid that supporting Clifton would “harm the prestige of the Brotherhood” (468). This statement suggests that the Brotherhood cares more about their own image than the rights of black people, as they failed to capitalize this opportunity. By the end of the chapter, IM realizes what Clifton must have realized before he left: the Brotherhood is not really fighting for the rights of black people, but perhaps operating for more selfish reasons.

Chapter 23

In chapter 23, Invisible Man realizes that the Brotherhood is restricting his freedom and ultimately leaves it. Everywhere he goes, IM is harassed by people who recognize him as a member of the Brotherhood. They shout, “what are you doing about our black youth shot down beca’se of your deceitful organization?” (480). IM tries to calm them and claim their equality, saying that they are “Americans, all of us, whether white or black” (481). The crowd continues to shoot down his words. IM is forced to take on a disguise in order to protect himself. The Brotherhood has inadvertently restricted his freedom and rights. When IM takes on his disguise, he becomes a man not restricted by the Brotherhood. For this reason, he is eager and excited to put on his disguise, finding the “widest had in stock” so that he “should be seen even in a snowstorm—only they’d think [he] was someone else” (484). He longs to again have the freedom that not being part of the Brotherhood gives him. When he puts on the sunglasses, it is as if he is seeing the world with a whole new perspective.

When IM meets with Hambo he finally realizes the inequality of the Brotherhood. Hambo tells him that “the interests of one group of brothers must be sacrificed to that of the whole”, frustrating IM, who does not understand why they are being sacrificed. He tells Hambo that the community “is demanding equality of sacrifice […] we’ve never asked for special treatment” (502). Hambo tells him that sacrifices must be made, reinforcing the fact that in the Brotherhood, equality is not important. It is in this moment that IM realizes that the Brotherhood has always restricted his freedom, shouting that “everywhere [he] turn[s] somebody [wants] to sacrifice [him] for [his] good—only they¬ [are] the ones who benefit” (505). He realizes that the Brotherhood has always put its own interests before his and inhibited his freedom. He realizes the possibilities and the progress that can happen without them and remembers all the things they stopped him from doing, wondering “why [he hadn’t] discovered it sooner? How different [his] life might have been!” (509). Now that he realizes the truth, he realizes that he “had felt strong restrictions” and now there are “no restrictions left” (512).

Chapter 25 and Epilogue

In the final two chapters of the novel, Invisible Man, once passionate about the fight for racial freedom and equality, becomes disillusioned and cynical to the Brotherhood’s cause. While there were hints of a darker side to some of the Brotherhood’s actions in the past, during this chapter is when IM’s suspicions are confirmed. While caught in the middle of the Harlem riot, IM finally realizes the Brotherhood’s motives for him. He realizes that “the committee had planned” the riot, that they were using IM as a “tool” to accomplish their larger goals (553). Upon this revelation, IM begins “cursing Jack and the Brotherhood” (555), as they had used him for their own selfish goals. Instead of being a free member of the Brotherhood fighting for black rights, IM discovers that he had been little more than a puppet whose strings had been pulled by Jack and the committee to advance their own purposes. At this moment, IM realizes that all of his effort in trying to advance his race has been for nothing. In following his Grandfather’s advice, “pretending to agree” with the Brotherhood and other white authorities, he has played into the hands of the Brotherhood and was partially responsible for the riot (553).

After this moment, IM completely rejects the Brotherhood. When IM goes into the hole and needs light, he burns the papers in his briefcase as a rejection of his past with the Brotherhood, and also to cast light on himself to make himself less invisible. The papers “burned so quickly”, symbolizing the notion that his past with the Brotherhood could easily be destroyed and forgotten (568). IM also tries to burn other things in his briefcase that are a part of his past in order to escape the racial stereotypes placed on him and illuminate his real self. He tries to burn the Clifton’s Sambo doll, but it “burned so stubbornly” that it did not create a sufficient amount of light to allow IM to see (568). This inability to burn well suggests that the racial baggage that IM carries is hard to get rid of, yet IM still tries to burn it in order to get cast light on his invisible self. He hopes that by getting rid of the stereotypes imposed on him, he can get others to see him for who he really is and cease to be invisible. At the end of this burning process, IM is “free of illusion”, which he finds “painful and empty” (569). Burning the papers gives IM light to see past illusions, but this leaves him bitter and cynical, as he now sees the world for what it really is and loses hope in the cause for racial equality.

In the Epilogue, IM finally comes up with a way in which he can deal with the issues of his inequality after failing to do so with the Brotherhood’s ideology, as well as Bledsoe, Norton and his Grandfather’s advice. IM states that his previous attempt to follow his Grandfather’s advice was a “farce”, as his pretending to agree with the Brotherhood led to him being used by them (574). He finds out that his interpretation of his Grandfather’s advice is too literal. IM ruses that “perhaps he hid his meaning deeper than I thought”, and that his Grandfather must have been suggesting that IM “affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men” (574). This new interpretation leads IM to say yes to the principle of all men being created equal, even if the white men who created this principle contradict it by refusing to recognize black Americans as their equals. After coming up with his own method of empowering his race, IM tells the reader that having one’s own individual ideology is preferable to conforming to a larger ideology, marking IM’s shift between believing in the Brotherhood to believing in his own ideology. The novel ends with IM, bitter and aware of his invisibility, but while he is in “hibernation”, he is preparing for a more overt action sometime in the future (581). Even after IM realizes that he is invisible, he continues to feel “socially responsible” to do his best and help blacks gain equal treatment (581). In the end, IM's disillusionment does not make him completely give up on the race problem. Instead, the novel ends with him seeking to find his own way to help blacks gain equal rights, free from the influence of the Brotherhood and other authority figures.

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