Invisibility As an Escape From Term Paper
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The oppressed then became their own oppressors, judging themselves on the high class standards of life. Through their own regulation, high class norms were used to judge each other on the basis of financial stability, female morality, Christian ideology, and so forth. They upheld unrealistic standards when one looked at the condition of life many within the lower classes were forced to endure. No matter how much they grew to resent the high class for the lifestyle they would never be able to live, the lower classes still unconsciously internalized the beliefs of that class they hated.
This theory is easily adapted into an ideology of racial hegemony, where the beliefs of the white majority were slowly filtered into the African-American social structure. The African-American community began to define itself using white standards. Gramsci himself even noticed "the formulation of a surprising number of negro intellectuals who absorb American culture and technology," (Gramsci 15). Many of the black elite only reinforced white values and racial views onto their fellow African-Americans. This created an unobtainable standard for African-Americans, similar to the lower class vision of themselves, which lead many to question "whether this [the United States'] intellectual stratum could have sufficient assimilating and organizing capacity to give a 'national' character to the present primitive sentiment of being a despised race," (19). The white view of the African-American community was overwhelmingly negative for most of the United States' existence. So, when the black community absorbed the white majority's view of themselves, they adopted a negative image of what it was to be black in the United States, "for the moment, American negroes have a national and racial spirit which is negative rather than positive, one which is a product of the struggle carried on by whites in order to isolate and depress them," (19). Racial hegemony forces some blacks to disappear into their pre-set stereotype, and other light skinned blacks to ignore their African heritage for a chance in a white world.
One escape from the demeaning prejudices of the racism of every day life in American society is to withdraw into the pre-existing stereotype of African-Americans; achieving invisibility through blending into the stereotype of the group as a whole, as seen in the narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The narrator, who remains nameless throughout the entire novel, reaches his state of invisibility by understanding that the white world does not understand the lives of African-Americans, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me," (Ellison 3). This is reminiscent of Dubois' theory of the how the veil is impenetrable from the white perspective, "The invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those whom I come in contact," (3). The white community cannot see through the veil into the black experience; according to Ellison, this not a coincidence but rather a choice. Ellison believes that the white community does not want to bother themselves with worrying about an "inferior" view of the world. Is constant contact between the two races, the white community does not see individuals, nor do they believe that a black individual can exist outside the stereotype, "You're hidden right out in the open -- that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn't see because they wouldn't expect you to know anything since they believe they've taken care of that," (154).
The white world does not see individuals within the American-American community; they only see the group, the race. The individuals who happen to be a part of that race then disappear within the group, effectively becoming invisible within the larger group. James Weldon Johnson understood the idea that every black individual was glossed over and thought of in the stereotype which characterized the race rather than the person, "Northern white people love the Negro in an abstract sort of way, as a race [...] Southern white people despise the Negro as a race, and will do nothing to aid in his elevation as such," (Norton 845). Early in the novel, Ellison's nameless narrator realizes that through acting how the white community wants him to act, he essentially disappears from any controversy that any upstart or reformist might incur. The vet which he meets during his trip with Mr. Norton to the Golden Day describes him in this way to the white "philanthropist" Mr. Norton, "He's invisible, a walking personification
of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams [...] the mechanical man," (94). This image is later reinforced when Dr. Bledslow, the narrator's idol, explains to him "you are nobody, son: you don't exist -- can't you see that?" (143).
The narrator in Invisible Man, eventually realizes that fighting the pre-conceived notions of his race only lead to hardship. Consequences come to those who attempt to change the social order, to those who refuse to be invisible, this is represented by the sad state of the vet who had once been a physician," I was forced to the utmost degradation because I possessed skilled hands and the belief that my knowledge could bring me dignity," (Ellison 93). This idea is later repeated in James Weldon Johnson's fictional autobiography; nothing but hardship comes to the groundbreakers who try and change a system which has been engrained into the American psyche for generations. Society wants the invisible man, and all other African-Americans like him, to give up his dignity and simply accept the norm. The figure of Dr. Bledslow explains to the invisible man how it is his duty to "let the white folk worry about pride and dignity -- you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contacts with powerful and influential people -- then stay in the dark and use it!" (145).
Ellison twists this advice to form his own version of invisibility. He plays into the role that society allocates for him in order to survive. However he realizes that this technique is selfish and will only save him from the grips of racism, "Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; anyway you face it, it is a denial. But whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?" (Ellison 14). So the invisible man uses his invisibility, but only as a temporary relief. He understands that he will eventually have to emerge as an individual to fight the group stereotype. He remembers the advice of his grandfather, "Live you life with your head in the Lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine them with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open," (16). By disguising himself within the stereotype of his race, Ellison's invisible man effectively hibernates unseen by suspecting white eyes. In his invisibility, he can hibernate as "Jack the Bear," waiting for the perfect moment to emerge out of his hole. "Jack the Bear," (6) references the Uncle Reemus stories which demoralized blacks in the South. "Call me Jack the Bear," (6) refers to the tone of Ishmael in Moby Dick, therefore essentially calling himself the bastard son of American society. He is American born, but yet treated as a disgrace; Ishmael was the bastard son of Abraham who was forsaken to wander the desert while his brother Isaac became the father of Israel. The reference to "Jack the Bear" becomes a metaphor for the narrator's invisible identity; he waits in the invisibility of his hibernation.
James Weldon Johnsons represents another form of racial invisibility in his novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. This novel is a fictional biography of a mixed race man who ultimately decides to pass in society as a white man concealing his African heritage. In the novel, Johnson explores the meaning and experience of "passing" in American society. The protagonist of the novel remains nameless throughout the entire story. Just as Douglass before him, and Ellison after him, Johnson's main character is not specific; but rather a broad character type, incorporating an entire group's identity issues in the life of one man. The work does use techniques first seen in slave narratives. Johnson has a tendency to break away from the autobiographical plot in order to explain something about the black experience to the reader. He uses techniques similar to those of his literary ancestors to inform the white audience about what really goes on behind the veil.
Through his narrator, Johnson describes the trials and tribulations of the black experience. Johnson believes that both races, black and white, have heroic possibilities; but those possibilities are stifled in the context of American society. Throughout the novel, the protagonist wanders in and out of a number of different racially charged environments. He was born in the South, but traveled North and to Europe after college. His later return to the…
Sources Used in Documents:
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Signet Classics. New York. 2005.
Dubois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folks. Found in the Norton Anthology of African
American Literature. W.W. Norton. 2nd ed. 2003.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage International. New York. 1980.
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