Invisible Man: Claiming Identity Against Racism

Stage production of <i>Invisible Man</i>

Stage production of Invisible Man
The Huntington/Flickr

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a young black man’s journey to awareness and “conscious self-assertion” in the days of segregation and Jim Crow. Through the voice of his unnamed narrator, Ellison drives us to the heart of racial awareness; we examine what it means to not be seen as an individual; what happens to one’s dignity when your education, ambitions, human relationships and self-determination are (overtly or subconsciously) considered available for the taking.

The racial blindness that erases humanity is linked to systems of power—those who control history, economic instruments and social structures use invisibility to reinforce their power. Ellison’s editor John Callahan writes, “Invisibility, as Ellison tells us, ‘occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.’…. In an extraordinary imaginative leap, he hit upon a single word for the different yet shared condition of African-Americans, Americans, and, for that matter, the human individual in the twentieth century, and beyond…. Which of us is truly visible to those who look at us?”

The protagonist’s assertion of identity in a world that will not see him gives us an opportunity to understand the psychological devastation, both subtle and violent, of racism and to consider how each of us participates in the fate of all humanity.

Surprisingly, the book is also humorous and lyrical. Ellison weaves in themes and images from Virgil, Dante, Emerson and T.S. Eliot, setting them to transcendental sounds and rhythms of jazz.

To learn more, read Toby’s blog post Learning to See: Invisible Man and the Power of Imagination.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– From prologue to Invisible Man


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Toby Brothers conceived of, developed and leads the London Literary Salon in London and Paris. She facilitates seminars in areas that range from postcolonial to women’s literature and classic epics, with a focus on Joyce and modernity. Her interest in literature concerned with race arises from exploration around identity and history, as well as the empowering experience of challenging racism with art.

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
(Penguin Modern Classics, 2007)
ISBN-13: 978-0141184425

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