“Keep this {Black}-boy Running”

The intersections of brotherhood in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man


Civil rights activist and lawyer, Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow published in 2010, offers fresh evidence on racial matters in the United States of America. Alexander focuses on the issue of systemic racism from the de-legalization of segregation onwards, following the 1964 civil rights act (Alexander 2012, 39). In fact, she claims that systemic racism has been disguised to cover up the workings of the justice system. Her theory explores how late twentieth century America has been silenced into believing the United States is a colour-blind society, when in reality, it is not (Ibid., 183). This false colour-blind ideology unveils the fact that African-Americans are devalued—secretly. In the late twentieth century, those who dared to voice racial experiences due to their skin colour, were silenced into an oblivion of guilt (Ibid., 2). Alexander shows that in a supposed equal society, shaming African-Americans for calling out discrimination is a strategy to satisfy economic, social, and political desires for the nation’s capital gain (Ibid., 18). What she calls the “New Jim Crow” is an investigative summoning of how the redesigned justice system of the United States keeps its capitalist ideals under its wings (Ibid., 11). Put simply, the reality of racism and racial inequality still exists today. In the context of this paper, the methodology under which the United States has been operating for so long such as portrayed in Ralph Ellison’s writing, becomes highly questionable. One central theme in the novel that fuels the capability to keep the African-American experience one of oppression, which in turn helps drive capitalism, is friendship betrayal. The protagonist naively entrusts people he feels hold the power to realize education and career opportunities. And in each encounter he ends up bitterly disappointed. Within these encounters, the protagonist is the embodiment of W.E.B Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness, where, irrelevant of the race of the helping hand, a falsified friendship is created for the sake of opportunity, but also, survival. In the end, he finally enters a space of deeper cultural awareness and racial consciousness. I am interested in how Ellison’s depictions of racialized systems of education and employment each show forms of systemic oppression intertwined with betrayal from trusted allies. My analysis, which is divided into two parts, is centered on how the protagonist strives for equal opportunity through education and employment, but cannot progress because he is constantly held back due to his racial status. Ellison reflects on the influence of the time to inform elements of the novel, creating allegories about racial realities. In the first part of my analysis, entitled “Controversial Allies in the Educational System”, betrayal patterns formed from “brotherly” friendships first allude to how African-Americans were treated during slavery, and then extend into hostile intra-racial relationships formed between African-American men. In the second part, entitled “The Bureaucracy of the Brotherhood in Employment”, the portrayal of a literal Brotherhood organization defies the essence of “brotherhood” by definition. The presented anecdotes will show that the making of black codes or Jim Crow laws, ensured racial policies were adopted to keep African-Americans oppressed in order for the economy of already-wealthy people to prosper. Thus, in the conclusion, entitled “The Effects of Brotherhood through Falsified Friendships”, forms of systemic racism that emerge throughout the analysis, circle back to, in a sense, identifying the culprits that enforce it—entrusted friends. Before presenting this analysis, the following summary will contextualize, historically, why Ellison embodies his characters through both W.E.B Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness and non-fictive elements of past events and iconic people. While both historicities weave the politics of mid-century racial injustices, the latter will provide insight about the Communist Party in the US, at the time, and how that reflects the Brotherhood organization in the novel. Going back to the early twentieth century in the United States, like Ellison shows in Invisible Man, African-Americans were resisting the pressures of segregation that were designed to oppress. In the Du Bois documentary, “A Biography in Four Voices”, several activists, writers, historians, and professors, among others, come together to illuminate the story of Du Bois. His perspective on Tuskegee University is an important point of representation in Ellison’s fictive college and character embodiment. Du Bois led the early twentieth century civil rights movement, and his popularized concept of double consciousness, from his work The Souls of Black Folk, dates back to 1903. In Du Bois’s words, paraphrased from the documentary, “wearing a double identity, is being born, a negro who wears a veil from white American advantage, where opportunities are not meant for [him]; and the other identity, of being American at the same time” (Massiah 1996, 00:02:32-00:02:40). Although Ellison’s protagonist is infused with this conscious awareness about his racial status and how to conduct himself as to advance, he ultimately cannot engage resistance against anti-black racism. The documentary also shows the rivalry between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, both of whom inspire the character traits of the protagonist and the head of the college in Invisible Man. Washington, also African-American, was the founder and president of what is known today as Tuskegee University, in Alabama, rendered as a college in the novel. While Du Bois was clearly a civil rights activist, evidence shows that Washington rather capitalized on the opportunity to gain investment on his school expansion project. In the documentary, educator Blyden Jackson provides the following insight:

Washington came to prominence when he came to compromise with wealthy white industrialists. He would remain silent on the issue of black civil rights if they would fund the institute’s manual and farm training programs. Whites seeked his advice and blacks including Du Bois questioned who is in need of research funds (Ibid., 00:20:14-00:20:57).

