Acknowledging the Past Roots by Claire and McKenzie

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison


ENTRY ONE: In Chapter 17, Invisible Man's acknowledgement of his race's slave past while comparing his role in society to Douglass results in a realization of his potential to impact his community in a positive way. Invisible Man encounters Ras, a man modeled after Marcus Garvey in the way in which both believe full freedom is impossible in white America. Ras scolds Invisible Man for being a part of a group that includes white people and accuses him of being an “Uncle Tom” (369). Invisible Man and the Brotherhood do not condone Ras’ violent views but, when caught in a massive rally, Invisible Man becomes irate and resolves to fight Ras when he feels threatened. Ras, unable to kill Brother Clifton out of morality, approaches Invisible Man with his confusion as to why black men are fighting. Ras reminds Invisible Man that, “Brothers are the same color ” and that black men alike are, “ ‘…sons of Mama Africa’ ” (370). Ras connects his disapproval of the Brotherhood to past events, such as slavery, making Invisible Man realize the people he is collaborating with currently enslaved Invisible Man’s race brutally in the past. Ras believes Invisible Man is “[betraying]” his race and “[sacrificing] his black brother to the white enslaver” (371, 374). Ras’ anger with Invisible Man’s ability to assimilate with whites to fight for a black cause is shown when Ras states it took “black blood to build this white [man’s] civilization” (374). Although blacks in America are not enslaved at the time, Ras wants Invisible Man to acknowledge his past history as well as the history of blacks in America. In response, Invisible Man says, “We don’t want [to fight], especially with you, but we wont run either… ” (374). Invisible Man prepares to fight Ras and his followers but would prefer a non violent solution. Invisible Man does not disagree with Ras’ criticism of his tendency to “betray” his brothers, showing Invisible Man’s recognition of his race’s history.

A day prior to the rally,Brother Tarp brings Invisible Man a poster of Fredrick Douglass remarking, “ ‘[Fredrick Douglass] belongs to all of us’ ” (378). Invisible Man begins to think of how “magical it was that [Douglass] talked his way from slavery to a government ministry” (381). Invisible Man soon realizes that his role in society is forming similarly to Douglass’s role when he thinks, “Perhaps…something of the kind is happening to me” (381). Invisible Man’s sudden political influence in fighting for black rights and assimilating in a non-violent way shows his comparable influence in fighting for black freedom to that of Fredrick Douglass. Both men are able to have a future and develop new selves without leaving the past behind. Brother Tarp also gives Invisible Man a chain link symbolizing freedom and a constant reminder of the Brotherhood's ultimate goal, freedom. Similar to Douglass's root, the chain gives Invisible man the strength to fight against complete white supremacy. Invisible Man’s acknowledgement of Douglass’s historical societal role helps him realize that, like Ras previously stated, he possesses slave roots yet can still advance in society and have a strong societal impact.


As Invisible Man endures his experience with the "delicately plump woman with raven hair," thoughts of the past were brought up for IM (411). As IM moves forward in his life, forgetting his past and his old identity, racial lines become blurred and he has increasing interaction with white people in his life. While with the woman, Invisible Man is reminded of his lower status because of her words, and the immorality of the act. He is for the first time, lowered to the sexual stereotype of men like Trueblood, who he had always felt superior of because of his morality and education.

She calls his speech “primitive,” which traditionally has been a term utilized as a black stereotype to further define their unsophistication. While the woman seems to mean it as a compliment and covers it up by further explaining primitive as “forceful [and] powerful,” Invisible Man is offended (413). Invisible Man tried to forge his new identity once he joins the brotherhood and is not often reminded of his black roots or of the lingering black stereotypes in society. In this very equal and racially integrated interaction between IM and the woman, her comments inspires IM to become defensive and mentally confront the past while justifying his cause by explaining that “[they] are nothing if not organizers” (413).

Again, Invisible Man is reminded of his inferior status while the woman is on the phone with her sister and “[his] mind whirled with forgotten stories of male servants summoned to wash the mistress’s back; chauffeurs sharing masters’ wives…” (416). It is as if Invisible Man is merely playing a part by acting like an equal in society. Although his position in the Brotherhood gives him power, he is still of lesser status. To the woman, he is the help, entertainment for the night but of no real consequence. Invisible Man is forced to acknowledge the past and consider his decision to sleep with the woman because, although she tries to make him forget it, he is still inferior and has a lot at stake.

