Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is
traditionally understood as a story about a black man living in a white man’s
world, the relationship between the two races is much more complex. The America
that Ellison writes so passionately about cannot be fully understood in the
simple terms of black and white, but also through the lens of white and
non-white. It is an America that has been exclusively shaped by white men and
is one that leaves African Americans (and other minorities) such as our unnamed
narrator somewhere on the fringe, unable to formulate an understanding of self.
The novel presents a tale of race and personal discovery in the first half of the
20th century United States. Its narrator is not explicitly given a
name for he is meant to be archetypical of many black males of the time, who
largely navigated this period with a sense of disorientation as they fought to
find their place within a Caucasian-dominated world. For this reason, the title
Invisible Man is easy enough to
comprehend; Ellison argues that to be black in America is to be invisible,
thanks to the prevalent white culture that surrounds it and refuses to see him.
Ultimately, the narrator encounters obstacle after obstacle in his journey to
shape an identity for himself in a world that expects him to be submissive in
the face of white men. He finds that the prejudiced views of others impede the various
paths he wishes to embark upon, that the racism he encounters is a hindrance to
personal expression and self-identity. The narrator is faced with a choice:
either he may accept the nature of his invisibility, or he can embrace his
blackness and plot his own unique course through a white society. In the end he
opts for the latter of the two choices, but his path to self-discovery is
marred with the racism that permeated American thought throughout much of the
21st century.

            The narrator in Invisible Man is not the only literary character to struggle with
the nature of his racial identity. In 1929, decades before Ellison began work
on his novel, Wallace Thurman published The
Blacker the Berry. Its chief protagonist is a young black woman named Emma
Lou Morgan who, like the anonymous narrator, is unable to find her place in
society due to the color of her skin. However, Emma Lou does not spend her days
dreaming about someday gaining acknowledgment within white society, but rather yearns
for acceptance in the eyes of her fellow African Americans. The principal impediment
she faces is the perceived darkness of her skin, which she believes separates
her from the rest of her racial group. The decades-old debate of light skin
versus dark skin has a different name today: colorism. This type of bias is a
common issue, particularly in the African American female community. Although
many darker skinned black women are confident in their appearances and often
celebrate their complexion, they still admit they walk a different path in life
than that of the lighter-skinned population. Because of the darker shade of her
skin, Emma Lou spends the majority of the novel exploring California then the
streets of Harlem in search of acceptance. Her identity is constructed solely
around her apparent blackness and perceived inferiority to others. The
formation of a clear self-awareness is central to healthy growth, and
especially imperative for individuals who face discrimination and racism. Throughout
each of their journeys, the unnamed narrator and Emma Lou have no choice but to
mold their lives in a racist society, and in both cases it is evident that
racism is the most noteworthy obstacle to personal identity.

            To begin with, the black America
that Ellison depicts in his novel is one that is made invisible by the prevailing,
white culture. This notion is introduced early in the first chapter at the
battle royal, and Ellison’s conception of race can be partly understood through
the events that take place there. A supposed twenty years before the prologue
was written and immediately following his successful graduation oration on
humility, the narrator explains that he was invited to give a speech for a
group of respected white men in his town. Although he initially imagined the
affair would be a “triumph for our whole black community,” it was soon
revealed that the white spectators in the audience had a very different event
planned (Ellison 17). The narrator was only one of several young black men
invited to the gathering; each were blindfolded upon arrival, subject to terrorization,
and forced to fight the others solely for the entertainment of the audience.
After a number of arduous minutes, only the narrator and another man named
Tatlock, the “biggest of the gang,” were left in the ring. Meanwhile, as the
white men placed bets on who would emerge victorious, the narrator wondered if
he should give up or continue fighting. The decision is made for him, as he is
knocked to the ground in a deafening blow.

