Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This quote might've been intended to highlight the importance of being aware of history and to use some bad events as justification of change for the future. A prolific 19th century Danish philosopher once said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” History can teach us so many things, like who to trust, what to do, and how. Lessons are what progress humans and shape us, and history is a prime example of this and we use it on a daily basis. Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, is a prime example of this. Paine, in 1776, intends to convince American people to adopt a republic as their government regulation, and he uses the Roman Empire as an example of successes of it. His purpose was to sway his audience, and he used historical lessons to assist him. If there's one thing I've learned from my English class this year, it's to detect the authors purpose when they write. What was their intention and message to their audience, who is their audience, and how are they trying to affect them? These questions are the focus of books such as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and they aren't as easy to detect compared to other novels.
Invisible man is my AP classic that I'm currently reading, and I'll be the first to say that it isn't easy, my English teacher agrees as well. Invisible man is a book about a man in New York City who, after his experiences growing up and living as an oppressed black citizen, lives in an underground hole and believes he is invisible to American society. It was published at a time when racial tensions where overwhelming, and segregation was a sensitive topic. The author addresses the social instability, at the time, at the beginning of the book when the narrator describes his experience giving a speech when he was in grade school. The narrator was a profound speaker and was awarded a scholarship for this, however during one of his speeches the narrator is confronted with a nagging audience that is making him repeat every word he is saying. He stumbles over the word "Social responsibility" by which they scream for him to say it again and after he echos this for the the 8th time the narrator blurts out the words "Social Equality" by which soon after, "The laughter hung smoke like in the sudden stillness. [He] opened [His] eyes, puzzled. Sounds of displeasure filled the room. The M.C. rushed forward. They shouted hostile phrases at [him]" (Ralph Ellison, 31). Racism in the 1950's, as you may know, was very real, but it's hard sometimes for us today to understand the reality and the struggle that was happening during the time. Ellison really tries to open the audience's eyes by using a shameful tone to show that it's disappointing and aggravating to not have social equality. I've had some progress with this book and honestly the overall structure is compelling. Ellison doesn't take a direct approach to the way he writes, but rather he writes in a sort of episode format, and often leaves his readers to connect the many dots in the story. This style and the overall message are some of the reasons why I'm still interested. This book can be confusing to some because sometimes the reader has to search for the clues in order to piece the full puzzle; for example, it takes a minute to understand that the narrator is not literally invisible, but only believes he is due to the lack of acknowledgement society gives him. This makes me wonder if Ellison thinks he's invisible as well. CrashCourse Literature tells us that one of Ellison's messages is to remind us that "All people everywhere have the right to not be invisible, to develop their own identities and to be respected." This isn't only seen through whites, but also blacks as Ellison illustrates how power can corrupt their ideals as well. In chapter 6, Dr. Bledsoe, the president at the narrator's college, explains how succumbing and flaunting to powerful white men has enabled him to maintain his own position of power and authority over the college. By playing the role of the “ignorant” black man, Dr. Bledsoe has made himself nonthreatening to whites, and telling them what they want to hear, has allowed him to control what they think, and thereby control them entirely. Dr Bledsoe tells the narrator his desire to do this when he says, "The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. . . You're nobody, son. You don't exist – can't you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think – except men like me. I tell ; that's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…But you listen to me: I didn't make it, and I know that I can't change it. But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am" (Ralph Ellison, 142). This quote illustrates Dr. Bledsoe's single-minded desire to maintain his power, which was also apparent back in the 1940's and 1950's. Ellison's description of the evil activity within the novel is intended to humble the reader and take an outside perspective, despite background. His grand allusions, imageries, and metaphors are simple puzzle pieces for the bigger picture: Social Equality, and Invisible man has surely contributed to the progress we see today.
A lot has changed since the publication of Invisible man. Brown v. Board of Education came two years after, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and even the first black president. Invisible man has stood the test of time and is very significant, in my opinion, today for its in depth view on social issues. Time has taught us the golden rule, and has created morals among us. Ellison's purpose was no different than that of Malcom X, or MLK, and the stride for social equality was desperate in the eyes of them. It's relevance is just as noticeable as it was back then, and the appreciation of it is still stiff like it always has been.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage, 1952.