Throughout the interaction, Invisible Man is reminded of the entrenched racial stereotypes that follow him through his life. He is treated as a mere sexual object, and she expects him to be over-sexualized like the stereotype confirms. He is lowered to an animalistic level, similarly to when he is trying to throw away the mechanical bank and he fulfills his sexual stereotype by telling a woman that, “[he’ll] do want [he] wants to do” (pg 329). In this moment, “[he] wanted both to smash her and stay with her [but] knew [he] should do neither”(415). Invisible Man is lost here in the stereotypes of the past and is unable to make the right and moral decision for himself because he is submitting to sexual and animalistic stereotypes.


In chapter 20, Invisible Man takes an unwanted reversion to his race’s past, when he encounters somebody toying with a Sambo doll in the streets. Much to Invisible Man’s dismay, he finds that Tod Clifton is playing with the doll, who was previously in the Brotherhood. The “grinning doll…with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet” is “mysterious” to Invisible Man (431). The Sambo doll and the black coin bank achieve similar purposes in the novel. Both represent the degrading black stereotypes of the time as well as serving the purpose of entertaining white people. Invisible Man describes the doll as doing “a dance that was completely detached for the black, mask-like face,” exemplifying the lack of connection with the movement and the mind of the doll (431). The Sambo doll, representing an indolent black slave, is not dancing because of free will, but because it has to please the white man. Invisible Man even remarks that the Sambo doll “[performs] a degrading act in public,” and looks as though the doll receives a “perverse” pleasure from dancing (431). The Sambo doll is not only “degrading” itself by dancing in public but the doll appears to desire to act in this unacceptable manner. While the doll dances, Clifton yells, “ shake him, stretch him by the neck and set him down, -He’ll do the rest” (431). The doll not only objectifies the black man but turns him into an object that, when physically manipulated, will “do the rest”. Clifton also states that the doll will keep the white man “entertained” (431). Similarly to the Sambo Doll’s sole purpose is to entertain the white man, it is the black man’s purpose to do the same. Invisible Man fixates on the “inanimate, boneless bouncing of the grinning doll” and, like an object, sees no vitality in the doll. Invisible Man comments that “stretching” the doll’s neck upwards results in the dolls voice “[not going] with the hand” (432). Once the doll, like the black man, is manipulated and his head is not on his shoulders any more, what he says or thinks and what he actually does will never match because of the white man’s exploitation.

After witnessing Brother Clifton play with the racist Sambo doll in public, Invisible Man feels “betrayed” (433). Invisible Man’s general confusion arises from his questioning of Clifton validating cruel black stereotypes by playing with the doll. Comparable to Invisible Man’s shattering of the black coin bank, he “crushes” the Sambo doll, yet he is still unable to fully destroy the doll and black stereotypes in his racist society. In an attempt to conceal the doll and the loaded entrenched stereotypes it represents, Invisible Man “[drops the Sambo doll] in [his] pocket where [he carries] Brother Tarp’s chain link” (434). Even though the stereotypes in his pocket are not completely destroyed and forgotten about, Invisible Man would rather hide them instead of allowing it to be publically displayed. Invisible Man is forced to acknowledge the oppressive past of his race while simultaneously having a similar experience as when he encountered the equally racist mechanical bank.

History and acknowledging the past are brought up when speaking of the brotherhood and its true intentions. The difference between “big history” and “little history” are clearly highlighted with Clifton’s decision to leave the Brotherhood. When Invisible Man mentions that Clifton has fallen “outside of history”, he notes Clifton’s escape from his race’s personal past; a past full of racism and slavery (434). Clifton leaves behind the hope of being a part of “big history” and being apart of something that will be in the books. Clifton becomes a stereotype and dies a stereotype purely by selling the Sambo dolls after “he [dropped] the Brotherhood” (434). Clifton promotes these stereotypes and actively works against progress in equality for his race. Clifton chooses to openly rebel against the Brotherhood because of their intention to be a part of big history. Invisible Man begins to realize that the Brotherhood is an organization that is so focused on public image that it disregards the individual and unique thought. Invisible Man states that he’s “worked among the people” and the individual’s knowledge (“little history”) is equally as important in racial progress. While Invisible Man’s history is not specifically acknowledged here, he become aware of the importance of history and his part in it.

Throughout Chapter 23, Invisible Man focuses on finding his path to invisibility and eventually, creating a plan to take down the Brotherhood. By taking on the persona of Rinehart, Invisible Man understands the possibility of breaking off from the Brotherhood and embracing his personal invisibility. Rinehart embodies the veterans advice of “play[ing] the game but [not believing] in it” and to “be your own father” (153,156). Invisible Man now understands how to be invisible but “let there be light” (498). He can play into the system by being invisible, but he is able to “come out of the fog” and see the truth (153). He utilizes his past as a justification for his plan to turn against The Brotherhood, and he again reverts to what his grandfather told him before his death and is “ready to test his advice” (508).

