Sunday, January 23, 2011

Invisible Man: Oh, Say Can You See?

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive posts: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

My Penguin Classic edition of Invisible Man has a silver strip (across the bottom of the front cover) with the Penguin logo, a white knockout of the author's name and the title in thin, black letters. Above this is a lot of white space with a small, tattered, black and white US flag in the lower right corner, which is flapping in such a way that it is shown "backwards".

The use of the flag on this cover, prompted me to keep an eye on flag references throughout the 581 pages of my book. When I started, I was not sure if there was a specific passage that spoke to this weathered flag, which there isn't, or if it was simply a publisher's nod to the content and an art department/designer's interpretation of Ellison's comments on America. Having just finished it, I think it is a bit misleading and spoils the evolution of Ellison's motif.

Invisible Man is a finely crafted novel and Ellison's use of the flag image is quite remarkably placed and developed. His first instance of it is in the opening pages as a tattoo above the pubic region of a "magnificent blonde-stark naked" who is present to get the juices flowing before a youthful and racist brawl organized at a local hotel for the entertainment of the town's "big shots":

I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear...Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked...I wanted at one and the same to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V.

Ellison does not mention the flag for another sixty pages. The narrator (at first, a student at a southern college for African Americans) chauffeurs a wealthy white founder, Mr. Norton, who is visiting the campus. Norton expresses interest in getting a close-up look at a former slave cabin, far off-campus, where he engages in a conversation with a poor, black sharecropper, Trueblood, who retells a sad and horrifying story of how he accidentally committed incest and impregnated his own daughter. It puts the fair Norton into a state of shock and he instructs our narrator to get him a hard drink to restore his senses. This leads the characters to a loose pub/brothel, the Golden Day, which is being visited by insane, black WWII veterans. A fainted Norton is brought into the establishment where he regains consciousness:

He looked slowly around him, up to the balcony, with its scrolled and carved wood. A large flag hung lank above the floor. He frowned.

If Ellison's flags are America, here it is disrespected amongst crazy drunks and perhaps it is reflective of how these veterans are treated. Ellison references the US flag nine more times. Arriving in Harlem and crossing paths with Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer, who becomes his nemesis:

Before me a gathering of people were almost blocking the walk, while above them a short squat man shouted angrily from a ladder to which were attached a collection of small American flags.

This is an interesting passage because the little flags support the "violent" Ras, who criticizes the government, which surprises the narrator because there are police standing by but are ignoring the man.

After the narrator's supposed prospects for work betray him, he goes to a factory where he is told he can find employment:

Ahead of me a huge electric sign announced its message through the drifting strands of fog:


Flags were fluttering in the breeze from each of a maze of buildings below the sign, and for a moment it was like watching some vast patriotic ceremony from a distance. But no shots were fired and no bugles sounded. I hurried ahead with the others through the fog.

This is where Ellison really plays on the metaphor of whiteness: the factory makes white paint for government.

The narrator fails in his positions and ends up, after a accident, in the factory hospital. After he is released, he comments:

It was day's end now and on top of every building the flags were fluttering and diving down, collapsing. And I felt that I would fall, had fallen, moved now as against a current sweeping swiftly against me.

The narrator has a change of fate after speaking up at a Harlem eviction, which turns into a public outcry/protest. He is recruited by the multi-racial "Brotherhood" as an orator and the flag becomes empowering in references over the next 130 pages:

We marched towards a flag-draped platform set near the front of the arena...

Then came the flags and banners and the cards bearing slogans; and the squad of drum majorettes, the best-looking girls we could find, who pranced and twirled and just plain girled in the enthusiastic interest of Brotherhood. We pulled fifteen thousand Harlemites into the street behind our slogans and marched down Broadway to City Hall. Indeed, we were the talk of town.

First, if you remember, when you watch our people when there's a parade or a funeral, or a dance or anything like that, they always have some kind of flags and banners even if they don't mean anything. It kind of makes the occasion seem more important like. It makes people stop, look and listen. 'What's coming off here? But you know and I know that they ain't none of 'em got no true flag-except maybe Ras the Exhorter, and he claims he's Ethiopian or Africa. But none of us got no true flag 'cause the flag don't really belong to us. They want a true flag, one that's as much theirs as anybody else's. "Yes, I think I do," I said remembering that there was always that sense in me of being apart when the flag went by. It had been a reminder, until I'd found the Brotherhood, that 'my' star was not yet there..."Sure, you know," brother Wrestrum said. "Everybody wants a flag. We need a flag that stands for Brotherhood, and we need a sign we can wear."

From this point, until the end, Ellison literally takes the wind out of the US flag, lowering it half-mast, in three more references, which either mark death or anticipate the violence of Ras, who eventually tries to kill the narrator during a confrontation in a Harlem race riot:

There were half-draped flags and black banners.

...Ras the Exhorter-the last man in the world I wanted to see. And I had just turned back when I saw him lean down between his flags, shouting,...

And now we were passing the hero's tomb and I recalled a visit there. You went up the steps and inside and you looked far below to find him, at rest, draped flags...