Black Books and the Authors who Write Them: An Alcea Surrogacy Book Club

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

“I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. 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.”

— Ralph Ellison

Long before the 2020 thriller of the same name, came a different kind of horror. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a novel that contemplates the intersections of race, sexuality, identity, and our roles in society. Led by an unnamed narrator, Invisible Man, considers the agency of an educated Black man in a society ruled by an outright refusal to humanize him and a commitment to manipulate him. The novel takes a frank look at the misguided belief that education, obedience, and willful participation in society will lead to the respect of the white elite. This idea turns the notion of the “good black man” on its head and asks us to consider what freedom really means in a country bound by racial divide and trauma. As Invisible Man struggles to juggle white expectation and its consequences, it becomes quite clear that survival is dependent on a number of truths his education did not prepare him for. From white women’s overt sexualization of his body to white men’s exploitation of his desperation, the reader can do nothing but watch as Invisible Man acts as a vessel for the white community while drowning in his own.

Ralph Ellison was born on March 1st, 1914 and in 1936 moved to New York. During his time in the city, he began working for the Federal Writers Program and soon began learning from legendary writers like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. He published Invisible Man in 1952 and the work has quickly become a staple in American Literature and has continued to serve as a foundational piece for African American literature. As it explores the Black experience, Invisible Man asks us to examine our own roles. To look to our pasts, to contemplate the choices made today, and to fear the chaos of a future determined by others. As you read Invisible Man, consider the meaning of freedom. Consider what choice you would make to reclaim your agency. Consider, how you would choose to overcome the illusions you were familiar with to find the truths. And discover just how visible—or, for many of us, invisible—you really are.

By Madison Higgins