Historian Louis Harlon says that Washington did not view academic training as a need, but Du Bois valued it much more than manual training (Ibid., 00:21:14-00:21:42). Historically, this insinuates that for the benefactors who supported Washington, the racially based design of the Institute’s course offering would keep black Americans in the lower-class labour force, which in turn, contributes to drive capitalistic economy. Washington’s decision not to fight for civil rights equality in the spectrum of higher education is reflected through the values of the college president in the novel. For Du Bois, education and employment opportunities to aid civil rights were the weapons that African-Americans needed to arm themselves with; otherwise, the means of defence were very limited because the community lacked the educated capability to engage in conversations such as those Du Bois could have. The available means of defence against black oppression generally fell back on the bond within the black community, which Ellison allegorizes through the notion of the Brotherhood organization. Cathy Bergin, in her article, “‘Unrest among the Negroes’: The African Blood Brotherhood and the politics of resistance”, describes the emergence of the Brotherhood that Ellison reflects in his novel. She explores the relationships between the real-life Brotherhood and political parties, specifically the socialists from the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) (Bergin 2016, 47). The communist party clearly helped spread awareness about racism and defended African-Americans through alliance with the African Blood Brotherhood, but they were doing it to support their own political cause (Ibid., 50). Gaining members from the population of the African-American community was a means for the Soviets to attempt securing a national footprint, and such votes would in turn support the Stalinist initiative in Russia at the time (Ibid., 47). What the communist party was doing with the Brotherhood in real life is not unlike what the Brotherhood organization does in the novel. In relation, Professor Barbara Foley, who focuses her research on US literary radicalism, African-American Literature and Marxist Criticism, in her book, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, reflects on Ellison’s personal relationship with the Brotherhood, which was an African-American organization supported by the Communist Party USA in the thirties. Foley makes the case that Ellison supported the leftist party, through new evidence in the form of written letters that were made available following his death in 1994 (Foley 2010, 4). Letters to his mother reveal his involvement with the Communist Party USA, in which he expressed the sham and rallied against them. Foley speculates that Ellison denied affiliation and positioned himself as an anti-leftist for the promotion of his novel, probably recommended by his publisher, which would make him more reputable as an African-American author, in the white literary canon of the time (Ibid., 3). Although Ellison’s Brotherhood is politically agnostic, like scholars of Invisible Man, such as Foley suggests, the relationship to historical events and his socio-personal ties clearly relate (Ibid., 4).

