Chinelo OjialorDr. BelilgneENGL 469Dec. 18, 2017 Deciphering the Coded Boundaries ofBlackness Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man echoes modernist conceptions of “Black invisibility”as construed by the rejection or erasure of black people by white socialhegemonies. The unnamed protagonist who constantly struggles for the society tosee and acknowledge his individuality must erupt a visible path to the futurein order to disrupt the limited perceptions of the white society. Ellisondeploys the language of science fiction to place the protagonist on a path tothe future. By doing so, it distorts the visions of whitewashed futures thatequates blackness to deficiency and non-progressive. As Kodwo Eshun argues,”science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian, rather it is a meansthrough which to preprogram the present” (290).
After a series of dehumanizingevents, Ellison’s protagonist constructs his own visibility outside theobliterate roles of the white dominated culture. This use of science fictionreclaims the black history of the past and places the protagonist on an ambiguouspath to the future through the use of technological control. This paper willexplore the Invisible Man as apostmodern approach to correct the erasure of blackness by blending sciencefictional motifs of space and time travel, while rewriting the tropes ofinvisibility through hibernation. Theinvisible man occupies marginal space, consistently using different methods ofpower to create a balance between the black and white communities. His method of reconciliation wasprompted by his entrance into the Brotherhood, who used him as an emergencyresource to fulfill their capitalist gain. In order to resist theirsubjectivity, Ellison’s protagonist constitutes varying means of shattering thedocile futures that were created for him by the white community. The mostdetailed acknowledgment of this comes from Mr. Norton, an old college trusteewho tells the invisible man: “Young man, you are involved in my life quiteintimately, even though you’ve never seen me before.
You are my fate andthrough you. . .
I can observe in terms of living personalities to what extentmy money, my time and my hopes have been fruitfully invested” (45). As depictedhere, the black body is seen as a venture capital that has been set on a pathto a carefully predicted future trapping the protagonist into a controlled webof the white community. To combat these generated futures, the invisible manplunges into a space of hibernation which functions as a site of inaction, asthe narrator notes “It is a covert preparation for a more overt action” (13).Signifying that he is merely waiting on a time to remerge back into society andcreate his own path and space to the future. Although his descension into thecellar might been seen as a way of extirpating his existence, Mark Dery coinsthis act of science fiction as “marginal” – operating or learning to operatefrom the margins (189). In essence, the invisible man learns to operate in anunreal environment hidden within the real, visible to himself, but invisible tothe world above.
Inthe novel, Ellison uses invisibility as a visual metaphor which highlights thenarrator’s and his other male counterpart’s resistance to the commodificationof black bodies. As Mark Dery mentions “science fiction entails thrusting ablack body into an alien culture where he has to confront alien ways forsurvival” (218). This signifies how Ellison’s narrative begins to slip outsidethe boundaries of the reality, placing bodies in and out of absurd spaces.After Clifton dies, the narrators first glimpse of hibernating black bodiesstemmed from his realization that “Clifton had chosen to plunge out of historyand, except for the picture it made in my mind’s eye, only the plunge wasrecorded, and that was the only important thing” (447).
The narrator realizesthat his original notion of black bodies “grooving outside of history” (434),was infact false implying that Clifton chosen to plunge out of history andhibernate within himself, extricating his body from the entangled web of whitestrings pulling him to different directions. When discussing characters whohibernate within themselves, Rinehart- the subject of multiple personalities isanother unstable character who carefully remains visible and invisible in andof himself. Ellison mentions “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine thebriber and Rine the runner and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehartthe Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway?”(498). Rinehart’s multiple identities gives segway for his real self tohibernate within, perhaps Ellison tries to signify that the white society canconstantly try to “whitewash” the borders of his identity, but cannot crossover the lines of his invisibility. His body is like a fruit “rind and heart”,heart- being his inner shell (existence) and Rine – the multiple layers of hisskin that had to be peeled off to reveal his “self”. This outer impenetrablelayer that prevents black alien bodies to be seen by the “other” providescontrol as Eshun mentions “for black subjects to operate through the power offalsification” (298).
Ellison demonstrates arather conflicted sense of time in the beginning sections of the novel. Byplacing the narrator in events of the future, unfolding the present and thepast as they occur, Ellison shocks the readers, expanding their concept ofspace and time. He states, “Invisibility gives one a slightly different senseof time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimesbehind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are awareof its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead”(8). Here, the prologue depicts the narrators presence with the use of “I” tonarrate a previous life which would lead up to a newly constructed present. TheEpilogue however, adapts the language of the prologue reflecting on how hisescape and indefinite rest space shuts off the forgotten destruction of the nineteenthcentury. His escape is not on the tones of the white spectators in the novelwho conspire to “keep the Nigger-boy running”, rather a choice he made to usethe mode of strategic inactivity which suits his purpose.
Ellison’s narratorexperiences during this conflict of space and time that “not only could onetravel upward towards success but you could travel downward as well; up anddown, in retreat as well as in advance. . .” (510). Here, the protagonisthighlights his movement within history. Some days he is progressing forwardinto an imagined future, other days he is plunged back into the whitewashedpath of the society, forced to begin and the same point he started from. Wheneverthe narrator veers out of his shell, he sees within his vision, the spectatorsof the white society merging into one body forcing on him “their picture ofreality without giving a hoot in hell how it looked on him” (508).
