The Invisible Founder
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has many reoccurring elements, in particular an emphasis on a societal blindness which in many ways mirrors a religious blindness. The narrator addresses readers in retrospect on how he came to witness this blindness in his younger and more malleable years. An instrument used to ensure this blindness on the young black men and women was the Founder of their college. His presence and formidable force felt throughout the school reinforced authority and discipline. The weight of his promise and dream loomed over the minds of students and all of those who reaped the rewards of such a dream. Throughout the novel readers may slowly come to recognize the Founder as a Christ like figure, a symbol and an invisible man himself—a man who is not really seen but who symbolizes and commands a conformity that weighs heavily on the narrator.
The biggest giveaway to the Founder’s religious cloak is the story of his life and death as told by Reverend Barbee. The story of the Founder’s two resurrections gives him a divine touch—among the rest he is exceptional. The young black students, as well as all of those who look up to him, are asked to faithfully believe in his dream, in his promise. A fragment of his dream that became a realization is the very institution they are privileged to receive an education. The institution is seen as part of the Founder’s prophecy becoming real. A “prophecy” that became real because he is regarded as such, a prophet, “And into this land came a humble prophet, lowly like the humble carpenter of Nazareth, a slave and a son of slaves, knowing only his mother” (118). He traveled around, spreading his message to bring his people together, leading them, as Barbee’s allusion to Moses states, “safe and unharmed across the bottom of the blood-red sea” and out of ignorance, shouting his message when he needed to and whispering it when it was wisest (120). His death is marked by a falling star, and the birth of Jesus is marked by the star of Bethlehem. Barbee proclaims in his speech, “It was as though the very constellations knew our impending sorrow […] For against that great — wide — sweep of sable there came the burst of a single jewel-like star, and I saw it shimmer, and break, and streak down the cheek of that coal-black sky like a reluctant and solitary tear…” (128). Listeners are moved by the Founder’s story and the dramatic manner by which Reverend Barbee retells the tale. It is this religious interpretation of the Founder’s story that holds listeners captive. They are not listening to the story of a simple man with a vision for their race but rather the story of a prophet delivering a message from God about the direction of their race. The story however makes the narrator feel sad, then annoyed and finally guilty of some sort of treachery by his part—as if the Founder’s story and promise are beginning to mean something different and he feels wrong and ashamed about it.
The narrator is justified in feeling differently about the Founder because he has become a symbol representing different things to different people. The Founder represents for the white millionaire trustees “blacks knowing their place” not reaching too high, certainly not at a level above them. With the Founder’s story and the underlying emphasis on his humility, the white trustees can remain good moral Christian men by allowing them to progress in a sense, while at the same time protecting their race and their supremacy over blacks. This is evident when Mr. Norton tells the narrator, “Your people did not know in what direction to turn and, I must confess, many of mine didn’t know in what direction they should turn either. But your great Founder did. He was my friend and I believed in his vision. So much so, that sometimes I don’t know whether it was his vision or mine…” (39). Mr. Norton states this as if the direction of equality to its fullest and truest extent were never an option, as if it were so inconceivable that it was outside of his field of vision. To black students and their parents however, the Founder’s message is one they had to accept for the sake of any progress. It’s easy to conform to this idea if it is the closest thing to freedom of opportunity the other side is willing to accept. White people knew that they had to give something and Black people needed something to hope for, something that would give them a sense of humanity. The blindness of White people is not seeing Black people as humans equal to them and the blindness of Black people is not believing in a better dream or seeing a better way, their perception is limited within the parameters of a white-run-world. So their blindness is not necessarily a blindness to discrimination and unfairness. When the narrator first introduces readers to the Founder, he actually describes his statue,
I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding (36).
The Founder’s symbolic status serves to blind people from the reality of the situation, from the reality of the dream. While they get to go to school, it is an all-Black school and while they work on their education, their opportunities outside of the college will be limited and their intellect and humanity always questioned.
It’s interesting how the Founder’s message could turn the man into such a double symbol. The Founder without a name, is an invisible man himself—his story, told by none other than a reverend named Homer A. Barbee, presenting him as a divine and pious myth rather than the story of a man in need of a compromise for his people. He is made out to be a prophet and his message a divine one, to reinforce order among the people. To continue fighting despite such a revelation is to revolt against God himself. Perhaps this is why the narrator feels a sense of treason and guilt for his doubts on the Founder’s dream and vision. And perhaps this is why Bledsoe presents himself as a humble president in public and reveals his true self in private. Bledsoe knows fiction from reality, knows the power of the Founder’s message/dream/promise on not only Black people but also White people. The message reassures white people that no further fighting will continue and allows black young men and women to believe that they have a shot at progress. Bledsoe knows that the symbol his friend has become has rewarded him personally, so despite not believing in the message he parallels a corrupt priest or disciple—a servant to his prophet in public whilst reaping the rewards of those he knows are blindly following a dream. This leads to the idea that the Founder, whose name we do not know, just like the narrator, is an invisible man—open to interpretation, corruption and mythology. The Founder is loved because he is a means to an end—a symbol of some progress, a symbol of authority and knowing “ones’ place”. He is a man that dared to stand up but not all the way up, he dared to ask for opportunity but stopped short of true equality and strived for the highest elevation no black man in America had ever dreamed, yet died before he reached the mountain summit.