Controversial Allies in the Educational System

In the South, Ellison flips the significance of brotherhood to show that the idea of empowerment for African-Americans relies on forced friendships—no matter how scandalous they are. Ellison invokes the theme of humiliation through both the scenes of the battle royal in chapter 1 (Ellison 1952, 17-33), when the narrator is tricked into a degrading boxing fight (Ibid., 18), and in chapters 2 to 3, in his adventures of chauffeuring a trustee around the school campus (Ibid., 34-97), that wounds him expelled such as shown in chapter 6 (Ibid., 136-147). The narrator is challenged through a series of tests in which he can never really pass, because the policies and values of his educational institution, such as those instilled by Washington at Tuskegee, are designed to repress him. The narrator navigates these relationships through the embodiment of non-resistance and allowing himself to be humiliated, such as suggested in the concept of double consciousness, to cater to the appraisal of the trustees (the school investors in the novel). The narrator fails miserably after a superintendent at his high school graduation befriends him into a scholarship scheme at “the leading hotel”—set-up to entertain “the town’s big shots” (Ibid., 17), who seek young black followers. The superintendent acts as a recruiter of young, fresh, black blood who appear assimilated enough to have the potential to manipulate peers into the leadership thought of black codes or Jim Crow laws. Upon arriving at the hotel, dressed to re-deliver his graduation speech, which is why he was invited, the narrator’s expectations are duped—and he is rather humiliated. He finds himself surprisingly initiated into a bloody fight with schoolmates to entertain a drunken wealthy male audience. Hopeful to deliver his speech, he submits to their desire to perform, what he calls, “humility…the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress” (Ibid., 17). The narrator fails at re-producing the speech because he is continuously inflicted upon by those allies who can supposedly present him with opportunities. Such as depicted in the following innuendos, Ellison’s metaphoric prose alludes to the cruelty and forms of torment done onto Africans during antebellum slavery. Upon arriving at the hotel, the narrator with his schoolmates are first “crowded together into the servants’ elevator” like sardines in a can (Ibid., 18), before being “led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get into fighting togs” (Ibid., 18). They have to undress down to a bare chest, thin shorts, boxing gloves, and are herded like sheep to the center of the room. The elevator scene alludes to how slaves were crowded into slave ships with very little breathing and physical space between one another. The rococo room’s connotation of the eighteenth-century period coincides with that of the start of antebellum slavery, where slaves were captured and taken to the South to labour in plantations. The anteroom conveys how chattel slaves were kept in waiting areas until they were to be auctioned or sold. They were shackled or tied at their hands, such as how the boxing gloves act as a metaphor for restricted mobility; such as slaves who had to undress into nakedness, like the assigned togs, to be examined like animals by their buyers, removing their worth of humanity and reducing them to sought-after property. Therefore, the befriending of the superintendent is comparable to how slaves were tricked into slavery by entrusting the wrong people. Following the legal abolishment of slavery in 1865, citizens of the North were more forthcoming in helping African-Americans gain their freedom, yet others lurked to kidnap or trick slaves into returning to the South, where the confederate states did not abide by the laws of emancipation, and threw African-Americans back into the pit of slavery. Standing as an exaggeration, albeit one that holds, the superintendent’s role represents a mid-century U.S. neo-slavery regime, where offering a scholarship (free funding) to educate one that fits with the narrator’s persona, is a tactic to gain investment into their supremacist ideology. Similar to the Du Bois documentary’s explanation on funding farm programs for capital growth, there was also a small space permitted to fund academia, but only for the select few who would benefit their motives in return. Thus, the educational system in the novel is rigged to honor like-minded people only, which is what Ellison insinuates because he reflects the values of Washington’s Tuskegee Institute where such allocations were limited. The superintendent tricks the narrator into believing he has unbiased potential, which shows the type of blackmail built into the infrastructure of educational civil rights. To Du Bois’s point, this type of racial discrimination led by so-called friends or entrusted allies, like the superintendent, is what Washington was driving. These benefactors referred to in the documentary reflect the town’s “hot shots” in the novel, who appear willing to aid the narrator, but rather torment him. Being a hot shot by definition means someone who is conspicuously successful, which translates to an individual in the opposite situation of the narrator. Ellison uses the terminology “hot shots” repeatedly to describe these men, which connotes a room full of overly wealthy men in extreme opposition with the narrator’s low class or second-class status. They taunt him and a group of other boys in their near nakedness. Again, Ellison constructs a mid-century new-age racial depiction that denotes the type of treatment that goes hand in hand with being African-American and of slavery ancestry. The boys are exposed to a naked white woman in the center of the room. At the time of the novel’s setting, for black men just to look at a white woman the wrong way was a form of self-endangerment. It could warrant being beaten or lynched. For African-American males, such predicaments were terror-related, such as the narrator describes:

Then we were pushed into place…A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around…, and in the center, facing [them], stood a magnificent blonde—stark naked. There was dead silence…a blast of cold air chilled me. I tried to back away but they were behind me and around me (Ibid., 19).

