p.p1 find survival and resistance within this inability

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Nell Wood-Prince
AP Lit pd. 2
24 Jan 2018

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In Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the narrator’s blackness is rendered invisible to the white eye. Ellison’s idea of invisibility is constructed as an elaborate metaphor—the narrator is, after all, not literally unseen—the narrator’s invisibility is also terrifyingly literal. When and if he is seen, it is as less than human; he is seen as an object, or a token, or free labor. To gain recognition, he must relinquish the privilege of being seen as a person. But even as the narrator grapples with this condition, Ellison demonstrates that his invisibility does not rob him of hope or a chance at happiness. In contrast, Ellison suggest that though his inability to be seen has at times been destructive or oppressive, it can also represent a subversive position from which to resist oppression and domination. Ellison proposes early on in the novel, through the narrator’s grandfather’s speech to his father, a rethinking of the concept of invisibility as a position from which one can draw power. 
In his speech to the narrator’s father, the narrator’s grandfather suggests that subservience and flexibility is in itself a direct affront to the powers that govern the lives of the oppressed—in this case, white people. He encourages the narrator’s father to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” (Ellison 13). Essentially, he is commanding the narrator’s father to consciously take agency over the invisibility that has been to this point forced on him. The concept is not as simple as the narrator’s grandfather makes it seem; the inability to be seen has to be placed in context of the system that predetermines what is seen and not seen, and it is rarely clearly good or bad for the invisible person. However, by taking agency (as the grandfather suggests) rather than passively existing out of view, the invisible person is able to manipulate the visual field to their advantage (for instance, in the prologue, the narrator reveals that he is using his invisibility to steal electricity from Monopolated Light & Power).
By illustrating the development of the narrator’s identity and awareness of himself through his struggle with his invisibility, Ellison shows how one can find survival and resistance within this inability to be seen. Even when operating within the context of the larger systems of power, the narrator’s recognition of his own autonomy as well as other black people in a similar situation represents a deconstruction of the premise of invisibility itself. If the goal of rendering blackness invisible is to erase it from history, then embracing this invisibility is an ultimate act of rebellion—seizing one’s autonomy by disappearing from the view of those who would try to control it. The narrator’s inability to be seen is because “people refuse to see him” (Ellison 3)—a structural failure of the systems in the society he inhabits. The systems in power posit visibility as a condition of recognition and understanding, while certain people and the injustices they endure are relegated to the darkness and by extension purged from public thought. Essentially, because the suffering they undergo isn’t seen, to the larger population it simply doesn’t exist. Though it seems counterintuitive, the narrator’s home is brightly lit with power stolen from the society that would see him relegated to the dark. Ellison’s narrator sees darkness as synonymous with negativity, describing his past self as living “in the darkness into which I was chased” (Ellison 13). Obviously, darkness is what obscures the sight and renders things invisible.  But this obvious connection doesn’t actually connect all the way: Darkness is synonymous with negativity, not invisibility, because the narrator lives in a room full of light and yet remains invisible. This complication may be Ellison’s call to forego the obvious when contemplating subversion and resistance. Rather than the darkness he lived in before, the narrator now sees by “illuminating the blackness of his invisibility—and vice versa” (Ellison 13).
Ellison is presenting several concepts: while darkness and light are obviously opposites on the surface, their relationship to blackness and the invisibility that goes along with it are less obvious. If the condition of seeing is the “illumination of blackness,” then one can assume that a lack of sight results from obscuring blackness. So the narrator’s consciousness develops through the growing understanding that his blackness is an inherent part of the ways (and indeed the reason why) invisibility has been forced on him, highlighting the way he is antagonized by the systems in power. Ellison makes this concept even more tangled with the addition of “vice versa.” The narrator wants to “illuminate the blackness of his invisibility” but also obscure his blackness. In embracing both his blackness and his inability to be seen, he subverts the hierarchy of sight that would make him a victim—the hierarchy that posits those who are seen as those who are understood and denies understanding to those who it refuses to see. The narrator’s choice to understand blackness and the systems that make it unseen while still embracing his invisibility as a way to gain autonomy is an act of powerful rebellion and subversion.
