Michael Zhang, Daniel Eum and Matt Kehow of ENGL 471 at Queen’s University discuss the Ralph Ellison novel, The Invisible Man in this podcast.
Image selected by the group is credited to It is by J. Kingston and is from https://blogs.baruch.cuny.edu/afamlit/?p=1205.
Ralph Ellison, one of the most prominent black writers of the 20th century, delves into the complex relationship African-Americans possess with both the society they live in and the whites that possess the majority of social and political power in said society in his book Invisible Man. Through the struggles of the nameless protagonist, Ellison shows how the debilitating effects that racism and inequality cause for black people within American society. The list of songs we have chosen for this assignment focuses on the marginalized role African-Americans take on in society, being practically invisible to everyone from potential employers to next-door neighbors to classmates. The alienation that they feel is a key aspect of the novel, in which the main protagonist is nameless, a symbolization of the lack of representation black people receive in their communities, the constant trials and tribulations he faces throughout in his quest to achieve the American Dream, a concept that is also shredded upon meeting reality. This is a considerable issue even today, where many African-Americans face unfair discrimination in everything from mental health support to housing. The protagonist’s role in the novel as being invisible is bitterly ironic, given that the vast majority of people he interacts with treats him as a commodity to be ignored at their peril, yet at the same time attracts immense attention from the wrong people for the wrong reasons, thus simultaneously being both invisible and visible. This irony is what we build upon in this mixtape, with the overall experience of the average African-American being one to both endorse and empathize.
The album we have compiled not only shows the crushing failure to reach the American Dream for many African-Americans by no fault of their own, but also the institutions within society that causes such blatant inequality and racism. What is worse than the open racism and hatred towards blacks, however, are the misguided attempts of organizations (especially those helmed by ignorant white liberals) to help said blacks. This is clearly seen in the Brotherhood in Invisible Man, with their cult-like atmosphere serving as a hindrance rather than boon to improving the plight of African-Americans. Ellison’s real-life experience with the Communist Party and subsequent disillusion was a prominent factor in the creation of the Brotherhood, showing the fundamental problems that underlines organizations that supposedly aim to help marginalized groups, yet only end up making things worse.
Yet, unbridled black nationalism is a danger unto itself, as seen with the character of Ras the Exhorter in the novel. His activities within the novel, such as starting a race riot near the end, is symbolic of the extremism undertaken by oppressed groups (most notably certain African-Americans) against their oppressors in an attempt to free themselves. The philosophy that Ras preaches, one of black separatism and nationalism, is a self-destructive one, advocating for the destruction of anything and anyone that attempts to stand in the way of the movement. This is clearly reflected in real life as well, with revolutionary groups such as the New Black Panthers posing an enormous threat to societal stability, even as they themselves become racist and unwilling to accept others’ views.
The curse of being born with black skin in American society during most of the 20th century and even in contemporary times is a substantial one, denying blacks the chance to attend college, the ability to get a decent job, the right to affordable housing, and above all else, the loss of their identity and person. This is precisely what Ellison explores through his novel, something that we will replicate with the analysis of the assortment of songs in our album. Giving the invisible in society a voice is vital, one that would make them visible, one that would make them capable of acting upon society and improving it rather than simply being helpless sponges that absorb the injustices committed against them.
From Shadows by Jeff Williams (2013)
Born with no life into subjugation/treated like a worthless animal/stripped of all rights
This song tells of the oppression and discrimination faced by the fictional race of Faunus, which in turn are based on African-American struggles, by the dominant human race (whites). This song’s lyrics is a clear paraphrase of the way in which blacks were seen within American society, yet also shows the consequences of misguided attempts to help them. This song is especially relevant when it comes to the character of Brother Jack, leader of the Brotherhood that recruits the narrator in Chapter 14 of Invisible Man. The White Fang organization in RWBY fulfills a similar role to Jack and the Brotherhood, appearing to be well-intentioned in creating an equal world for all, yet masquerades more sinister intentions. As Brother Jack shouted, “that black man, as you call him, was a traitor!” (442), referring to the funeral of Brother Clifton, shows how the Brotherhood (and in turn the White Fang) treats their members as mere tools, prioritizing the hive mind over individuality. The rise of black revolutionary groups such as the New Black Panthers, who are classified as “virulently racist and antisemtic” (SPLC 1) is a clear example of the real-world extremism undertaken by oppressed people when they are pushed too far.
