This is a presentation I gave to my American Literature class over the book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

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Milton Moskowitz, in an article entitled “The Enduring Importance of Richard Wright,” recounts a conversation between Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Moskowitz writes, “’All literature is protest,’ said Wright. ‘You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.’ To which Baldwin replies that ‘all literature might be protest but all protest was not literature,’ which prompted this rejoinder from Wright: ‘Oh, here you come again with all that art-for-art’s sake crap.’”

Wright clearly believed that literature was essentially rhetorical in that its purpose was to persuade, to in some way affect people. Ellison felt the same way, or so it appears. Thus, in this paper, my purpose is fundamentally rhetorical. Stemming from conversations I had about this novel yesterday with my classmates, I have decided to present on the way Invisible Man is received by an audience and presented by a rhetor. I will be spending a good portion of the presentation focused on theory, but I will, of course, address the text itself. I should also warn you that I have read the entire novel, and will thus be drawing from Ellison’s entire text in order to make my case.

Ellison’s text is clearly, overtly, and explicitly racial, and it is clearly a text to be handled by ideological criticism—such criticism is primarily concerned about the power differentials that have resulted from white/western hegemony. Some race theorists have interrogated whiteness in order to deconstruct it so as to show the influences of minority texts on the dominant texts. Others attempt to trace minority texts so as to liberate them from white hegemony. Others have wrestled with the genesis of empire and the contemporary response to the injustices created by empire. These analyses are in line with other postmodern projects (feminism, queer theory, marxism, etc) in that all of these theories are seeking to deconstruct the norm. Take, for instance, Audre Lorde who argued that there are multiple layers to oppression. Given that she is a black lesbian, she has firsthand experience with multi-faceted oppressions. That being said, each theory certainly has its unique application and facets. There is a sense in which a meta-narrative of oppression is emerging: Audre Lorde argues that each society possesses its “mythical norm” against which all people will be judged. Deviation from the norm is punished by society. She argues that, in America, “this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure” (855). Oppression is the punishment dealt out by society for not complying with the norm.

Moreover, Reader Response Theory, as advanced by Stanley Fish in Interpreting the Variorum, addresses the way the reader of a text controls the meaning of that text. For Fish, the word “text” itself is problematic in that it presupposes the existence of an objective, unified whole capable of being read—which for Fish means “pure (that is, disinterested) perception”—by more than one person (217). Rather, for Fish, interpretive strategies precede the text, thereby “making them rather than, as it is usually assumed, arising from them” (218). Disinterested reading is impossible because, even in choosing to read a particular text, an interpretive decision has been made—that the text in question is a unified whole that can be read as such. Fish contends that this use of the same interpretive strategies is not caused by some objective set of values. Rather, it is the result of reading conventions held together in interpretive communities. Fish argues, “Interpretive communities are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions” (219). These shared strategies exist prior to the texts under consideration. And, just like the strategies of interpretation, these interpretive communities also fluctuate. The reason texts can be debated is “not because of the stability of the texts, but because of a stability in the makeup of interpretive communities and therefore in the opposing positions they make possible” (220).

Thus, in Ellison’s novel, we (a group of white graduate students) are confronted by a racially marked text designed by its author to challenge dominant notions of race and the black construction offered by white hegemony. This does not make the text inaccessible by any means, but it does challenge us to come to the text as humble foreigners. Fish’s argument that meaning is socially constructed, and that texts are impossibly altered by the interpretive strategies of particular interpretive communities, force us to access ideological and racial theory constructed by members of oppressed groups of people if we want to critically evaluate Ellison’s novel. Additionally, given our position outside of Ellison’s interpretive community—and out of the interpretive community in which this novel has primary, immediate, and visceral meaning—we are forced to self-consciously reflect on our interpretive choices, moves, and strategies. Moreover—and this is essential to my argument—Invisible Man is not merely racially marked by its subject matter, nor is it racially marked solely by the use of a black speech, though both of these are important. Invisible Man is racially marked by its location as a place in which a black counterpublic is constellated.

Michael Warner argues that there are two primary definitions of public. The first is that “the public is a kind of social totality” (65). This includes all of humanity or just members of certain open organizations, like the NRA, or even possessors of shared characteristics, like all blind people. The second definition is that a public is “a concrete audience, a crowd witnessing itself in visible space” (66). Publics and counterpublics both address texts and are constituted by those texts of address—texts which presume the existence of such a public. Thus, counterpublics are constellated by texts that address them as such—texts that, in some way, differentiate a group of people from the dominant, and thus presumed, public. Invisible Man is one such text—constantly self-conscious and self-referential in both its depiction, and its constellation, of a black public. Warner continues:

“But counterpublic discourse also addresses those strangers as being not just anybody. They are socially marked by their participation in this kind of discourse; ordinary people are presumed not to want to be mistaken for the kind of person who would participate in this kind of talk or be present in this kind of scene . . . a socially stigmatized identity might be predicated; but in such cases, a public of subalterns is only a counterpublic when its participants are addressed in a counterpublic way—as, for example, African-Americans willing to speak in what is regarded as a racially marked idiom. The subordinate status of a counterpublic does not simply reflect identities formed elsewhere; participation in such a public is one of the ways by which its members’ identities are formed and transformed. A hierarchy or stigma is the assumed background of practice. One enters at one’s own risk” (120-121).

It will thus be my goal, the rest of this presentation, to demonstrate various ways in which Invisible Man both constellates and addresses a black counterpublic. In order to do so, I will move past the racially marked speech, racial subject matter, and black characters in order to point toward the self-referential quality of the novel. That is, central to Warner’s idea of both the public and the counterpublic is that the texts to which they are related are recursive, both addressing and being addressed by the public in question.