Following the battle royal, the young men
were forced to scramble for fake gold coins on an electrified rug: “Laughing in
fear and embarrassment, some were holding back and scooping up the coins
knocked off by the painful contortions of the others. The men roared above us
as we struggled,” he explained (Ellison 27). At the end of the chapter, it is
revealed the coins are nothing more than worthless brass tokens, advertising
some obscure brand of automobile. Although the narrator is given a scholarship
to the state college for Negroes from the superintendent spectator, he dreams
that the briefcase in which it was enclosed actually contained a letter that
read: “Keep This Ni***r-Boy Running.” This grueling scene was meant to
symbolize the way in which Ellison believes society is structured. For him, and
undoubtedly many others, society is controlled by an assortment of dominant,
influential white men who deny African Americans the ability to realize their
own identities while encouraging them to fight amongst themselves. In a similar
vein, the horrific display of oppression and appalling money grabbing he
describes also provides commentary on the so-called American dream. For generations,
citizens have believed the United States to be a country filled with
opportunity, a place in which a person can begin life with nothing and conclude
with an amassed wealth and successful career if he or she invests continuous,
hard work. What this theoretical view fails to consider, however, is that
society has always placed inherent restrictions on minorities – such as
slavery, inadequate education opportunities, equal protection under the law,
and so forth – that make it extremely difficult and often impossible for them
to realize this dream and their true potential. In Invisible Man, the chief constraint on personal identity is racism,
which significantly disadvantages the narrator by forcing him to work much
harder (often to no avail) than the more advantageous white men for an
education and a future. Thus, disenfranchised groups are habitually unable to
attain this “American dream” and are prevented from conceptualizing their

Moreover, as a black man living in a
white man’s world, Ellison’s narrator experiences a variety of racism
throughout his journey from Liberty Paints to the Brotherhood. At the former of
these two groups, he learns that undermining the African American community is an
effective way to guarantee white dominance in America and that society is
structured in such a way that being black is to be intrinsically inferior. To
the detriment of the narrator, this realization affects him both mentally and
physically. A few years after receiving his scholarship, he is expelled from
school for taking a white trustee of the university to a predominantly black
tavern and failing to show him a better depiction of African American life. He
is then cast away to Harlem, where he finds a job at the Liberty Paints plant. Their
signature color is deemed “Optic White” and Lucius Brockway explains that the
main function of this paint is to hide blackness: “Our white is so white you
can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledgehammer to
prove it wasn’t white clear through!” (Ellison 217). This quote demonstrates
the metaphorical nature of the paint factory; Ellison’s descriptions of both the
relations between the black and white plant workers and the paint itself are
meant to symbolize the racial conflict that plagues America. Just as the white
paint conceals blackness, white society attempts to obscure and oppress black
identity. This prejudiced power structure forces African American men and women
to acclimate to white culture, to disguise their true selves in order to gain
societal acceptance. In doing so, they discard their own identities and become
invisible. Even the company’s slogan invokes this feeling of subservience: “If
It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White.” The narrator understands this to mean
something else and says, “If you’re white, you’re right,” (Ellison 218).

At the beginning of this novel, the
narrator describes himself as an invisible man not because of some “biochemical
accident to my epidermis,” but rather because “people refuse to see me,”
(Ellison 3). He is also physically unseen as he lives underground and hides
from the world, as a result of the aforesaid racism he encountered as well as a
variety of other unfortunate events related – directly or indirectly – to the
color of his skin. Although he concedes that this invisibility sometimes has
advantages, it is most often damaging and wears down on his nerves. His
reclusive solitary confinement can be interpreted as a way of dealing with his apparent
rejection from the outside world. Invisible
Man was published in 1952 and one of the primary goals of its author was to
illuminate the insidious effects that racism has on the mental health of
African Americans. In 2017, a mounting body of research suggests that instances
of racial discrimination can have an adverse and long lasting impact on the
psyches of black Americans (Sellers et. al).

In a psychological study at the
University of Michigan, researchers predictably found that “racial hassles,”
not unlike the ones encountered by the narrator, tend to make life much more
stressful for African Americans. As a result, this stress leads to increased
levels of anxiety, depression and other forms of psychological distress, which
may cripple an individual’s capacity to formulate an identity. On the other
hand, they contend that “having race as a central identity is protective for
African Americans in the face of racist hassles” because doing so allows for
stronger ties between members of the same racial group while providing for an
effective defense against instances of racial discrimination (Sellers et. al).
These findings are significant because they suggest the resiliency of African
Americans; although experiencing racism can have a damaging impact on shaping identity,
celebrating one’s own race as opposed to suppressing it may curb some of these
harmful effects. The narrator reaches a similar conclusion at the conclusion of
the book when he decides to embrace his unique identity and reaffirm his
responsibility to his community rather than hide underground. “I’m shaking off
the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole…Perhaps that’s my greatest
social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that
even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play,” (Ellison 581).
Previously, the narrator believed that the 1,369 light bulbs of his basement
hole were the only things allowing him to feel visible. By the end of the novel
he emerged out of the light to seek illumination elsewhere, as a visible man
with a strengthened understanding of his multifaceted identity.