In thisspace, the protagonist would have to adapt one of Rinehart’s tricks “move themwithout my self being moved” (507), reversing the roles of racial distinctions,and moving white people outside the lines of history before they remove him. Atthis point, the narrator cannot beat the cyclic nature of the society he existsin, he has to erupt a way to exist beneath the boundaries of reality and abovethe boundaries of the unreal. Ellison positions brother Tarp’scharacter as a constant reminder for the protagonist to consciously keepdenying the whitewashed futures that are imposed to eradicate blacksubjectivity After refusing to succumb to the misery imposed on him, Tarpescaped to the North and joined the Brotherhood. He hands the narrator his legshackle- a reminder of his escape from the past, stating, “Funny thing to giveto somebody, but I think it’s got a heap of signifying wrapped up in it and itmight help you remember what we’re really fighting against. I don’t think of itin terms of but two words, yes and no; but it signifies a heap more . .
.”(388). Subsequently, this passage demonsartes Tarps refusal to follow the pathto the scripted future created for him. In essence, it depicts how hisrejection of the future, leads him on the path of generating a promising futurewith the Brotherhood.
This shackle, similar to the one Dr. Bledsoe keeps on hisdesk as a figurine signifying the progression since slavery, eventually pullsthe narrator underground. While Ellison’s protagonist was running from the Massdestruction in Harlem in search of Mary’s house, his forward motion was drawnback by the heavy contents of the briefcase kept pulling his steps. Ellisonwrites “The briefcase swung heavy against my leg as I ran wildly, pulling me tolimp forward as I swung the brief case hard against the head of a dog thatleaped away .
. .” (552). Ellison uses the heavy contents of this briefcase toskillfully prevent the protagonist from blindly veering too far ahead into the unknown,or plunging backwards into destruction. In essence the invisible man decides torefuse the history of the past and future “placing a brake on the old wheels ofhistory” (504), while moving without motion. He also breaks free from the whitelines had been following since he took Norton on a joyride in town. By doingthis, the protagonist deviates himself from the white manipulation that has beenan obstruction of his own identity. Eshun’s concept of”interplanetary abduction” defines the protagonist plunge into the sewer of NewYork City.
Within this liminal space, he exists between the boundaries of theland of the living without fully transgressing to the borderline of the dead.Here, he exists between the spaces of the “I” and “other” which enables him toimagine trajectories and possibilities beyond human existence. As Eshunreiterates, the invisible man is able to “recreate a founding structure wherethere isn’t one, without losing sight of the limitations of existing models . .
.” (292). When the narrator chooses to emerge from his manhole, he is able toapproach the society in a new manner deeply rooted in imagination. For the timespent in his hole embedded with electricity and power sources, Ellisonreimagines the protagonist on a time travel that carries him into an unknownworld, where he can reimagine and visibly see multiple forms of the Americanidentity. Similar to Eshun’s theory of imagining archeologists using theiremulators to scroll through the fragile files of history, Ellison’s protagonistdevelops a form of triple consciousness that functions through the envisioningand managing of reliable futures to create a new and more complex multiculturalfuture. (289-290). Perhaps during his course of hibernation, he acknowledgesthe “possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role toplay” (586). After witnessing andunderstanding the substructure of the society and how to fully analyze it, theprotagonist retreats back to his chamber and transform his robotic persona to afueled hacker who redirects power from the white amateur culture, to fuel hisown “sonic technologies”.
Ellison mentions, “Without light I am not onlyinvisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live indeath” (7). In essence, through the technological power of light, the invisibleman can begin to see and understand the “darkness of lightness”- thus the darkshadows that lurk within the white society becomes visible to the naked eyes. Furthermore, the invisible man’s stay undergroundenables him to become an Afrofuturist antecedent, skilled with the ability of “lookingaround corners” and possibly rethinking the vary methods of remapping the pastand present that would thrust him into a distinct future.
Essentially, the story of Invisible Man exemplifies futuristic shock as Eshun describes, thepresent moment is stretching, slipping for some into yesterday, and reachingfor others into tomorrow (289). Thus, the protagonist’s space ship is constantlymoving back and forth through time and space, and between distinct cultural andtopographical zones. With this continuous motion propelled by sonic technologies,Ellison veers the invisible man towards a new identity, and a hopeful aestheticfuture which includes black culture. As Dery mentions “Can a community whosepast has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequentlybeen consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possiblefutures?” (180). Although Ellison provides a snippet of the future to thenarrator, he marks his intention of remaining invisible.
Ultimately, Ellisonbackwardly rewrote the past and the present, and until the invisible man canpeel of his old skin, and find a space that allows him to engage in hissocially responsible role, he is left with nothing but spaces to imagine andpowerfully survey the next generation of blackness. Just like Rinehart, the blackbody has multiple layers. The more white people attempt to “whitewash” or erasethese layers, the more blackness would unravel. Work Cited Dery, Mark. “Black to the future: interviewswith Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 92, 1994,pp.
180-217.Ellison,Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995.
Print.Eshun,Kodwo. “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” CR: The NewCentennial Review, vol.
3 no. 2, 2003, pp. 287-302.Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ncr.2003.0021