Black and Blue by Louis Armstrong (1955)
What did I do to be so black and blue? / Why was I born? / My only sin is my skin
This song is symbolic of the curse of being born with black skin in America. The “blue” in the title refers to the expression of being “black and blue”, or being constantly depressed. The song shows the depression and sense of hopelessness many African-Americans felt. The singer’s questioning of why he, a black man, was born and the line “wish I was dead” shows the lack of purpose many African-Americans face in their racialized, unequal society. After the narrator’s futile attempt to find a job after his expulsion from the college, the narrator is left asking himself, “What did I do? I always tried to do the right thing…” (191). The “thing” he did wrong was being born with black skin. Depression is a very real issue facing African-Americans, with statistics showing that the prevalence of depression in African-Americans is “reported to be twice as compared to whites” (Sohail et al. 1). The narrator is very much suffering from depression, as seen with his claim that he “had lost my (his) sense of direction”, along with how he “didn’t believe in anything” (257-258), and yet receives no mental health support aside from Mary.
Pink Houses by John Cougar Mellencamp (1983)
“There’s a black man with a black cat / livin’ in a black neighborhood / Oh ain’t that America
John C. Mellencamp’s Pink Houses focuses on the falsification of the American Dream, with the entire beginning segment dedicated to the plight of African-Americans. It supplies an inconvenient truth about the reality of life in the States, showing both the plight of the underprivileged (especially African-Americans) within American society and the ignorance of the general public to said suffering. The song’s inspiration stemmed from Mellancamp’s own experience with meeting a poor black man while driving in Indianapolis and not being sure whether to feel sorry for him because he was so desolate, or to admire him for his happiness, despite his poverty (Songfacts 1). This ambiguous attitude is what most of the whites within Invisible Man take towards the narrator, with many of them either ignoring him or treating him with outright hostility. As seen in Chapter 13, the narrator’s lament over how much he had “lost by trying to do only of what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” (266) shows the degree to which African-Americans are forced by society to bend to its will and yet receive little reward from it, showing the futility of the American Dream for the African-American class.
You Can’t Judge a Book by Bo Diddley (1962)
In the story, the nameless protagonist struggles to find individuality as he goes from community to community where each impose a different idea of how he should behave as a black man in America. In chapter 14, the narrator is recruited by the Brotherhood, an organization that seeks to make a better world for all people. Despite this, the narrator overhears one of the members express displeasure as she whispers, “But don’t you think he should be a little blacker?” (303). It soon becomes apparent that the organization is using the narrator simply as a token black man to push their ideology as according to Yancy, “he is a means to a larger white purpose, a ‘natural resource’ to be exploited” (71), calling back to the days of American slavery. The song, You Can’t Judge a Book by Bo Diddley, sings about the desire to be treated as an individual, just as the narrator desires to be visible in a world where “I am invisible… simply because people refuse to see me” (Ellison 3). Instead of projecting expectations onto others, the song suggests taking time to learn the person for who they are.
Is it because I’m Black by Syl Johnson (1969)
In Syl Johnson’s Is It Because I’m Black, the song talks about the systemic barriers that prevent many African Americans from progressing upwards in social hierarchy. After the narrator receives a scholarship to a historically black college, he has a dream where he finds an engraved document that reads: “To Whom It May Concern… Keep This Negro-Boy Running” (33). The dream implies that white men keep African Americans running in place by selling false hope of future success, the ‘American dream’. According to Levin and Papasotiriou, “Ellison tells the story of a poor but ambitious black youth who energetically tries to rise in the world but is thwarted by the institutions of racism in America” (89).This also becomes apparent when the narrator takes Mr. Norton to the Golden Days where he meets many well-educated black veterans who were institutionalized after the war with systemic barriers that prevent them from achieving the same success that their white counterparts have achieved. The song reflects the hopelessness that many African Americans cope with due to their skin color. It speaks of the institutions of racism in America that holds back black youth from success.
“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” by James Brown (1968)
During the narrator’s visit to the Golden Days, he is ridiculed by the veteran doctor for refusing to acknowledge his black identity. The doctor calls him a walking zombie who “learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity” (94). This also becomes apparent when the narrator refuses to eat pork chops in chapter 9 because he believes it to be a black stereotype that will impact others’ perception of him. Society’s blindness has a negative effect on the way that black people see themselves as “Others so marginalized may internalize their social invisibility and may suppress their interior life, indeed their humanity” (McCarthy et al. 68). However, this changes in the latter half of the book as the narrator begins to embrace his identity and his past. When the narrator eats a yam in public, he is overwhelmed with the feeling of homesickness and a sense of freedom because he is finally embracing his own heritage and not worrying about what other people might think of him. Likewise, the song “say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud” by James Brown is about embracing one’s identity as a black person. The song speaks about doing things your own way instead of conforming to what others want.