While the experiences of the narrator are
told through the lens of existing as an outcast in a white man’s world, The Blacker the Berry presents Emma Lou
Morgan as an outsider in her own black community. The two stories are analogous
due to the fact that each protagonist’s understanding of the world is at least
partly shaped by negative stereotypes about the color of their skin. For Emma
Lou, her luscious, deep black complexion is nothing more than a tragic curse
and a foundation for ridicule amongst her family members and acquaintances. This
unfavorable conception of blackness forms the very basis of her identity. From
an early age she was taught that black skin, compared to that of mulattoes and
others with lighter black skin, is undesirable. In many ways, Emma Lou’s
grandmother regrets her birth and sees her dark skin as the physical
manifestation of the failed relationship between her mother, Jane, and her
father, whom they refer to as “old black Jim Morgan.” Whenever her father is
brought up in familial discussions, he is remembered for leaving his wife
shortly after his daughter’s birth and deemed a “dirty black no-gooder,” and
Emma Lou feels as though his mere skin color ordained him to receive no respect
from others (Thurman 4). Meanwhile, she imagines a similar fate for herself as her
lighter skinned mother and grandmother continue to instill feelings of
inferiority in the young and vulnerable Emma Lou by telling her she will never
find a worthy husband. “Oh, if you had only been a boy!” her mother frequently
exclaimed. Seemingly, there was no place in society for a girl as dark as she,
but if she had been born a boy the shade of her skin would matter less.

The variation of racism Emma Lou
encounters throughout Wallace Thurman’s novel differs from the overt form the
narrator in Invisible Man
experiences. It has a name of its own, colorism, and its hierarchy dictates
that light skin is valued over dark skin. What is referred to as traditional
racism emphasizes ancestry and restricts people to a specific racial category,
while colorism furthers division by placing people on a spectrum ranging from
dark to light (Harris 61). It is markedly dangerous for its intraracial nature;
in other words, perpetrators of colorism often come from within one’s own
racial group. Thus, Emma Lou is fighting a dual battle as she navigates a
society dominated by whites as well as a black community that seems to reject
her for the color of her skin too. Yet like the narrator, she too is invisible.
Her white and mulatto classmates largely refuse to associate with her out of
this superficial color difference and she believes she is unseen by “the right
sort of people” in the black community. Early in the novel she becomes obsessed
with gaining the acquaintance of these individuals, and yet if someone had
asked her what she meant by “the right sort of people” she would have been
unable to give a comprehensive answer (Thurman 30). The audience is left to
assume she was likely referring to lighter skinned individuals, or those
hailing from a higher social class than she. At the encouragement of her Uncle
Joe, she departs her unaccepting Idaho town in search of acceptance at the
University of Southern California. Amongst the first people she meets here is a
young woman named Hazel Mason and although she is kind and comes from a wealthy
family, Emma Lou resented “being approached by anyone so flagrantly inferior,
any one so noticeably a southern darky, who had no business obtruding into the
more refined scheme of things,” (Thurman 16-17). She is an imperfect
protagonist, for she is often guilty of disseminating colorism despite being a
victim of it herself.

The beginning of Emma Lou’s time at the university
is characterized by feelings of confusion in her new surroundings, adapting to
new academic expectations, and striving for social acceptance amongst the “superior
and intelligent” African American women (Scott). Although she faces an assortment
of awkward encounters and dismissal by her peers, she remains hopeful: “She
would show all of them that a dark-skin girl could go as far in life as a
fair-skin one, and that she could have as much opportunity and as much
happiness,” (Thurman 25). Unfortunately, her freshman year of college leaves
her feeling discouraged and depressed. She returns to Boise, Idaho for summer
vacation without a firm grasp of who she is, but holds steadfastly to the
belief that befriending the right sort of people will pave the way for personal
growth. Throughout the novel, Emma Lou bases her identity around the acceptance
of others and when she encounters rejection her confidence and self-worth take
massive hits. After entering a summer romance with a man named Weldon Taylor,
she feels for the first time as though someone truly cares for her and prematurely
commits to the idea of marrying him. Taylor, however, eventually leaves town to
pursue work elsewhere and Emma Lou mistakenly assumes he left because of the
darkness of her skin: “It never occurred to her that the matter of color had
never once entered the mind of Weldon. Not once did she consider that he was
acting toward her as he would have acted toward any girl under similar
circumstances, whether her face had been white, yellow, brown, or black,”
(Thurman 37).