The narrator describes the fear of the other boys, with one of them literally crying to go home. This is not dissimilar to the case of fear for “White Womanhood” in Bergin’s article on the African Blood Brotherhood. She describes the imprisonment of an innocent African-American man, who was falsely accused of rape after simply tripping over the foot of a white female elevator operator (Bergin 2016, 2). The emergence of the African Blood Brotherhood was actually an extension of this case. African-American males were portrayed as threats to white women and viewed as attackers and unjustly prosecuted. Like Ellison describes, the “blast of cold air that chilled me”, is a common metaphor for death. It reflects the terror they felt as the narrator recalls “…the big shots yelling at us…. Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not” (Ellison 1952, 20). In this humiliation of facing a naked white female dancer, the narrator and his schoolmates exhibit the fear and terror that they as black males face, which could wound them killed for looking. The “big shots” clearly play the role of those who impose terror on young black males as a manifestation of racial power. This type of allyship contradicts the supposed good-natured intentions. It rather exhibits a form of cultivated emotional distress put upon African-Americans—from antebellum slavery right into the modern era. Ellison shows that for African-Americans, reaching any real opportunities meant submitting to the behavioral expectations of those who control the opportunities. Next, like slaves at an auction waiting to get purchased, they are all lined up against the rope of the boxing ring and blindfolded, about to perform a minstrel-like show for their viewers. They are commanded to hit each other in specific areas, while bets among the white men take place. They are threatened that if they do not, they will get beaten in return. During the fight, they are infantilized by being called a variation of derogatory names, such as the n-word and frequent interjection of “boy” (Ibid., 23-24). In one specific moment, the narrator hears a loud voice yell “I got my money on the big boy”, an opponent of the narrator (Ibid., 25). The narrator stops to think. “Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment of humility, for nonresistance?” He is then followed to a blow to his head that sent his eye popping (Ibid., 25). The narrator’s exposure to humiliation and terror, is the trade-off to giving his speech. At the end of the fight, there is a prize in monetary value in the form of gold coins, except that the gold coins in which the boxers scramble to recuperate off the floor are fake. This alludes to how slaves similarly had to perform for their masters to entertain them and were commanded like puppets to dance or sing—while they were ridiculed and beaten along the way. Like the schoolmates are summoned to box and made to believe there is a recompense like the gold coins, slaves were given false promises of payment, often in the form of freedom or emancipation of a loved one. Ellison shows a system of exploitation in exchange for compensation that entertains one party, but in a sense, is a means of survival for the other. Although the narrator’s enactment of resistance and humility through the idea of double consciousness is a baby step forward to help gain the desired autonomy; the enactment is also an extra layer of burden that weighs upon the secondary consciousness of trying to be American with no strings attached. This extra burden is inflicted by the men who run the educational institution and, as Ellison shows, sits on the shoulders of black skin, like the narrator. Moreover, the narrator cannot move forward without performing every single move precisely according to the satisfaction of his investors. In fact, it is ultimately a lose-lose situation where the award of educational pursuit, in this case, equals committing to non-resistance. The error the narrator makes in delivering his speech described below shows that the scholarship he receives can just as easily be taken away—should he utter the word “equality”. It is only after the boxing performance that the narrator is permitted to share his speech, but his disfiguration makes him fail in the delivery. Just when the narrator thinks the orchestrators have forgotten about the speech, they mock, and allow him to speak. The narrator’s head is severely injured, describing an eye out of its socket and a mouth so full of blood, that he cannot swallow while he speaks. Even while he attempts to speak, the audience is depicted to not having his full attention, some cutting him off while he is speaking, others laughing loudly. The disfigurement of the mouth full with blood is also a metaphor for reducing access to the voice in how slaves were typically incapacitated in varying degrees, thus robbed of their speech through brutal beatings. The men in the battle royal scene control the narrator’s ability to speak. In his weakened state, he becomes like a broken puppet whose strings get pulled in response to their interjections. In his performance where he can barely speak, he makes an error in the words he is reading, which turns the room silent and inquisitive about his intentions. He uses the phrase “social responsibility”, in which they poke fun, and make him repeat several times (Ibid., 31). As he gets cut off repeatedly and attempts to say the words again, he mistakenly says equality instead of responsibility. The reaction is that “[t]he laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness” (Ibid., 31). He quickly rectifies and repeats the correct words complying to the men’s expectations, nullifying the utterance of equality. This scene reflects how Du Bois challenged Washington because the values he instilled at the school did not