Invisible Man has lost his identity and his roots throughout his time with The Brotherhood both by changing his name and integrating himself with white men as one body, not as individuals. Invisible Man redefines himself by looking into his past when he states, “[he is] his experiences and [his] experiences [are] me” (508). He begins to realize that his past experiences are exponentially more important than ones with The Brotherhood. He starts to understand the blindness and lack of perspective of the Brotherhood with Brother Jack’s glass eye. The Brotherhood is dehumanizing and unseeing. Invisible Man is convinced that the Brotherhood integrates him because they believe in equality, but he realizes it is actually because “they didn’t see either color or men” (508). He no longer feels the need to become a new man and become a part of big history because he does not want to risk the loss of his individuality.

In the excitement of his fully comprehending his “plan”, Invisible Man remembers the words of his grandfather on how to succeed in white society. Invisible Man decides to “overcome them with yeses…agree them to death and destruction…” and he adds his own advice to “let them gag on what they refused to see…destroy them” (508,509). He makes the choice to play the white man’s game and become the most agreeable and “a supersensitive confirmer of their misconceptions,” (509). Invisible Man now understands the words of his grandfather and how to use them within the context of his life. He is utilizing the method of invisibility that was suggested to him initially by Blesdoe to “learn where you are…then stay in the dark and use it” (145). But mostly, as Rinehart, he learned the truth in the words of the veteran and understands that he must see the truth, “learn who [he is], “learn how the [system] operates and to maintain his morals (153). Invisible Man looks back at another black man who has risen from slavery to become a doctor and Invisible Man connects that to himself by asking, “wasn’t that old slave a scientist?” (509). Finally, by acknowledging the past, Invisible Man is able to realize that he is not stuck in one specific identity. Invisible Man is able to be whoever he wants to be, like Rinehart. He now understands that the Brotherhood is not his identity and it does not define him, it is merely a part of the many experiences that make him up.


Throughout the end of the novel, Invisible Man realizes the extent of his invisibility and the truth of his past. He is able to confront the objects of his past within his briefcase and destroy them, even though his briefcase has carried him through his journey. In the epilogue, he finally realizes that his life, for the most part, has been a “dirty joke” and has not led him to any success.

After Invisible Man escapes the race riot, he goes in search of Mary, who is his symbolic mother of his past. Unable to find his way home, Invisible Man is carelessly thrown underground ground by two men. His briefcase has become a burden to him during the race riot and it slows him down as “[it swings] heavy against [his] leg as [he runs]” (553). He is thrown underground because the men “[want] to see what [is] in [his] briefcase” (565). The briefcase symbolizes the burdens of his past that he carries with him. While in the basement, Invisible Man is unable to see and realizes the only way to get light will be to burn the contents of his briefcase. Before, Invisible Man was unwilling to part with his briefcase because “[he]’d had it for too long to leave it” (548). “[He] starts with his high-school diploma,” which burns quickly and provides him with enough light to see where he is and how much further he has to go. The anonymous letter, which he realizes is from Brother Jack, burns quickly along with his Brotherhood name. While the paper relics of his feeble past quickly burns and disappears, the entrenched past of his race remains with the sambo doll, which “[burns] so stubbornly,” the shards of the mechanical bank and Tarp’s chain links. Invisible Man realizes that his accomplishments and rise in society is completely meaningless and short lived. It is the truth of social construct and the struggles of Invisible Man’s people that will remain even when Invisible Man is “disillusioned” and realizes his own invisibility.

Invisible Man becomes aware of the truth of his life and society while in “hibernation” (573). Throughout his life, Invisible Man has always been trying to fit in, especially with the Brotherhood, who promised fame and leadership; he was merely a “machine” and not an individual (509). His grandfather’s advice of “yessing them to death and destruction,” misleads Invisible Man and results in Invisible Man being further deceived (564). While reflecting on his life, Invisible Man realizes that he never succeeds when “[articulating] exactly what [he] feels to be the truth,” because men only want to hear “incorrect, absurd answers” (573). Invisible Man is unable to follow “everyone’s way but [his] own anymore,” so while he is acknowledging his past, he forces himself into solitude and hibernation to “get away from it all” (573). Invisible Man no longer wants to “make history” and his role in big history has ended because of the impersonal aspect of it. The brutal truth of the past has come to fruition as he discovers that “[he carries] part of his sickness with [him],…as an invisible man” (575). Invisible Man now knows, from looking inwardly on his past, that his entire life has been a “conflicting phase” and he has not reached any long lasting success. He concludes that “the world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now [he] understands [his] relation to it and it to [him]” (576). Invisible Man’s realization of his own invisibility and the truth of his past result in Invisible Man’s ultimate discovery of the ill society he is apart of and his role in it.

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