Within the first paragraph of Ellison’s ‘The Invisible Man,’ the narrator admits to have always looked to others to define himself. This unnamed narrator describes his eventual realization that he is nobody but himself as a “painful boomeranging” of expectations, which were not complete without the acknowledgement that he is an invisible man. This sense of invisibility and/or blindness is played out in the humiliating spectacle of the ‘Battle Royal,’ where narrator is forced to fight his fellow black students for the amusement of the white men in the audience. Prior to the fight, he and his fellow students are blindfolded, making them literally blind to what is going on around them. This could also be read as the same type of meekness which the narrator’s grandfather warned his father of of on his deathbed. During the one-on-one portion of the fight, the narrator bargains with the other black boy to fake a knockout and still receive the prize, yet is surprised to hear in response “I’ll break your behind (2435),” the narrator immediatly questions “For them (2435)?” The masks they are forced to wear blind them to the false genorosity behind the white audience’s motives, a suspicion which the Grandfather seems to warn of. Furthermore, their blindness mirrors that of the white audience, who in forcing the black students to act out their own racist and stereotypical views blind themselves to their individuality.
On his deathbed, the narrator’s grandfather warns his father of the thinly veiled walls set up by white society, and urges him to “keep up the good fight,” and to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins (2430).” While seemingly contradictory, I believe this urges the narrator to retain his resentment and suspicion of white society while wearing a mask of obedience and/or respect. Despite these warnings, the narrator (in this beginning chapter) believes that obedience and hard work will get him respect and praise. The Battle Royal and his speech seem to prove otherwise, and only illustrate his invisibility to the white audience, who care not of his academic accomplishments. The speech itself contains part of Booker T. Washington’s famous Atlanta Address, and the narrator even compares himself to Washington. Is this section of the book a major critique on Washington’s philosophy? Does it show the reality of Washington’s optimistic view of white society, where those who work hard are ridiculed/controlled by white society (such as the case with the narrator’s speech and/or the Grandfather)? Is the warning of the narrator’s Grandfather born from this realization that after a lifetime of hard work, he had gained neither respect nor advancement, or is it born out of something else entirely? If this is a critique on Washington’s address, what does it say about his assumed generosity of the while population?