First, the dialectical relationship of school to the surrounding community is self-conscious in that the text addresses the tension found between those blacks who seek the goods offered by the dominant white society with the surrounding community still trapped in servitude and poverty. This is a tension that follows through the rest of the book. At first glance, this tension looks real:

“It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community. Several months before he had caused quite a bit of outrage up at the school, and now his name was never mentioned above a whisper. Even before that he had seldom come near the campus but had been well liked as a hard worker . . . we were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sung, but since the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds . . . how all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the ‘peasants.'” (46-7)

The tension breaks down when it is revealed that Jim is subsidized by the white people, just the same as the college is subsidized. What is revealed as the layers are pulled back is that the dominant society is innately racist in its outlook. It is either overtly racist and oppressive or it subtly racist. Either it enslaves blacks or it pays them off. Jim Trueblood is as much an experiment in modified racism as the college—an institution remaking young black people in the image of white ideas. The in-fighting between the “peasants” and those at the college is revealed as a struggle to curry favor with the white overlords. Dr. Bledsoe recognizes that this is the struggle, and he has adapted to profit from it:

“You’re nobody son. You don’t exist—can’t you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think—except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. Shocks you, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the way it is. It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself. But if you listen to me: I didn’t make it, and know that I can’t change it. But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.” (143)

Thus, for Bledsoe, recognizing that the goal of life for the black person is to take what s/he can from the white person has resulted in a vast and corrupt manipulation of the system for his own ends. He has become a cynic. This is the same move eventually made by our narrater who, himself, becomes a cynic.

Second, those white people who seem to have let go of official or explicit racism nevertheless embrace soft racism. This is a self-conscious move on the part of the text in that it reflects on the explicit and unique experience of the black counterpublic. The Brotherhood is a prime example. When the narrator first meets Brother Jack at the end of chapter thirteen, Jack attempts to understand the narrator’s reason for challenging the eviction. When the narrator finally explains that the reason is because “’we’re both black’”—that “’we were burned in the same oven’”—“the effect was electric. ‘Why do you fellows always talk in terms of race!’” (292). This tension—the one between Liberalism and Critical Race Theory, to put it in our terms—is stretched all through the novel as well. When the narrator goes to his first brotherhood party, he is asked to sing “Negro work songs” and told that “all colored people sing.” Brother Jack interjects that “this is an outrageous example of unconscious racial chauvinism” (312). This is repeated when the narrator has an affair with Sybil and she insists that, because he is black, he is the prime candidate to enact her rape fantasy.

Nevertheless, it is revealed that the entire Brotherhood outside of Harlem lives and breathes “unconscious racial chauvinism”—the paragon of which is Brother Jack. This comes to a head in the committee decision to sacrifice Harlem for the sake of national issues. When the narrator objects that he should make decisions about Harlem since he understands the racial component, the committee tells him to stop thinking. Harlem is to be sacrificed, apparently, for no other reason then it is the most convenient. However, such an attitude—while free of overt racism—is nevertheless made by white men who don’t understand the black struggle, and who—in trying to be colorblind—oppress people of color. The narrator explicitly recognizes this problem and, at the final committee meeting, asks Brother Jack “’who are you, anyway; the great white father? . . . wouldn’t it be better is they called you Marse Jack?’” (473).

Third, Ras the Exhorter—and later the Destroyer—recognizes the manipulation of the black brothers in the Brotherhood at the hands of the white brothers. Again, by naming and reflecting on an explicit and unique experience of the black counterpublic, Ellison has addressed and thus created that public. He, throughout the novel, challenges both Clifton and the narrator for being subservient to white masters. Ras’ solution, in the end, is to lead a race riot that will tear apart Harlem. However, in tearing apart Harlem, Ras is actually doing the will of the white people. The narrator asserts:

“It’s true, I was betrayed by whose who I thought were our friends—but they counted on this man, too. They needed this destroyer to do their work. They deserted you so that in your despair you’d follow this man to your destruction. Can’t you see it? They want you guilty of your own murder, your own sacrifice.” (557-8)

Dr. Bledsoe is thus proved correct. Any agitation—whether violent and nationalist like Ras or peaceful and egalitarian like the Brotherhood—is doomed to failure because the deck is absolutely stacked against people of color. This is the experience of the black counterpublic both addressing and addressed by this novel.

The implications are relatively clear. First, we who receive this text should seek to follow the methodology asserted by Reader Response Theory and place ourselves, as best we can, in the place of the black counterpublic—to imagine its experience. Second, our assumptions—conscious or unconscious—are dangerous and potentially violent when up against a text like this. Those of us who are not black have several characters from the story with whom we could identify, but none of whom are flattering. We could be explicitly racist southerners. We could be the powerful, kind, and paternalistic benefactors of the the college. We could be the liberal, neutral, and self-congratulatory non-racist members of the brotherhood. Each of these characters come with their own set of assumptions, each of which are honestly held. We need to be careful in our own reading of this text—careful that we at least recognize the potential problem of our assumptions. Third, and finally, we are encouraged to suspend critical judgement of a text like this—whether on moralistic, artistic, or political grounds—and listen to the narrator, author, and other characters. While a counterpublic exists to give its members a place for the social formation of identity counter to the identity imposed from without, it can also serve to communicate to other publics and counterpublics the experiences of a group of people. In doing so, oppressive and harmful discourses can be dismantled. In this way, perhaps, the question—asked by the narrator at Clifton’s funeral “And could politics ever be an expression of love?” (452)—can be answered in the affirmative. For, as Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.

Fish, Stanley. “Interpretive Communities” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 217-21. Print.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 217-21. Print.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2002. Print.