promote civil rights. Similarly, in the novel education is not made available to anyone who strays from the old notion of “social responsibility”. Ellison reveals through this scene, that those who instill discriminatory practices are also the ones who award scholarships, but only to entrusted African-American friends who appear to assimilate to the values of Jim Crow laws—thus de-civilizing African-Americans once again, and disabling their constitutional rights. There is no room for the narrator to show opposing values, and he must tread cautiously and lightly so not to disturb the fragility of educational design according to black codes, and the instigation of his not-so-friendly allies. And although the narrator obtains a scholarship to the “state college for Negroes” presented to him “in the name of the Board of Education”, in a “gleaming calfskin brief case”, the superintendent who presents it to him, refers to the briefcase as a “first-class article”, which subtly questions whether the donors believe the narrator be worthy of it (Ibid., 32). In receiving it, he is praised to pursue his studies to “help lead the destiny of his people in the right direction” (Ibid.), which is in their direction, under their values and guidelines. To the narrator, the cost of being degraded is worth the symbolic first-class briefcase and fabricated friendships—an elevated status from the second-class citizenship that he identifies with. However, the superintendent’s role suggests a coercive force that holds power over the narrator. This is not unlike the slave analogy where masters owned slaves as property. And even more pertinent, not unlike the intention of black codes used to completely segregate and limit opportunities of advancement for African-American people—as a legality—right up to the civil rights act of 1964. Thus, these men who drive the educational system and befriend the narrator with a calfskin briefcase, do so solely for profit and power, with no real interest about the betterment of the narrator’s life and more importantly—personal goals—hence the extreme humiliation, terror, and brutality inflicted upon him. Without entrusting and abiding to the demands of these supposed allies, the narrator cannot advance because the educational system is set-up to racially profile and discriminate. The forms of abuse in the battle royal scene in relation to the performances Ellison describes denote minstrelsy, from being exposed to the naked woman, to boxing and submitting. Ellison questions whether the narrator can truly progress within an educational system that requires the acceptance of racial mistreatment, that contributes to racial internalizing. For the narrator “to know [his] place at all times” (Ibid., 31) is to behave in a manner where he accepts being reduced to a second-class citizen, and devalued due to his race. The narrator seems to advance in a non-discriminatory world, but the events within this scene prove the scholarship to be a fraudulent spectacle produced by anti-black allies. The scholarship is only good for the narrator’s assimilative attitude in a space designed with impossibility of ever achieving equality. This implies that the “hot shots” constitute a hypocritical community that rather discriminates against the narrator, thus removing all comrade credibility. With this idea in mind, Ellison then juxtaposes a scenario, which shows that ally-ship within the educational system is also a farce when dealing with intra-racial relationships. In relation to the Du Bois documentary, an intra-racial conflict between the narrator and the president of the college is a direct critique on Washington’s face value with his students. The narrator chauffeurs a trustee, exits the school campus and wanders into old slave quarters, because the trustee gave the order to be taken there. A series of events occurs in the slave quarters, and the trustee ends up with a mild scratch because a screen door accidently hits him in the face. Thereafter, the trustee is at great ease with the incident. Yet, when Bledsoe learns about the experiences that happened during the drive, and even after the trustee commends the narrator, Bledsoe expels the narrator. The trustee tells Bledsoe to relieve the narrator from any fault, explaining to the narrator that he has straightened things out with Bledsoe, and that he is not blamed—but he still gets expelled by Bledsoe (Ibid., 107). Like the representation of Washington who submits to school investors, Bledsoe is characterized to conform with the school’s values and accommodates constructed racial notions, turning on the narrator rather than helping him. Bledsoe’s characteristics are not dissimilar to Washington’s values for Tuskegee, that are reflected in the Du Bois documentary (Massiah 1996, 00:20:34-00:21:09). Therefore, like Washington, Bledsoe plays the role of the oppressor not only from within the educational system, but also from within the black community. Ellison shows the black-on-black oppression that fragments the nobility of brotherhood. Both Bledsoe and the narrator willingly abide to constructed racial notions, and therefore subconsciously believe themselves to be lower class citizens, which causes them to turn against one another. Bledsoe accepts being treated as a second-class citizen, which creates racial internalization. And the narrator idealizes Bledsoe because he aspires to be just like him. Given the documentary, Bledsoe represents Washington. Early in the novel, the narrator even says, “…in my pre-invisible days, I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington” (Ellison 1952, 18). Bledsoe’s accumulated hostility from enduring his own fair share of second-class treatment, makes him snap and expel the narrator from school. This suggests that oppression is an evolution where the act is bequeathed from one generation to the next; therefore, its influence, especially when solicited from within a community, prohibits advancement. A chain reaction takes place where Bledsoe’s treatment of the narrator is not much different from racial treatment he has encountered. The more Bledsoe degrades him, the more the narrator submits. The narrator has an outburst and screams, “I’ll tell him…I’ll tell everybody. I’ll fight you. I swear, I’ll fight!” (Ibid., 141) And Bledsoe replies “well, I’ll be damn!” (Ibid., 141) He sits back surprised and his reaction although the narrator describes it as outraged, is laughter. And he calls the narrator “a fool” (Ibid., 141). Bledsoe insults the narrator when he gets defensive, telling him he does not understand anything and infantilizes him by calling him boy. He says “What has happened to you young Negroes?