I am so grateful to have presented at the National Conference of Black Studies hosted here in Houston. It was my first professional conference and a career defining achievement, that only gets me that much closer to that long coveted Doctorate degree :). Because, so many of you support me, but not all were able to attend,I wanted to give everyone the opportunity to enjoy the presentation.Below, I have included a recorded excerpt of my presentation,along with the full document.
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It’s a Man’s World—The repressed women in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a sensational narrative that traces the African American journey to freedom, following reconstruction and leading up to the civil rights movement. Ellison’s work does not shy away from exposing unpleasant truths, regarding the struggle to obtain and secure self-identity in a country that relies on the power of stereotypes to protect social hierarchies.
The richness of the novel resides in Ellison’s careful unweaving of the social tapestry, through a system of reversals. In doing so, he seeks to expose prevailing conventions, which act as identifiers for many of his characters, and reverses them to present the dangers of typecasting people. One of the many stereotypes Ellison focuses on exposing as white myth was first posited in Fredrick Douglass’s essay “Why is the Negro Lynched”, Douglass argues that the social structure of the United States mob law, was initiated to terrorize and subdue black men, a premise hinged on the false need to protect white women from ‘the brutal beast black man’. In order to rebuke this myth, associating black men with an insatiable lust for white women, and casting white women as the virginal gatekeepers for freedom. He seeks to illuminate the inherent issues of stereotyping that leads to the oppression of individual identity, by creating one-dimensional, stereotypical characters to contrast against Invisible Man, Ellison’s unnamed narrator, whose namelessness representative of his unfound self-identity.
Ellison begins this mission of white myth busting in the fundamental stages of the work. In the Battle Royale scene, he positions the white female stripper as a tool to force the young African American males into submission. Described as a blonde woman with a face like an “abstract mask,” eyes the “color of “a baboon butt,” hair like “a kewpie doll,” and the American flag tattooed across her belly (Ellison 19). She is obviously, not seen as a woman at all. As this description distances her from their shared humanity. Her humanity is reduced to a mere resource that serves the agenda of wealthy elite white men, who have created a sexual triangle between the black boys the white women, and themselves. “By subjecting the young [African American] men to this performance, the older [European- American] men are able to exert their social power and allow them to ease their own anxiety regarding sexual and masculine superiority” (Zola 15).
The unnamed white woman is positioned as a figure of sexual desire, for the young men who struggle to hide their erections as she dances, she also functions as a symbol of freedom, symbolized by the tattooed flag on her belly. Her dance lures the boys to sexual provocation, a feeling compromised by the threat of retaliation, which places the young men in the life threatening position to be lynched, burned and castrated for the unlawful act of being a black man with the audacity to desire a white woman.
Ironically, Ellison, utilizing his system of reversals, tantalizes his readers by foreshadowing the upcoming evolution of the novel, by subtly alluding to the humanity of the woman figure. Invisible man, the narrator witnesses an unexpected likeness between himself and the dancer “above her red fixed smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror that which I saw in the other boys” (Ellison 22). Invisible Man, still innocently naïve, is unsure how to process the significance of their shared terror, but it prepares the reader for the confusing relationship he will continue to have with race and gender throughout the novel.
Ellison further articulates society’s perspective of Black men and white women in the Trueblood episode, which continues the indoctrination of young Invisible Man in the ways of racist, patriarchal society that bonds together in fear of black male masculinity.
Continually critiqued, and highly debatable amongst literary critics, this chapter reveals yet another taboo in American society: Incest. Jim Trueblood’s confession reveals an incestuous action, accidentally raping and impregnating his own daughter. Ellison is able to use Trueblood, Mr. Norton’s foil, to expose the true feelings of white philanthropy. Trueblood’s confession of raping his daughter, is a repressed desire that Mr. Norton struggles with, and causes him to listen with both ‘envy’ and ‘indignation’ for the poor sharecropper. Positioned as the novel’s trickster, Trueblood utilizes the mold of stereotypical ‘brutal beast black man’ to his advantage, by exploiting a false story for capital gain. The acquiescence in which White men agree to help Trueblood, now that he has confessed to this heinous act, highlights the hypocrisy of White philanthropy: A group of individuals whom accept the white man’s burden, but only in order to further denigrate the morality and humanity of African Americans.
