Ralph Ellison

“Invisible Man” was the hardest thing I have read so far in this class. 

I want to discuss the difference between what, I believe, the grandfather is saying when he said obedience versus how naive the narrator is.  On his deathbed, the grandfather says, “I want you to over come ’em with yeses, undermind ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust right open.”  What I first interpreted this is that his descendents should falsely be obedient to the white men; that in order to beat the white men, in a way, that they have to kill them with kindness.  But on second reading, I thought that the grandfather might be saying is that by being so obedient to the white people, that in a way, they could be slowly rebelling against the whites.  The narrator, although, doesn’t seem to get this.  I believe that the narrator believes that if he is genuinely obedience to the whites, that he will get respect from whites.  In this way, I think the narrator is too naive for his own good.  For example, when he is blindfolded in the ring and he is thinking about his how he is going to deliver his speech.  Hello? You’re getting the crap beat out of you while all of these rich white men are yelling racist comment at you, do you really think you are being respected?  It bothered me how blindly obedient he was during that whole scene.  Even when he is delivering his speech, he still has this obedience until he says “social equality,” but I’ll get to that later.  Does anyone else feel the same way? Do people think that his total obedience is a fault or a way for him to get respected?

A real powerful part of the story is when the narrator says “social equality” instead of “social responsiblity.”  The narrator has the living crap beat out of him, is swallowing blood, and trying to give this respectful speech, all the while, the white audience is yelling and laughing at him.  When he said “social equality,” the audience reacts even more negatively.  Sure, they give his a brief case and a scholarship, but really what they are saying is that they are willing to put up with him as long as he does what they say.  When he is receiving his award, they say that he can point his people in the right direction, but they want him to go in the direction they want.  If there was to be social equality, then this racist white supremacy would be over and the white gentlemen in this story  don’t want that.

Did other people feel this way?  How did people interpret the ending?  Do you think the narrator will learn what his grandfather meant in college?

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2 Responses to Ralph Ellison

  1. elliejo44 says:

    I saw this portion of “Invisible Man” as a criticism of Booker T. Washington’s proposed way of gaining rights and respect for African-Americans. Washington was an advocate of vocational education, making the best of the (deplorable) treatment of African-Americans, and the emphasis of safety over equality. In fact, the narrator’s speech about “casting down your bucket where you are” is taken directly from a speech by Washington. The narrator adopts this view (which Du Bois thought of as submissive) in his life, and attains success, but at the cost of his dignity. By being agreeable and submissive and “casting down his bucket” where he is, the narrator gains the approval of whites and material gifts from whites but does not gain their respect, and he is threatened and ridicules when he accidentally mentions equality.
    Though I think it is difficult to interpret this story the without the rest of the book, I think that the narrator’s grandfather is calling on him to exploit the system that whites put in place for African-Americans until whites no longer find themselves as the sole possessors of power. What do you all think?

    • sph12 says:

      I agree completely that he seems to be criticizing Washington. A lot of the conflict surrounding Booker T. Washington’s speech was that he seemed to want to surrender to the whites and play into their rules and structure in order to try to gain social status. However, the grandfather represents those who have tried to live meek lives and still have not gotten very far in life. In a way, I believe that even the scholarship the narrator received was a critique of Washington in the way that Washington believed they should still to working in agriculture, mechanics, or craftsmanship, none of which require a college education. Even the scholarship was given as a way for the whites to control the blacks, and by the narrator feeding into that, he is following Washington which is what his grandfather warned him against.

      Another point I found somewhat interesting was what the grandfather said. He warned his grandson against being completely obedient to the whites, but at the same time seemed to realize that was the only way they could get through. It reminded me of the double entendre we talked about with regards to Langston Hughes in “Mother to Son”. Maybe the grandfather believes they can only take things one step at a time and should try to rebel against the whites without them knowing. Did anyone else see that?

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