…you don’t know how things are done….Why, boy, you can tell anyone you like—sit down there…!” And the narrator being “torn between anger and fascination, sits down…hating [himself] for obeying” (Ibid., 142). Once Bledsoe succeeds in forcing the narrator to submit and sit, he carries on with a power speech to further oppress him. Bledsoe protects himself because his decision to expel the narrator could in turn have repercussions. This suggests that there is a narrow window of opportunity for leadership positions within the educational realm, which, for Bledsoe, creates a selfish desire to sustain his power. Like the Du Bois documentary suggests, the problem with Washington’s approach, like Bledsoe’s, is that the opportunistic motives for the self take away from the desired prosperity for the greater community of students. And although Bledsoe’s racial affiliation with the narrator is “unbrotherly” for personal gain, an even deeper reflection is the reason behind his hostility. In other instances, the novel shows that Bledsoe may be the President, but when his superiors are around, he cowers into a submissive state (, 115). Thus, Bledsoe projects onto the narrator the second-class treatment in which he is exposed, so the intra-racial bond that could exist is erased due to his lifelong exposure to racial subjectification. The difference in values between Bledsoe, an authoritative figure at the school who takes out his internalization on the narrator, and the narrator, who plays under the same rules as Bledsoe, but naively navigates through interracial relationships, creates a conflict of interest that distances their relationship. Bledsoe degrades the narrator as a result of his own internalized racial abuse. He tells the narrator that he would protect his status for all the humiliation he had to endure. His tone darkens as he talks about how he laboured as a black man to get his position. Once he sees the narrator is locked into a distraught position, and could “no longer listen”, he laughs and insults him again. He says, “Your arms are too short to box with me, son. And I haven’t had to clip a young [Black boy] in years” (Ibid., 144). This time he calls him ‘son’ and while it softens the tone, drawing in a more personal bond for a moment, Ellison immediately interjects the next sentence to cut the possibility of connectedness and space for empathy. He calls him the n-word in the context of physical harm, thus invoking imagery of deserved infliction as a form of punishment for racial legacy. Also, addressing him as son makes him have more authority. The narrator’s reaction is that he “could barely move” (Ibid., 144). He says, “For three years I had thought of myself as a man and here with a few words he’d made me as helpless as an infant” (Ibid.). Calling him son instead of boy denotes a sense of ownership, as if the narrator was his property. And the sense of ownership together with his inability to move evokes intimidation, which also alludes to notions of slavery, where the black body is hijacked and reduced to the helplessness of an infant. Bledsoe fears the narrator may sabotage the school’s values and his work status, so he degrades the narrator to make him cower. This goes back to the Du Bois documentary that describes how Washington cared to please his superiors in exchange for a collection of funds that would secure his continued success. Bledsoe is more concerned with his self-status and personal growth than with caring for the narrator and community of students at large. Interracial relationships in the educations system contribute to shaping intra-racial systems of oppression through methodologies that create classism. This is what creates distance between Bledsoe and the narrator. It suggests that within the educational system lies not only systemic racism, driven by interracial methods of manipulation, but also systemic racism ideals maintained by supposed intra-racial allies. The narrator focuses on embodying the identity of non-resistance and humiliation during interracial encounters; but in doing so, he represses the identity that desires to promote racial equality. He conforms and submits, however, in his dual identity, reflecting on the one Du Bois describes as being American, only at times does the narrator show resistance against his supposed allies, such as mistaking the word “responsibility” for “equality” in his speech. And even then, it is an unintentional act of resistance. Ellison shows the repressive state that engulfs students, like the narrator, taught under the values of educational leaders like Washington who do not promote civil rights. Therefore, the narrator tries to move strategically in his double identity, believing that he can outsmart the system to claim his sought-after ambitions. But what he fails to recognize is that in all the humility he can offer, his challenges are more complicated than simply submitting because he cannot move forward without showing resistance.

