4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 3)

[Synthesis with “Caged Bird” by Mary Angelou]

I thought this poem was very representative of the IM’s internal dissonance in what he’s doing and in what he’s feeling. This something that we see throughout the book but in these hundred pages, we also see him assume another identity; one of a public speaker for the Brotherhood. When he makes the speech for the old lady who was getting kicked out, he got his first taste of power. Before, when he makes speeches, he was ignored and talked over. This time, he had the power over the crowd and managed to make the authorities lose ground. After he joins the Brotherhood, he is indoctrinated into the ideals of the Brotherhood and he’s taught to use the science-oriented rhetoric they use. However, with his newfound ability, he also has restrictions on him that he’s never had before. This is can be seen in how although the IM is “allowed” to sing, his wings are still clipped and his feet are still tied. They tell him that he has to make speeches the way the Brotherhood makes speeches (through an appeal to logos, not to pathos like he’s used to) and he was specifically told that he shouldn’t “underestimate the discipline [of the Brotherhood]” meaning that although he’s been given an elevated position, he is still tied to the Brotherhood and has to listen to what the group decides. This will come up later during the trial, which we will not talk about just yet.

Like a caged bird who sings fearfully, the atmosphere of uncertainty that surrounds his position in the Brotherhood and as he became more involved in the Brotherhood, a feeling that something bad is going to happen grows. The first big cue for this was in the scene where the IM was taken to El Toro in the middle of the night. There are several things that gave off a bad vibe. First is the calendar that he notices. The date is April 1st, April Fool’s Day. So, whatever is coming up isn’t going to be good for the IM as he’s been playing the fool the entire book. We know enough of Brother Jack’s character now to know that he’s in the Brotherhood more for power than for change as he treats the IM as a means to an end and not as an individual. The other smaller detail is in the name of the place, El Toro, or the bull in Spanish. So, effectively, the IM is getting bull and being played for a fool.


[The IM treated as a means in The Brotherhood]

The Washington Post on how the fate of the Dreamers was used as leverage for the 2018 funding bill (link):

AFTER ALL of President Trump’s bluster about his “great love” for “dreamers,” brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, it turns out he’s content to use them as leverage in a high-stakes game of political horse-trading. Mr. Trump seems willing to strip them of jobs, security and homes unless Democrats buckle on a range of Republican immigration priorities, including an even longer-standing object of the president’s ardor: a beautiful border wall.

In September, it was Mr. Trump who terminated the Obama-era protection for dreamers that shielded them from deportation while granting them work permits if they had clean records and met certain other requirements. At the time, he gave Congress six months to fashion a legislative fix; failing that, the president suggested he would act unilaterally to ensure their protection.

It soon became apparent that Mr. Trump’s passion for his base, whose anti-immigrant fervor he stoked in the course of the 2016 campaign, exceeded his feelings for the dreamers. Prodded by White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a nativist hard-liner, Mr. Trump has made clear that his price for helping the dreamers is steep — not just the wall and additional funding for border security but also an overhaul of the immigration system to end family-based migration and the visa lottery, whose beneficiaries are mainly from developing nations.

That agenda is anathema to Democrats and would harm the country. It’s worth debating the merits of expanding visa quotas to allow more high-skilled and highly educated immigrants, but that’s not what the White House is pressing for. Rather, Mr. Trump is more interested in tearing down programs than building new ones. And, as he made clear, he now regards dreamers as a means to that end. Democrats, he said in a tweet last week, are on notice that dreamers are out of luck “without the desperately needed WALL” and “an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration.” But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program cannot and should not be the mechanism by which the United States’ immigration system is refurbished.

The clock is ticking for Congress. The grace period extended by Mr. Trump to dreamers expires in early March but, as three former homeland security secretaries told Congress on Wednesday, the real deadline is mid-January. Unless a bill is passed and signed by then, there will be insufficient time to establish a system by which dreamers can apply and be vetted for whatever new status is available. Without such a system in place by March 5, dreamers will lose not only protection from deportation but also their work permits — a disaster for them and a blow to the businesses that employ them.

Many Americans may regard congressional dysfunction as a given. That doesn’t mean they will easily forgive a failure to protect dreamers, which would expose so many blameless young people to calamity with so little justification.