Ellison’s brilliance does not limit itself to only one reversal, he also relies on this scene to artfully attack the characterization of white women in contrast to black women. This is exemplified in the purity of Mr. Norton’s white daughter, “a being more rare, more beautiful, purer, more perfect, and more delicate than the wildest dream of a poet” (Ellison 42). The pureness Mr. Norton describes, directly contrasts Matty Lou’s role of jezebel. A Black woman who allegedly seduced her own father, her character alludes to common assumptions that prevailed during slavery, suggesting “slave women were lewd and lascivious, that they invited sexual overtures from white men, and that any resistance they displayed was mere feigning” (White 30).
However, Ellison counters this stereotype of Matty Lou, and therefore all black women by humanizing her. Matty Lou is a mother, likely impregnated by the young man Trueblood mentions in his narrative, she and her mother are not lewd and lascivious as the formula suggests, rather they are hardworking and communal in the care of their family, and protective of their young children. Mr. Norton’s daughter on the other hand, remains dehumanized, and confined to the platinum frame her father carries. A critical symbol, representative of the confines Mr. Norton creates in order to control her expression of femininity and sexuality, he removes her womanly body and reduces her image to a head secured in an expensive frame.
The episode in its entirety, allows Ellison to identify who he believes to be the true perpetrator of oppression, as it is not Jim Trueblood or Invisible Man who insatiably lust after the white woman, but her own father. A reversal that reveals the true bearer of the guilt and lascivious reputation reserved for individuals of African American descent.
Unfortunately, the narrator is still unaware of the complex socio-physiological issues that these encounters represent. Ellison, attempts to bring it into focus for both the Invisble Man and the reader by utilizing the Vet from the golden day, the novel’s version of the Shakespearian fool, in order to educate Invisible Man to prevailing myths in American society, which continue to cast white women as symbols of freedom. “You might even dance with a white girl, “states the Vet, who explains that due to the nature of society, Invisible Man will have to enjoy symbolic freedom, rather than actual freedom. The veterans statement is reminiscent to Eldridge Cleaver’s theories, presented in his widely popular work Soul on Ice: “Every time I embrace a black woman I’m embracing slavery, and when I put my arms around a white woman, well I’m hugging freedom,” Cleaver continues to explain that this feeling prevails in society because the threat of death prevailed, causing European American women to become the ultimate status symbol (Cleaver 189).
The Vet’s statement serves to foreshadow the events that Invisible Man will experience now that he is migrating North. The first woman he encounters while there is Mary Rambo: The Black woman who nurses Invisible Man back to health following the explosion at Liberty paints. Pre-subscribed to the stereotypical role of mammy. Mary’s relationship with Invisible Man echoes the relationship shared between a mother and a son. Mary cares for, feeds, and houses Invisible Man as he recovers to full health, in return Invisible Man is appreciative of the process of rebirth, and feels encouraged by Mary’s belief that he may one day be “a credit to the race” (Ellison 255). To quote Carolyn Sylvander in her work, “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes.”, Mary is “not a real person in the book, but rather a superhuman force of good, of salvation, of virtue and hope, the means by which the Invisible Man is born anew into his Brotherhood identity, but of no interest in and of herself” (Sylvander 78).
Yet, Invisible Man’s actions are not a testament to Mary’s weakness and complicity with the Mammy stereotype, rather it is another reversal contrived by Ellison illuminating Invisible man’s delusion regarding his own identity, leading him to repress hers. Berating her for her hospitality, generosity, and constant faith in him, Invisible Man wonders “What were Mary’s problems anyway; who “articulated her grievances,” … She had kept me going for months, yet I had no idea”, a statement that subtly hints to the reader that Mary’s character is not being accurately portrayed through the eyes of Invisible Man (Ellison 277). Mary was not the Mammy figure Invisible Man limited her to, but “a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face. It was a most painful position, for at the same time, Mary reminded me constantly that something was expected of me, some act of leadership, some newsworthy achievement” which helped to center Invisible Man and remind him of his purpose, with both delighted and terrorized him (Ellison 258). Her true nature and the importance of their relationship is revealed during the final scenes of the novel, at the point in which Invisible Man finally realizes who he is, no longer running “from the Jacks and Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine,” he attempts to return to his true love, Mary, his center and the only person he can trust to empathize with his struggle to secure self identity. (Ellison 255). Yet another reversal contrived by Ellison that rebukes the ‘brutal beast black man’ stereotype that associates Black male freedom with the lust and possession of White women.
