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Black Consciousness in the Twentieth Century

Ralph Ellison began his 1952 novel with the sentence; “I am an invisible man. ” (Ellison 3) These five words summed up the way in which the majority of Black Americans felt about their place in society at the time. The Civil Rights Movement was still years away, and the caste of American society had placed the Black American near the bottom. Ellison’s work is a reflection of this time period in American history much as Hughes’ work also celebrates diversity while simultaneously interrupting the color division of America.

The self-awareness of the Black American was limited to only what the white establishment would allow – and in the majority of the country, that was very little. However, the essence for the change that would occur had already been born. The awakening, in the late 1950s, of the Black American would take place in religion, politics, self-awareness and literature. This would become exemplified by the manner in which women in the black communities were treated.

The rise of domestic violence was an issue, even in 1950s America – and in both the homes of blacks and whites. There would be, though, differences in which this awakening would manifest itself. For some, like those who would march with Martin Luther King, non-violence and pacifism would be the dominant tool to their awakening. For others, the awakening would come in the form of a religious rebirth, and strong assertion of their place in society. Ralph Ellison presents the reader to a man’s story about invisibility.

Unlike Orwell’s novel about an invisible man, the narrator of Ellison’s story is not physically invisible but his invisibility is brought on by humanities choice to not see him because of his race. The narrator begins the novel by stating that he is going to write his life story and so the reader is prepared to watch how a man is invisible. Ellison expertly decodes the truth about race relations in the story when the narrator is given a scholarship after a public speech, a blindfolded boxing match, and an electrified rug.

The narrator’s succinct interpretation of these coinciding events brings the narrator to realize that the scholarship was given to him after being humiliated and mocked and that the piece of paper, as interpreted by his dream, honestly reads, ‘To Whom it May Concern…Keep this nigger-boy running’. Thus, is the plot and the theme of the novel revealed to the reader, or strengthened. The themes of humiliation, subjugation, and circumstantial events brought on by society’s race relations and its inability to grow.

In another incident in which race becomes a reality occurs when the narrator is driving Mr. Norton around campus and they go to a bar frequented mostly by blacks. Mr. Norton passes out when a fight enraptures a few mentally unbalanced black veterans, and one veteran tends to Mr. Norton while chastising both for coming to the bar, claiming they know nothing about race relations if they think a well-to-do white man can come to a black bar. This scene illustrates the education of the narrator not in relation to academics but in relation to the way the world works when race is involved.

The tension between the two races is exemplified scene after scene of the invisible man’s story, and each scene ends with the narrator learning just how invisible he truly is where the white consciousness is involved. The truly revealing, yet subtle language used by Ellison is truly poetic in including the illustration of ‘Optic White’ which is shown when the narrator gets a low paying job at Emerson’s Paints whose trademark color is ‘Optic White’.

This reveals in the story that white is the dominant and desired color, while black is obsolete and not needed or desired. This subtle attention to detail extols just how imbedded the idea of prejudice is in The Invisible Man. Even when the narrator becomes the spokesperson for the Brotherhood they want him to lose his identity and break with his past, so it seems that the idea of heritage and pride that Mary taught him during his stay at her Harlem residence becomes and idealized version of self in the story.

Thus, the narrator seems to be twice invisible as his own race wants him to recreate himself in a different identity. It seems that Ellison’s story elaborates on the concept of not only identity in one’s own race, but the rejection of identity from both black and whites. In Langston Hughes’ poetry, this idea of race relations is further exemplified. In Hughes’ Freedom’s Plow this idea of race relations is best found. The narrator starts the poem by stating conversing about the strength to build and the will to build.

This means the ability of a man to build a future for him. The narrator goes on to state in the second stanza the ability of the man to dream and the possibilities he sees in the world, in the forest, the soil, the rivers, just as the narrator in Ellison’s novel perhaps feels before the mockery of receiving the scholarship, but the possibility of him in the future in a world where he owns his identity and has a true chance at a future instead of being degraded in a blindfolded boxing match with other black men for the amusement of the whites.

Both writers are speaking about possibility. Hughes goes on to state that there are difficulties in the face of building (building meaning the future of the narrator, which could be personal but could also mean racially). Hughes take an opportunistic approach in the third stanza by stating, “Then the hand seeks other hands to help” which means that unlike the Brotherhood in Ellison’s story, Hughes is painting a more hopeful picture, in which a community is involved to make building a future that much more viable.

Hughes continues this idea of hope, with the story of the ships coming across the ocean with slaves, and slave masters on board, each coming to American with different dreams, and ideas. The narrator speaks about the hands that built this country, whose hands and dreams made into reality they were, each seeking the same word, “Freedom”. Hughes here is being ironic in that everyone is seeking freedom in this poem, yet most are not free (slaves and indentured servants).

Hughes is talking about the driving force of power which comes from oppression as can be read in the lines, “Crack went the whips that drove the horses/ Across the plains of America. / Free hands, and slave hands”. Hughes is writing about the idea that in the creation of the land of the free, it took the hands of slaves to create the country from planting to textiles (cotton) and that was the driving force of industry in the country.

The invisible hands who clothed a country, just as in Ellison’s novel the invisible man being subjugated by the whites as well as the Brotherhood and nowhere is he finding his dream, a way to build anything. Hughes’ poem suggests that it took an entire race of slaves to make freedom and therein lies the irony. Hughes also suggests that community may be the redemption that a future needs in order to build. The unity of free hands and slave hands on the word equality is needed, as was written by Jefferson, or alluded to by Lincoln.

Hughes states that the dreamer, the doer must keep plowing in order to know freedom for everyone. For both Ellison and Hughes the concept of race is what drove their story or poem into the same realm of social issues such as race relations. Either writer may be said to achieve a succinct expression of race, its future, and its current sentiment from invisibility to freedom and recognition.

References

Ellison, R. Invisible Man. Random House. New York. 2002. Hughes, L. Freedom’s Plow. 2007. Online. Accessed April 30, 2007. http://www. poemhunter. com/poem/freedom-s-plow/

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