Zora and the IM

The Invisible Man is also writing about his own experience as a black man living in America. While reading his book, I found some similarities with Hurston, especially in the beginning. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the idea that slavery ended. Ralph Ellison explained that “about eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand and they believed it”(15). Hence, most blacks were told that all American citizens are equal and benefit from the same rights, and everyone believed it. in the same way, Zora Neale Hurston argued that slavery ended sixty years ago (2). Both authors believed that slavery ended a long time ago but they kept acting that they were socially equal with whites. Although Hurston mentioned the first day she felt colored, she still does not believe that slavery still exists. Ellison was told by his grandfather that oppression still exists and that he was a subservient to white men (16). Something that Ellison could not believe and made him confused about white people’s intentions towards him, whether they want him to succeed or not. One strong evidence that slavery was still existing in their time is that both authors were used as entertainment for whites. Hurston was singing for whites to please them and get money in return. In her writing, she pointed out “They liked to hear me “speak pieces” and sing” (1). Hence, whites were treating her nicely because she was singing for them and pleasing them. Similarly, Ellison was invited to give a speech in front of some white leaders of the town. He wrote, “it was a great success. Everyone praised me and I was invited to give a speech at a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens. It was a triumph for our whole community” (17). It can be seen that Ellison considered that giving a speech in front of some white leaders was an honor for him and his black community, but the truth was shocking. Ellison was used as a piece of entertainment by whites. Ellison wrote “…I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment. The battle royal came first” (17). Ellison was forced to be involved in the royal battle instead of giving a speech and leave. The outcome is that Whites never looked at blacks as intelligent people, instead, blacks are considered as a source of amusement. For both authors, they thought that whites value their talents, but they were wrong. Anything that blacks do, they get something in return (money for Hurston and scholarship for Ellison) with the condition to please the whites. For me, this is a sign of aggression applied to blacks but in a hidden way.

The second similarity is how whites are threatened by blacks. Hurston argues that “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult. No brown specter…as the game of getting” (3) The writer confirms that whites are always afraid of losing their privileges anytime because of blacks. For Ellison, I think the fact that he steals energy from the white power company is a strong message addressed to whites. He claims that “I use their service and pay them nothing at all, and they don’t know it” (5). The outcome is that whites are not aware of black people’s potentials and intelligence. If Ellison were not noticed by the white company when using their service without paying a penny, maybe one day he could use his intelligence and gain political and economic power causing whites to lose their privileges. So, both authors want to convey that black intelligence is not to be underestimated.

See the source image

The City Can Change Where You Came From

While reading Invisible Man I noticed the development in the invisible man’s relationship with the black social justice movement through his relocation to New York City. While in the south the invisible man is surrounded by white people just trying to fit in. He feels as though he has to “cultivate friendly relations” with the “southern white man who is his next-door neighbor.” This is shown through his speech made at the battle royal. His speech is extremely rehearsed to the point where he is reading from the text without any care to what is going on around him. He seems to be a clown in the circus created by the white men around him however he continues to preach Booker T. Washington’s words as if he is reading from a script. He tells the black man to remain in his place in the era of Jim Crow by being a laborer and not advocating for further social justice. We can see that even when the narrator arrives in New York City he remains subservient to the white man, remaining in his place as a laborer in a paint factory. While working in the factory he observes that only a few drops of white paint mixed into black paint created the whitest white imaginable. He witnesses that whites are prospering on the labor of black people and this compels him to act. When he sees the elderly couple being evicted and essentially dispossessed in the middle of the street it is a great awakening for him. He wasn’t sure that heartless evictions like the one he was witnessing occurred in the north and it riled him up. However, his instinct was still to remain in his place and not break the law. He spontaneously made a speech for the whole crowd gathered compelling them not to attack the police officers and to remain the good law-abiding citizens they were. But when the crowd responded back angrily the invisible man actually listened to them. By taking the crowds’ thoughts and incorporating them into his speech he was transformed and became angrier with every word he spoke. The readers could almost feel him experiencing this turmoil internally about how he should act. However, his spontaneity and instinctual capability to connect with a crowd were what attracted the brotherhood to him. And as he is ushered into the brotherhood the new chapter of his relationship to black people’s role in America begins. New York City essentially changed the invisible man’s entire perspective towards how black people should act towards the law. Being in the city transforms him from a subservient, meek puppet who was not in tune with his surroundings to an advocate for the people, influenced by the people ready to act to get the fundamental rights that they all deserved.

call and response/antiphonal development

We explored today Ellison’s interest in antiphonal forms to link an individual musician/orator/writer with an audience. I wanted to share links to two blog posts that help us grasp this connection more concretely. First, the post I shared on Zoom:

More Call and Response

The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances. You can hear the antiphonal quality in this work song of the Mbuti people (Congo).

And second, a jazz-centric post from Lincoln Center’s blog. This one is more relevant in some ways, since the IMs performances in chapters 12 and 16 are jazz-like in their improvisiatory riffing, their lack of a “blueprint” as Peetie Wheatstraw has it:

Playlist: Call-and-Response

When Dr. Iona Locke joined Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy for a masterclass, she performed a rousing version of the tune “Walk by Faith.” At the end of each sung line, a small ensemble of singers repeated the song’s title, adding power and reflection to every one of Locke’s soulful sentences.


NYT article on blackface

Fascinating article about the persistence of blackface in our own era. As I’m sure you know, there have been numerous scandals recently exposing incidents of whites “blacking up” at parties: VA Gov. Ralph Northam, for example.

This article looks at something more subtle: the range of uses of blackface, ranging from utterly uncritical and exploitative to extremely self-aware and critical uses (e.g., Spike Lee’s brilliant film Bamboozled). The whole enterprise resonates powerfully with Ellison’s novel, which features many encounters with the culture of minstrelsy and blackface, taking very seriously its appeal to a wide range of subjects (including Mary Rambo, as we’ve seen already).

PSA: as CUNY students you all have access to the New York Times for free. Use it: it’s basic mental equipment for navigating the complex world we live in!