The Bureaucracy of Brotherhood in Employment

In the twenties and thirties, the early era of segregation was a time where black-targeted hate crimes peaked, like being hung from trees, murdered, or being unjustly prosecuted and criminalized. Du Bois, among other African-Americans emerged with non-violent alliance tactics to empower the black community to gain self-sufficiency and defend their rights. Bergin, in her article, describes the case of Dick Rowland, the man who was imprisoned after he tripped over the foot of a white woman, and how a mob of white men tried to break into the prison to have him lynched (Bergin 2016, 46). From this instance, later arose the formation of the African Blood Brotherhood to defend themselves from physical attacks and to protect their families. The Communist Party USA (CPUSA) swept in and had a farce of strategies to ostensibly help African-Americans, which is not unlike the odd and vague strategies the Brotherhood movement uses in the novel. The narrator succeeds in securing a leadership position with the Brotherhood, but the Brotherhood is only using the narrator to gain members for their ulterior motives. He later realizes that the Brotherhood does not prioritize what is really at stake for the black community of Harlem. One morning he gets an unstamped letter in his mail that threatens him to “not go too fast”. The letter says “… remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down” (Ellison 1952, 383; emphasis in the original). The letter arrives after the shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer; thereafter, the narrator gives a spontaneous speech at his funeral, motivating the community to radicalize against police brutality. This causes the brotherhood to lose members, angering the top leaders, who show no concern or understanding regarding the unjust murder of the black man. It becomes apparent that the Brotherhood leaders are only concerned with acknowledging what matters in the black community when it is to their advantage. This suggests that the narrator can only progress at the speed that is convenient enough for the Brotherhood to stay on top. Manipulatively, the Brotherhood, similar to the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) in the thirties, uses the narrator as propaganda for their political agenda. During a heated discussion among the Brotherhood members, the head leader of the Brotherhood devalues the narrator for helping the black community with a real racial issue related to an unjust murder. The leader repeats everything the narrator says with sarcasm. Unlike the battle royal scene where the narrator is completely non-resistant and apologetic, in this scene a reversal takes place, where the more the “brother” is condescending, the more the narrator resists. He resists to the point where he never returns to the organization, because he comes to terms with reality as he ventures through Harlem and interacts with people from the black community. He ends up unrecognizable in disguise and participates in acts of resistance with people he meets in the streets that ironically includes destructing buildings. The buildings symbolize institutions that hold the policies of systemic racism within them. The destruction is therefore metaphorically liberating. Venturing through the streets integrates the narrator within the black community until he becomes ultimately invisible—like the rest of the community—in the eyes of their opponents. He resists just the same as the rest of the community, and also becomes bitter and hostile to the point where he identifies with them. Thus, in his resistance, he chooses to no longer work for an organization that deceives the Harlem community. In a sense, he is liberated because he no longer internalizes a second-class identity. And in doing so, he becomes invisible, removing his visibility and possibility to claim opportunities. The Brotherhood becomes a representation of systemic racism at its worst, a scam that claims to acknowledge and help racial matters, but only when it is advantageous to the organization. The interracial betrayal of the Brotherhood compares with the intra-racial betrayal the narrator faces with Bledsoe because in both cases they exploit his racial status. Bledsoe is his brother from within the black community while the top leaders from the Brotherhood organization are his brothers from the white community. The motives behind both Bledsoe and the Brotherhood’s racial exploitation relate to their needs and wants, in which there is something for them to either gain, or fear. While one oppressor is black and the other is white, they both exploit the narrator and humiliate him, for the sake of socio-political power that drives both institutions to begin with.

