“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.”
Thus begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that follows an unnamed narrator as he moves from the south to the north, spurred by necessity, curiosity, and the all-too-human hope that somewhere he might be seen, that he might cease to be hindered by racial prejudice and instead be judged on his own merit.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Angela Flournoy” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]I had not, at the age of eighteen, read a single novel that communicated as much about the tragic and ludicrous function of racism in this country.[/pullquote]
I first encountered the book as many people have in the years since its 1952 release: in class. I was a freshman in college, enrolled in my first African-American literature course. My professor assigned Invisible Man early in the semester and I read it over a weekend. Then I flipped back to page one and read it again. I had never encountered a narrator quite like Ellison’s—bold, observant, simultaneously cynical and hopeful, as quick to laugh as to lament. I had not, at the age of eighteen, read a single novel that communicated as much about the tragic and ludicrous function of racism in this country.
In his National Book Award acceptance speech—the first for an African American—Ellison said, “Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”
I’m inspired by the fact that the first novel by an African American to win the prize was one so experimental. Ellison desired to push beyond what he considered the conventional protest novel. He wanted to shed light on the issues plaguing African-Americans, but not at the expense of style, psychological complexity or plain old literary enjoyment. Invisible Man is indeed reminiscent of a dark fairytale; it is also part adventure epic, coming-of-age novel, satire and tragedy. It accomplishes these things on a formal level while still addressing urgent concerns, many of which are terribly relevant today: employment, education, fair housing, policy brutality, the treatment of veterans and day-to-day racial insensitivity.
The novel endures because in addition to shedding light on some of the nation’s oldest and most persistent sins, it is bursting with incisive, surprising language and unforgettable scenes. Who can forget the narrator’s underground lair illuminated with stolen electricity, or the factory that churns out “Optic White” paint? I return to Invisible Man often because it accomplishes so many things at once, but never at the sake of intelligent, moving storytelling.
Angela Flournoy is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Southern California. Her novel, The Turner House, was a 2016 National Book Award Finalist and that same year, Angela was chosen as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. She has taught writing at various universities and has worked for the D.C. Public Library. She was raised in Southern California by a mother from Los Angeles and a father from Detroit.