Laura's Review - Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison
581 pages
First sentence: I am an invisible man.
Reflections: Invisible Man was first published in 1947, and won the National Book Award in 1953. It is, essentially, a young black man's search for identity in white American society, long before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his mark. The nameless main character has a series of experiences on his quest, reminiscent of Homer's Odyssey(there's even a "cyclops": at one point it's revealed that a larger-than-life character actually has only one eye!). He sets out on his journey remembering his grandfather's dying words: "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. ... I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree ' em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open."
Ellison portrays the characters, his life experiences, and various acts of racism in great, descriptive detail. The protagonist begins his quest on departure from an historically black college located in the Deep South, where the president acts subservient to white benefactors. He experiences more overt acts of racism finding employment in Harlem, and eventually becomes an activist member of a political movement. It appears he is accepted for his gift of oratory, but in reality he is being used by the white leaders of the movement to further their hidden agendas. He eventually realizes that as a black man he is invisible to whites, he simply doesn't matter.
Reading Invisible Man, I reflected on the "invisibility" of African Americans still today. Lincoln University, an historically black university, is only a few miles from my house. Over more than 150 years, Lincoln has produced notable alumni like Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Yet it is virtually invisible to the surrounding community, which is comprised of farms and housing developments, and is predominantly white. There are few public events, and rarely do I see Lincoln students in our local shops. However, there is one incident that haunts me, and makes me ashamed of the community I live in. One hot summer evening, we went to the local Dairy Queen. While there, a Lincoln University van drove up and several students came into the DQ, ordering ice cream and taking seats at a group of tables. Other customers came into the store, and every single one placed their order, and nonchalantly strode outdoors to eat their ice cream. I was appalled. We have such a long way to go to achieve equality and community.
I wanted to be enthralled by this book and unfortunately, I wasn't. Yet considering the times in which it was written, it is a bold piece of literature and an important, thought-provoking book.