They don’t care about us by Michael Jackson (1995)
When the nameless narrator gazes upon the bronze statue at his college, he stands confused because of the ambiguity of its message: “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place” (36). The statue suggests that the institution, which is supposed to lift the veil for the blacks, is actually there to blind them by keeping it firmly in place. A real-life example of this is in the 1960s at Southern University, a black college, where students actively protested against white supremacy. The university attempted to shutdown the protest by expelling students and firing staff members (Newkirk 110). Likewise, Michael Jackson’s song “They don’t care about us” shows that the institution that is supposed to protect and elevate its people is being used to suppress them instead. It suggests that the power structure, predominantly white men, do not really care about the blacks at all. Instead the power structure exists to oppress minorities while stripping them of their rights.
Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971)
Gil Scott-Heron’s intention was to show that revolutions happen where they can’t be televised; they reside in the mind. Realising the revolution, “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.” The narrator in Invisible Man has the intelligence to realise his surroundings and interpret them as unjust and needing change. He starts an impassioned speech in chapter 1 “automatically and with such fervor (30),” in the face of ridicule and general disinterest, which pushes him to be louder and more passionate still. His mind is overwhelmed by a desire for change, for himself and for his race. The narrator can’t escape the revolution in his mind, in the epilogue he tries to get “away from it all…but that wasn’t enough…there’s the mind, the mind” (573). The revolution places the narrator in the driver’s seat, setting him on a course of exploration, challenge and confrontation.
Sam Cooke – “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1964)
Sam Cooke narrates a person beaten down by society, forced to run from a society that chooses to uphold ‘white as right,’ yet preservers through the hope of a future of social equality. In a similar way, the narrator in chapter 25 of Invisible Man flees underground, at his lowest point both metaphorically and literally, having run away from the world and the ideological and emotional problems it brings. However, in the epilogue, he realizes that complacency will get him nowhere, so he “shakes off the old skin” (580), being reborn. As Ralph Ellison himself says: “The point of our struggle… is to be both Negro and American and to bring about the condition…in which this would be possible” (Bone 206). The song echoes the conclusion that the narrator experiences, to not be complacent or run away from problems, because a change is coming, and he has to live the problems of experience to make change a reality.
Paul Robeson – “Old Man River” (1936)
A score from the musical “Showboat”, Old Man River is sung by the character Joe, lamenting the trials of the American, southern, black experience and how the cycle of repetition, in turn, feeds human oppression. The narrator in Invisible Man knows that complacency has the potential to incapacitate his spirit. In chapter 6, Bledsoe says to the narrator: “I can’t change it. But I’ve made my place in it…” (143), revealing his complacent nature, which threatens to hang any black man trying to change him or society. The narrator’s attempts at self discovery through self expression inhibits Bledsoe’s position, and the narrator is thus cast aside. As Richard Wright writes: “Why was I a suspected man because I wanted to reveal the vast physical and spiritual ravages of Negro life” (50). Seemingly, as Old Man River laments, all that remains is a cycle of alienation, frustration and invisibility.
As misguided institutions breed misguided people, our selection of songs highlights the cycle of oppression that produces a race of invisible men and women. Invisible Man is a text laden with self discovery, involving a young man trying to find himself in an attempt to become visible to the world. The narrator tries to fit into society, ultimately failing and seeking to make his own place in the world instead.
The narrator’s existential dilemma of lack of place, validation, and identity is a common theme in mid-20th Century America for African Americans. The constant black struggle collides with a dominating and yet indifferent social world run by white America. The characters in invisible man struggle in a constant battle between conformity and resistance as they attempt to survive in a world that limits them of their opportunities.
Ellison’s intellectual mentor, Richard Wright (50), commented on the problematic journey of aspirational blacks in a way that parallels Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. African Americans were forced to deal with the trials of being suborned and largely left out of the mainstream culture, while also having one’s consciousness and identity lost among the throws of an indifferent and intolerant society. Simultaneously, the black revolutionaries and the radicalized were fated to get absorbed in mid-20th Century capitalism.
Therefore, where could black aspiration for selfhood find a fertile place? Ellison’s characters also struggle with this question as the nameless narrator realizes that he is invisible because that is how people choose to see him. Despite embracing his invisibility, the narrator chooses to emerge from the basement, showing a sign of rebirth as he is willing to face the world and its prejudices. Ellison’s own experience as a black man resonates deeply in the novel as he attempts to tell the story of black people in America. Despite the challenges faced by the narrator, the novel suggests that the complexity of the individual should be embraced and fought for, suggesting a small bit of hope as his ‘hibernation’ comes to an end.
Song segments discussed in this educational podcast include: From Shadows by Jeff Williams | Black and Blue by Louis Armstrong | Pink Houses by John C. Mellencamp | You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover by Bo Diddley | Is it Because I’m Black by Syl Johnson | Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud by James Brown| They Don’t Care about Us by Michael Jackson | The Revolution Will Not be Televised by Gill Scott-Heron | A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cook | Old Man River by Paul Robeson