However, before Invisible Man can come to such realizations about Mary, he must first attain the false symbol of freedom expressed in white femininity. Invisible Man first aims to fulfill this desire through his relationship with Emma, the white female bartender who questions Invisible Man’s blackness. Immediatly, Emma rejects the stereotypes that miscast White women as agreeable and well- mannered. She looks at Invisible Man with a “direct-what-kind-of –mere-man-have-we-hear-kind-of-look” that reached beneath the surface of Invisible Man’s skin (Ellison 302). Implying a greater human element to Emma, which was repressed and confined to secretarial work by the wealthy elite white men who run the organization. Invisible Man cannot help but notice their shared likeness. First questioning her role “Who is she Brother Jack’s wife, his girlfriend?” and following up those questions by asking who he is himself, “What was I, a man, or a natural resource?”(Ellison 303). A statement suggesting that both Emma and Invisible Man are not members of the Brotherhood, but resources to serve the needs of the organization. They are human beings whose individuality is diminished and repressed in order to further assert the mission of the organization, one that is far removed from the issues of race and gender.
Once, Invisible Man realizes this, he seeks to enact revenge on the Brotherhood, by possessing a white woman. Sybil, his chosen victim, and Invisible Man’s shared struggle for visibility is noted early on, each are able to exit the party without being noticed, rendering Sybil’s identity equally invisible of that of the narrator.
Sybil’s character serves to represent the voice of white women, the way Invisible Man is representative of the black male, and Mary the unheard voice of the black woman. In the ultimate reversal Sybil confesses that she longs to be conquered by an African American man as she had seen in the movies, she further admits to fantasies of black men, and diagnosis herself as a nymphomaniac. A confession that contradicts the highly cited stereotype that justified the mob lynchings, which plagued the American South. She is not the pure beauty in need of protection from the brutal beast black man, she is the seducer. Sybil will not remain limited to interpretations of identity designated by society and their stereotypes, instead she voices an outright indictment of both. “Repression […] men have repressed us to much” Sybil states, she furthers her perspective lamenting that society has asked women to act unnaturally and deny to much of thier humanity. Invisible man is confused by her confession, and asks why she tells him this. Her response, “”Oh, I know that I can trust you. I just knew you’d understand;
you’re not like other men. We’re kind of alike,” alludes to the narrator’s struggle to obtain and secure identity throughout the novel, while also reminding him of the shared terror between him and the dancer at the battle royale (Ellison 520). Sybil’s confession allows Invisible Man, to finally see how the oppression he experienced mirrored the oppression of white women within the present constraints of society. Saddened by his realization of their repressed identities, she becomes his “too late too early love”(Ellison 528). She is sent home untouched, Invisible man returns to Harlem and seeks out Mary.
The stereotypical repressed women and their interactions and relationships with the Invisible Man, illustrate the various ways racial and gender identities have been pre-subscribed through certain projections of white society in America. The women he encounters are not wholly victims, as many of them display repressed humanity, they also perpetuate oppression by failing to see past the Narrator’s racial identity, each of them have expectations and ideas for the narrator—the dancer sees him and all men as a threat to her humanity, Mary looks to him for cultural advancement, Emma hopes that his blackness will help to serve the purpose of the brotherhood, Sybil looks to him to satisfy her masochistic fantasies, and the narrator in return fails to see them as more than an object that can be capitalized and exploited whenever necessary. Both are victims of the oppressive society set in place by White males in power. The novel’s use of reversals illuminates the physiological traumas associated with oppressed groups, who are not always capable of seeing the design society has set up by focusing on differences and stereotypical definitions to represent an entire group. Read through a feminist lens readers can see the many levels of oppression that is experienced by all subgroups, not only Black males, but all marginalized people. Desperate to free themselves from oppression, like Invisible Man, they are unable to see how they cooperate and operate in favor of the oppressive party.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on ice. Delta publishing company.1967. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. Why is the Negro lynched? Charleston, SC: Bibliolife, 2012. Print.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, Inc., 1995. Print.
Sylvander, Carolyn. “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes.” Negro American
Literature Forum 9.3 (1975): 77-79. Web. 15 Jan. 2012.
Zola, Alana. ““Something Warmly, Infuriatingly Feminine”: Racial (Un)Gendering in Ralph
Ellison’s Invisible Man”. 2013. Available electronically from