The true tragedy of Emma Lou Morgan’s
life is not the tone of her skin, but rather the colorism she faces in her
early life and resulting inability to formulate a true identity. It is no
secret that African Americans with lighter complexions have historically and
contemporarily been favored over those with darker skin, and Emma Lou was made
painfully aware of this at an early age. Her story is representative of many African
American women who for centuries have found themselves defined by the shade of
their skin. Sociological research suggests that African American women with
lighter skin tones encounter fewer societal barriers, develop higher levels of
self-esteem, and achieve greater social status (Mathews et. al). Comparatively,
women with darker features enjoy less advantages and opportunities and may be
prone to holding lower levels of self-esteem. Make no mistake, colorism is
simply another manifestation of racism and its pervasive effects date back to
the era of slavery. Slaves who possessed lighter complexions were frequently
granted the distinct “privilege” of serving inside the house rather than in the
fields as did the darker skinned slaves. Additionally, mixed race slaves and
those with lighter skin tones were frequently sold for higher prices at slave
auctions, further solidifying the notion that light skin was a more prized
asset (Mathews et. al). After the abolishment of slavery, these inescapable
sentiments persisted over decades and permeate society today.

it was originally published in 1929, The
Blacker the Berry is still a relevant text depicting the plight of African
American women. Young, impressionable black girls in the 21st
century are still inundated with ideas about lighter skin being more desirable;
one need only examine hip-hop music videos and contemporary cinematic films
that seem to solely feature light-skinned women to the exclusion of those who
are darker complexioned. Studies have shown that these pop culture depictions
may have a negative effect on the development of their identities, as children
begin to categorize individuals based on skin color as early as age six
(Thomas). From a developmental perspective, it is equally important to take
note of gender and how it relates to academic and social maturity. In 2008, the
American Psychological Association found that African American girls are more
likely than their male counterparts to experience complex discrimination, such
as colorism, in a school setting. Their study concluded that the presence of “a
strong identity may serve to generally diminish discrimination effects” while
the absence of one may exacerbate such effects (Chavous et. al). With respect
to Emma Lou, her lack of a solidified personal identity rendered her vulnerable
and highly sensitive toward matters pertaining to skin color. It was not until
she realized that she was partly responsible for her unhappiness that she
breaks away from Alva and her own self-destructive behavior. “It was clear to
her now what a complete fool she had been,” writes Thurman. “What she needed to
do now was to accept her black skin as being real and unchangeable, to realize
that certain things were, had been, and would be, and with this in mind begin
life anew, always fighting, not so much for acceptance by other people, but for
acceptance of herself by herself,” (144). Upon this recognition, Emma Lou
breaks free from the chains of colorism.

            In summary, both the unnamed narrator in Invisible Man and Emma Lou Morgan
grapple with the harsh realities of overcoming a society that values white skin
over black. In each instance, racism was the chief obstacle in their quests to conceptualize
their personal identities and they are only successful in doing so once they
accept who they are. Despite the fact that these stories were told during the
literary period of the Harlem Renaissance, the issues within them are still
relevant today. Ellison and Thurman recognize the uniqueness and beauty of
black identity and encourage their readers to do the same, all while poetically
and symbolically describing the difficulties one may encounter along the way. The
authors’ dichotomies of whiteness versus non-whiteness and blackness versus
darker blackness, respectively, encompass what W.E.B. DuBois deemed “the
problem of the color line.” This color line, reinforced over years of racial
inequality and feelings of inferiority amongst African Americans, pits lighter
skin colors against darker ones and has destructive consequences on formulating
one’s identity (Harris). Racism and colorism are undeniably cruel barriers to
personal growth, yes, but the aforementioned protagonists prove that they can
be overcome. As we move through the 21st century confronted with not
one, but many color lines, it is essential we condemn all forms of
discrimination in the present rather than simply cling to the hope that it will
someday be eradicated. Perhaps the solution to racism rests in the hands of
future educators, who would be wise to teach their pupils about the value that
resides in each of them.