The first chapter in Invisible Man (1952), “Battle Royal,” is frequently anthologized in literature textbooks here in America, so I’ve always been curious to know how the rest of the book turns out. The initial chapter works by itself and was first published in 1947. The book, which eventually went on to win the National Book Award in 1953, took another five years to write.
As is often the case with National Book Award winners, it is very experimental. This is partially based on two sources of inspiration: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (“I’ve recalled it often, here in my hole”) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (“And oh, oh, oh, those multimillionaires!”). Ellison has received some criticism for writing a book on black identity while using language and symbols derived from the oppressive culture. But this should be expected from anyone portentously named Ralph Waldo Ellison, right?
The unnamed black narrator in Invisible Man is definitely very well educated and self-aware, a contrast with characters in the works of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. With the gift of Ellison’s prose style, the narrator introduces himself:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
The man lives in a basement, sealed off but lit brightly, more brightly than any place in New York City. While I am not aware of any influence the the book had on current events, it was published and won the National Book Award before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed for “separate but equal” facilities. In Plessy the Court had said that blacks were granted political equality, but no one could go so far as to grant them social equality. These themes of separation and social equality rise again and again throughout the novel:
And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand.
After letting us know his current situation living underground, the narrator lets the narrative go back in time to when he was the valedictorian of his high school — leading to the brilliantly strange sequence of the battle royal. He is chosen to give a speech at his high school graduation, but before giving the speech, he and his fellow black classmates are forced to fight in front of the whites of the town as the whites drink and laugh. In the middle of all of this, a naked blond comes dancing through the room.
The creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into the soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.
Eventually, he is granted the opportunity to give his speech. He does stumble at one point:
“What’s that word you say, boy?”
“Social responsibility,” I said.
“Social . . .”
“. . . responsibility.”
The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.
“Social . . .”
“What?” they yelled.
“. . . equality-”
He has to immediately renounce what he said and blame his error on the stress. Happy with their work, the whites give him a suitcase and send him to college. This is where the battle royal ends and the book begins. But that doesn’t mean the symbols and the strangeness are over. We meet a host of characters whose symbolic backgrounds stretch all the way back to Homer (“Homer A. Barbee was blind.”). Things do not go well in the South, as his relationship with the benefactor whites sours as does his relationship to other blacks. Moving north to New York City, things are very different, but not much better (there, among other things, we get some Communist rallies that honor but still objectify the blacks). Underlying a lot of the movement is the knowledge of the narrator’s hiding place in the brightly lit basement and his sad realization:
“You’re a black educated fool, son.”
Ellison is a brilliant writer, pulling out loads of cultural symbolism to deconstruct the culture. It is one of the most sophisticated and right-now important novels I’ve ever read. And it’s been right-now important, now, going on nearly sixty years.