This article was written earlier this year when there was major concern over whether Congress would be able to pass a spending bill for the new year especially when the new bill would be cutting a lot of programs and be funnelling the money towards things like the potential wall at the Mexican border. In this case, the Dreamers were held as bargaining chips to get the Democrats to agree to the other “terms and conditions” that the Republicans put in the bill. Effectively, what happened was that a small nation of citizens was left as human collateral in a political game in which they had no say.

This, in a lot of ways, is what’s also happening in the Invisible Man. There are multiple characters who seek to capitalise off of the situation as it is with the black race and the white race. Even Brother Jack, the leader of the interracial Brotherhood, is in it only for the power. His view is very similar to what America’s Founding Fathers thought of democracy — they didn’t like it, stating that “The United States is not a democracy, never was, and never was intended to be.” Brother Jack thought the average man didn’t know what was best for him and that they needed some superior mind to guide them, much like how the Founding Fathers characterised democracy as “mob rule” and for a big chunk of American history, voting rights were only restricted to those who owned a significant amount of land and had to meet certain incomes (some would argue that this is also how politics are run nowadays but I digress).

In this case, the IM was used as a tool to gain support with Harlem and with his talk with Brother Hambro, the IM realises that they never really cared about Harlem anyway. Once Harlem was perceived as not beneficial to their quest of power(“weak”), they abandoned it. The IM then realises that to the Brotherhood, his race wasn’t what made him invisible, it was his “functionality”. They saw him as a tool and when they didn’t have a use for him anymore, they just threw him away along with Harlem. The mysterious letter he received is evidence of that (one of Ellison’s foreshadowing devices), warning him that while his work is to support the black community, his real allegiance should be to the Brotherhood and that if he tries to “go too fast”, they will oust him. It is like Trump having Omarosa and Ben Carson by him, both of whom, mind, the black community do not think represents their race and using that to say that he’s not racist. It’s like a misogynist saying he likes at least one woman and using that to justify that he’s not misogynist. So, as an educated black man, the IM is being used as a connection to the people the Brotherhood is trying to gain power from. He’s just a superficial puppet that smiles and stands behind the leader that uses him to gain something from his people and the IM was an unsuspecting host. Of course, Omarosa and Ben Carson was never the spokesperson that the IM was but that’s besides the point.

If the Dreamers weren’t such an essential point to getting the Democrats to sign the new funding bill, then they would have been thrown aside in a heartbeat in a similar fashion.


[On the mysterious letter that the IM recieves]

“Brother, This is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down. You are from the South and you know that this is a white man’s world. So take a friendly advice and go easy so that you can keep on helping the colored people. They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do.”

The first layer of meaning that I thought of when I first read this was, “Wow, what an obvious threat.” The words “cut you down” was written twice, that’s how serious it is. Yikes. This was the first clue that the Brotherhood wasn’t working towards the progression of the black race because, in this letter, the progression of the black race was merely a front; the real focus of its members should be in expanding the influence of the Brotherhood. The diction of this letter, the two appearances of the word friend, is kind of sinister. It reminds me of mafia interrogation where the inquisitor is implying castration or torture by fingernail removal all the while insisting that they’re here to help and that they can be trusted.

Besides the blatant paradox between the Brotherhood’s supposed goal and the obedience this letter is demanding, the phrase “you can keep on helping the colored people” as if they themselves weren’t colored leads me to believe that whoever wrote this was someone who would feel threatened if the IM got too popular and that they weren’t black. Of course, the obvious suspect would be Brother Jack; he has the most to lose if the IM does keep on going fast.

Another layer of meaning lies in what it’s saying about real life social movements. One side effect of social movements like the rise of black civil rights sentiments in the 50s and onto the 60s is that people see opportunities to gather an audience and through their audience, gain power and influence. Riding the wave, so to speak. This can be clearly seen when Ras accused the black Brotherhood members of being sellouts. They were seen as partnering with a group of white people who were simply using the black members to pull the wool over the populace’s eyes with a false ideology. Again, this is the question of whether people can actually affect change. People like Bledsoe only believes in power within the system. He would also be labelled a sellout. These are people who are, on the surface, protesting against the establishment while taking advantage of it as well which is why intersectionality is such a big deal when looking at issues like sexual harassment or racism because, in the end, different groups experience different forms of the same thing and have more or fewer options based on gender or race or income etc etc. For example, when women got the vote in the form of the 19th Amendment, those rights were reserved for white women. Black women still struggled under Jim Crow for decades to come. We see here advantaged people fighting against the thing they’re advantaged by while simultaneously also benefiting from their advantage. The most obvious current example of this would be in the increasingly popular beauty trends based off of black culture, in other words, cultural appropriation aka taking the culture’s characteristics while at the same time believing the culture is bad. On Kylie Jenner, big lips and cornrows are attractive and a ground-breaking fashion trend. On a black woman, it means she’s not as accepted because she doesn’t adhere to the beauty standard set by white women. Social movements are complex and contain many personalities, many of whom are actually sabotaging the group’s efforts. It is no different in today’s environment as it was in Ellison’s era.