The Effects of Brotherhood through Falsified Friendships

The epilogue of the novel is actually the conclusion of the story following the scandal of the Brotherhood organization and becomes an anecdote for the effects of the oppression the narrator endures. Such effects are related to hostility and complete distrust of a system clearly designed to injure and annihilate the possibility for racial advancement. These effects further repress the narrator into an angry state, literally hiding and certainly unable to rise and radicalize the way he once was able to, because he is now rooting for the wrong party—in the eyes of his former allies. He is left with no supporters because he has sold-out members of the Harlem community, the only people he can finally identify with. Although the narrator goes through a major realization, he is further isolated because there is absolutely nowhere left for him to go. Not unlike Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” presented below, this raises questions about what happens to a man who has conformed in order to succeed, but then loses all sense of dignity, once he realizes his pursuit has been a sham:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode??  (Hughes 1951); emphasis in the original)2

The narrator ends up living his worst nightmare, such as when he dreams of opening his scholarship letter that reads, “Keep This [Black]-boy Running” (Ellison 1952, 37). This metaphor is exactly what happens to the narrator until a series of events with riots turns him confused. He starts showing signs of fear, paranoia, and hostility. The constant betrayal the narrator faces from his brotherly opponents, runs him literally into a hole in an underground basement below an apartment building, where he resigns himself—too defeated to confront his realizations that his resistance has enabled him to see (Ibid., 34). This suggests that the narrator certainly cannot return to the community he has betrayed, and he cannot return to the Brotherhood whose goal was only to use him. Ultimately, Bledsoe as a representation of the educational system, the black community of Harlem, and the Brotherhood organization reject the narrator. Following this rejection, he transcends into invisibility satisfying the notion of racial erasure. The narrator, when embodying values projected through Washington, is stuck in a society with little possibility for advancement. He is trapped within conformity that contributes to keeping him down, and there is no way to empower racial resistance in such an environment. The intra-racial and interracial brotherhood notion then becomes a form of masquerade, which means those who practice the role of brotherliness are only in disguise. And within these performances, the wealthy white school investors, Bledsoe, and the Brotherhood organization have no profound cognizance of the damage they are doing, because their acts and behavior have been solicited—even subconsciously—through the vortex of Jim Crow laws. Once the betrayal of Bledsoe and the Brotherhood become evident to the narrator, the anti-black racism and the racial exploitation that occurs surface. The Harlem community ultimately rejects the narrator who cannot show face once the Brotherhood façade becomes unveiled—the narrator naively sells out the community due to being conned into the organization. The practice of racism and discrimination within relationships, permeates from one group of people to another, since its seeds are planted in slavery from over four-hundred years ago, and continue to grow since Jim Crow laws. It begins at first a racial tension between two races, but then a turning on one another within the black community ensues. It appears the only way for the narrator to progress would be to do a complete turnover and engage with a political party unlike the affiliated one of the Brotherhood. Furthermore, the manipulation imposed through assimilation and internalized racism, as we see through Bledsoe and the narrator, hinders the civil rights progress that Du Bois was urging for, as portrayed in the documentary. Ultimately, the domino effect of oppression through supposed friendly relations reflects not only the black codes or Jim Crow laws of the time, but also Alexander’s New Jim Crow concept, where traces of segregation notions continue to creep into the playbook of America’s capitalist mentality. This is to say that the constant betrayal or discrimination the narrator faces within systemic racism, form part of the hidden agenda of United States politics—making the notion of brotherhood a metaphor for enemies within the state, a form of treason within its circle of trust. Such systemic racist values are embedded in America’s policies as projected in the exploration of the educational and employment themes of Invisible Man. Thus, the traces of such issues within institutional systems deeply question the struggle to acknowledge and incapability to truly defeat institutionalized racial injustice.

  1. 1The word ‘Black’ is used to substitute the n-word, which is written in the original novel. Due to recent debates in the media about the ethicality of emphasizing the use of the word, I have omitted and replaced it.
  2. 2Langston Hughes’ classic poem “Harlem” was published in his Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951.