Ellison expands the idea of invisibility as subversion by connecting it to music, suggesting that though invisibility characterized by dereliction and negativity, that very negativity can create an aesthetic powerful enough to write history in the face of the systems of power that would deny it.  He references Louis Armstrong’s blues as a form of “poetry made out of being invisible” (Ellison 8), characterized by its broken rhythms. The narrator cites invisibility as giving him a different sense of time, thus linking the disjointed rhythm to invisibility—he says he is “never quite on the beat” (Ellison 8) and that this sense of being slightly off makes him distinctly aware of the “points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead” (Ellison 8). The narrator’s identification with this slightly-off music rewrites history, stealing agency back from a society which would deny his existence entirely. Ellison describes the “illumination of the blackness of… invisibility” (Ellison 13). Just as Armstrong transforms his inability to be seen into poetry, the narrator contemplates whether his “compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white is thus an urge to make music” (Ellison 14) out of it. Ellison likens playing the blues to thinking through the ways that race affects what is and is not seen. He suggests that both are modes of coming to terms with one’s invisibility—in embracing the unfortunate condition one is found in, only to turn it into something hopeful and beautiful.
Unpacking the condition of invisibility can point towards new modes of rebellion as well, particularly through the idea of music as a function of invisibility. The narrator’s frustration, his desperate “need to convince himself that he’s a part of all the sound and anguish” (Ellison 4), calls into question the systems that render him unseen to begin with. If the narrator describe’s Armstrong’s music as poetry made from invisibility, and wants to make himself a part of that “sound and anguish” (Ellison 4), then maybe the act of hearing, so intensely embodied by the narrator that he “feels its vibration, not only with his ear but with his whole body” (Ellison 8), can serve as some kind of opposition to the all-encompassing visual field. This ties back to the relationship between music, invisibility, and temporality. “Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind,” (Ellison 8) explains the narrator, who is acutely aware of this paradox when he listens to “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue”; his invisibility is painted by the music that he feels so intensely. The experience of being racialized—the narrator’s invisibility, one and the same with the “acoustical deadness” (Ellison 8) of his home—is a visual experience embodied by the music he so loves.
This is not to suggest that invisibility is a dead end that can produce no rebellion or subversion; the predetermination of the music is not the predetermination of the listener’s passivity. Experiencing the music seems to offer some motivation the narrator to subvert his condition through its paradoxical embodiment of that condition. In the epilogue, the narrator has essentially come full circle and returned to the prologue. He finds himself “in the rear or in the avant-garde” (Ellison 572)—he’s not sure, but does it really matter? The society he lives in would like him to believe in a straightforward narrative of progress. But the narrator knows, as do Armstrong and the other musicians who play the “invisible music of… isolation” (Ellison 13), that time as it is experience by black society is not the same as time as it is experienced by white society. Invisibility is not just a condition of being unrecognized or unseen. It represents an entirely new consciousness, a shared experience that gives those who have been relegated to obscurity an intimate awareness of the cracks and flaws of the society in which they live, if only because they fell through those cracks. The inability to be seen finds its temporal analogue in time’s “nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And they slip into the breaks and look around” (Ellison 8).
If the experience of being unseen, unrecognized, is so isolating because blackness is antithetical to America, that relationship might point to a possibility for resistance. Invisibility could be a condition of being excluded—whether barred from the systems in power’s interpretations of what is to be seen and not seen, or from the temporality experienced by those systems. However, from this position outside of society’s field of vision, the invisible are able to form their own subversion. Unseen by society at large, and unwritten from that society’s history, the invisible are given the agency and autonomy to embrace their invisibility as freedom and create their own narratives and their own histories.


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