Discussion Questions

  1. How have the words of the IM’s grandfather changed in meaning in this section of the book?
    1. At the beginning of the book, the grandfather’s words could be seen as a dying confession of the guilt he’s harboring over betraying the dignity and identity of his people. The IM didn’t understand why his grandfather said that and he didn’t until this section of the book when he sees really how the system, though professing its support for the black people, is really corrupt in its own greed. In Bledsoe, he was disillusioned about his mentor’s character. In Brockway, the old man clearly had a few screws loose. However, in the Brotherhood, there were no excuses that the IM could find to justify what happened. He’s followed the system even now, listening to a white man and accepting a name given to him by a white man. There is something strange about a white man appointing a black man to be a spokesperson for the black people. Isn’t the whole point to having the black people’s voices be heard so shouldn’t the black community decide who their spokesperson is? Before, the grandfather’s words had a message of rebellion, warning the IM from the system and the IM feels uneasy about it since he’s been taught to follow “the straight road”. Now, it is one of bittersweetness, of not realising soon enough or not having the strength to buck the system. It says something about the tone of the rest of the book where marginalised groups had to learn, either through their parents or through experience (the hard way) that there really is no place for them, inside or outside the system. That people are born in a skin or an identity that can be perceived as inherently wrong and inferior and not being able to get out of it. The IM had to grow into the realisation and it’s painful and ultimately, he breaks down and gets out of the system, believing a non-existence is better than conformity and degradation.

 

  1. What is the meaning of the Sambo doll?
    1. The Sambo doll in the scene was another one of the shock factors in Ellison’s book. It is a grotesque caricature of a black man. The IM notices that the doll is controlled by an almost invisible string. This symbolises the hold that society has on them in various forms of oppression and microaggressions that they often cannot grasp or articulate. The words that are used to sell this doll also suggests a degree of dehumanisation, a circus act, if you will. A toy. What I think Ellison is trying to get at here is Brother Clifton’s breaking point and it kind of predicts what will happen in the 60s. It reminds me of McMurphy’s plight in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Basically, both characters are pushed past their breaking point but they’re forced to live on in this institution called society. In McMurphy’s case, his death liberated the rest of the patients in the ward. With Clifton, there was no savior moment. All that signified his death was the pool of blood after he was shot. This was a man that became too self-aware and so he was punished. There are no saviors in this world. Really, the Sambo doll and what it represented and what happened to Clifton was the despair event horizon for the IM. I think that this was a bigger turning point in the book than anything else before it because it physically showed what the IM was experiencing over the last dozen and a half chapters and he was forced to come to terms with it and with that, came the same realisation that Clifton had (although the IM did take his sweet time about it even after witnessing Clifton’s death).

 

  1. Was Ras’s approach better or the Brotherhood’s?
    1. For this question, I want to talk about the historical context. The setting is the Civil War era. Lincoln was forced to make the Civil War about slavery (the details of which I won’t go into but Lincoln was definitely not the progressive guy everyone thinks he is). Since the slavery issue was forced, Lincoln had to decide what to do with the black people he emancipated. Some wanted them to be moved to Liberia. A minority thought that they should carry through and integrate black people into white society. Many others had opinions in between and a lot of them thought that the emancipation was a bad idea. So, those that wanted the freedmen to be moved Liberia would be Ras’s ideology and those who wanted integration would be the Brotherhood (if the Brotherhood wasn’t corrupt). Historically, integration won out and that’s what started to happen albeit at a painfully slow pace. The project to make Liberia a haven for freedmen ultimately failed so although I can’t say either approach was better because, to be honest, neither have the right attitudes, I would say that integration historically has worked out better.
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