Graduation is an established social ritual in America and a central concern of Ralph Ellison’s 1947 literary classic, Invisible Man. “Graduation” means “tempering or refining something to a certain degree” and “arrangement in levels, degrees or ranks.”
In social terms, “graduation” could be read as the refining of an individual to secure a rank within a society. As the individual “graduates” through steps of the education process and the employment ladder, they often begin to recognize supreme illusions surrounding this process, the sublimation of self, and a dispossession of human identity. Overcoming disillusionment and social graduations to discover one’s humanity is the core of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a motif as poignant today as it was in the 1940s.
Invisible Man begins at the story’s end with an unnamed narrator hiding in an abandoned alcove beneath the streets of Manhattan, writing down how he ended up in this primitive isolation. His reflection is a series of revealing incidents that, in degrees, strip the narrator’s blinders regarding himself and the racist society in which he lives.
The “battle royal” is the first blow to the unnamed main character. A recent high school graduate in the Deep South, the narrator is invited to a gathering of local community members to repeat an award-winning speech about “humility.” Before he speaks, he is forced to participate in a “battle royal” fight with other African-American students at his school, all for the entertainment of the 100 percent white male audience.
Beaten badly in the fight, the main character then delivers his speech, but the passion and belief in his words has become robotic. The community group rewards the narrator with a scholarship to the segregated state college (modeled after Tuskegee Institute that Ellison attended for two years on a music scholarship). That night, the narrator dreams of his laughing dead grandfather when he opens up the scholarship envelope and reads: “Keep this nigger-boy running.”
The main character becomes a model student at college, “Uncle Tomming” to the influential Dr. Bledsoe to maintain his scholarship and open potential employment doors. He is assigned as a driver to an important visiting white donor and fails this task miserably when the donor wishes to see the real South. The narrator drives Mr. Norton to a local ghetto, where indigent Jim Trueblood relates a story of how he raped his own daughter.
Norton is overwhelmed and demands drink, which leads the pair to The Golden Day honkey-tonk where the “negro” patrons, a bit drunk already, shower the haughty Mr. Norton with ridicule, disrespect and honesty. After this debacle, Dr. Bledsoe throws the narrator out of college and sends him to work in Harlem with reference letters that turn out to be warning notes.
After several harsh blows of disillusionment, the narrator secures employment. His first job is at a plant that manufactures the “whitest paint in America” used to cover all capital buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C.
He is “released” from this job after he is almost killed during an industrial accident. He then becomes a speaker for The Brotherhood, a community group advocating civil rights. The second half of the book comprehensively explores the narrator’s thoughts and speeches regarding race and economic opportunity, along with the trappings of his new status.
In the end, the narrator realizes that The Brotherhood was also motivated by false morals: “After you win the game, you take the prize and you keep it, protect it; there’s nothing else to do… I had accepted the accepted attitudes and it had made life seem simple… It was all an obscene swindle.” The lies had extended from education to employment to politics.
With blinders completely removed, the narrator (like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground) hides beneath the streets to write out his full-spectrum human philosophy, one that reconciles the rage/damage/dispossession of a rigged society with inclusion/functionality/essentiality of the African-American soul to United States culture.
Ellison unites rage with inclusion, reconciles militants with Uncle Toms, as deftly as he blends the protest literature of Richard Wright with the European style of T.S. Eliot. The result is a complex integration of two worlds that vastly expands articulation of African-American humanity. Without this full expression, graduation dominates, rendering human beings as “invisible.”
Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Hindu mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, raising her family amidst the social gradations of 20th Century India.