Elliot Ziwira At the Bookstore
“What did I do to be black and blue?” innocently asks the crooner Louis Armstrong, unable to decipher why everything seems to be ganging up against him, because of the colour of his skin, in a world where the tune of mighty evokes more boisterous mirth than the sad dirges of malnourished hope.
I am still is to read a book that has ever tackled head-on the sad reality of the void that exists between the colour divide, which has the bane of transmuting a whole community of law-abiding citizens into mutinous miscreants in a flash, better than Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952).
Little wonder why the book has quite a handful of accolades in its cap; the 1953 National Book Award for fiction, a slot in Time magazine’s list of best 100 English Language novels from 1923 to 2005, and a respectable 19th position on the Modern Library list of best 100 novels of the 20th century. It really exposes the myth of the American dream of a colourless society shaped by one ideological and idealistic realm.
Ellison’s offering is a masterpiece of well-knit episodes of fragmented debris of hope. It is a powerful, sizzling, and poignant piece, which evokes different sensual feelings of despondence, hopelessness, ire and dispossession, and yet creating an atmosphere of hope for the sidelined and stereotyped, whose dream of a free and fair world is etched on the receding horizon. Using realistic traits of modernism, a fragmented plot heightened through flashback, conversational language, symbolic elements created through setting and concrete metaphors, the writer traces the story of a hopeful and potentially potent young black American man of African descent.
The first person narrative technique used in the novel gives it a cinematic appeal as the reader is drawn into the labyrinthine tide of hope that the young man finds himself entangled in.
Born into a poor family whose destiny is shaped by the shackles, mutilations and molestations that resonate through their history of dispossession, the narrator feels obliged to make something out for himself and his lot. His determination to exorcise the ghost of slavery at the centre of both the individual and national discourses through education puts him on a pedestal that propels him onto no man’s land.
Thrown into the thick of things through his brutal experiences in high school, his travails in the slums of black existence, his graduation and his brilliant, but not so well received speech on social responsibility and equality, which he painfully endures after a heinous and violent boxing brawl meant to entertain the affluent white citizenry of the district, the narrator realises his invisibility as a human being in a seemingly cosmopolitan universe.
Nonetheless, the speech earns him “a scholarship to the state college for Negroes”, which marks his great potential as an orator and spokesman for his race. His identity, which is never revealed does not only become problematic, but it draws the reader in, as the story ceases to be that of an alienated individual, but that of a whole family, community, nation and continent.
His quest is to fight for his people through his on enlightenment as he says: “I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one point been ashamed.”
However, he is not unaware of their precarious predicament 85 years after being “told that they were free, united with others of (their) country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand”. Not that freedom and liberty are bad, no; but the only problem is that, like him, they believed it.
A turning point in the narrator’s dream comes when he is given a chance to drive Mr Norton, one of the college’s trustees, who are all white, who has visited. Unbeknown to him he drives himself out of his scholarship and college, when he takes him to the slums bordering the college.
He exposes the shame of the people of colour when he allows the trustee a chance to talk to one of the share-croppers, Trueblood, who got his daughter and wife pregnant at the same time. This does not only make the affluent visitor indignant, but it also establishes his resolve on the savagery and sorry state of the race, which wins the amused cropper a US$100 bill.
Unable to take it anymore the old and sickly white benefactor asks for whisky before he falls unconscious. The narrator’s decision to take Mr Norton to the Golden Day, a joint for imbecile former black lawyers, doctors, teachers and other professions as well as war veterans, does not only give the trustee a new lease of life; but it also exposes him to a lashing tongue.
The semi lunatic physician is able to diagnose his problem much to the visitor’s surprise, but he irks him when he tells him the truth about white and black relations. Referring to the protagonist he quips: “To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less-a black amorphous thing.
“And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force . . . He believes in you as he believes in the beat of his heart. He believes in that great false wisdom taught slaves and pragmatists alike, that white is right. . . His blindness is his chief asset.”
This exposure of folly, hypocrisy, deceit and gullibility does not go down well with the old white folk, especially coming from an inmate of the Golden Day.
For all his efforts the hero and his belief in the truthfulness of things as inspired by the ideologies of the Founder, finds himself at the receiving end of the truth as outlined by the seemingly docile and passive black president of the college, Dr Bledsoe. The president tells him: “We take these white folks where we want them to go; we show them what we want them to see … Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie.”
Accusing him of shaming the entire race, he expels him, but pretending to help him in finding a job in the north — New York — through letters to seven of the trustees. Before he leaves he tells him the essence of power and the dynamic nature of the truth: “When you buck against me, you are bucking against power, rich white folk’s power, and the nation’s power — which means government power!”
The politics of power revolves around the rich, so the narrator learns; who can use everything at their disposal — the media, financial muscle sex, drugs — to tell their own truth to a willingly receptive world. No government is more powerful than the rich white folks, who pretend to champion the cause of the marginalised, the poor, the vanquished and the downtrodden, yet safeguarding their own interests.
This, the protagonist realises when he is hoist by his own petard, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” who deliver letters to their deaths. The letters he takes to the trustees are not introductory notes of goodwill, but are meant to make “him continue in the direction of that promise, which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveller”.
The hero finds himself clinging on to a dream of becoming the next Booker T. Washington, championing the cause of the black people, yet believing that he is an American in a country that is not meant for the African, who feels attached to his Ethiopian roots.
His chance avails when he gives an impromptu speech against an eviction he witnesses in the black district of Harlem. The 87-year-old evicted labourer with nothing to show for his toils, and his wife, only wants to be allowed “15 minutes of Jesus on the rug bare floor”, and not a claim on the world that dispossessed them.
Blinded by religion they only want to pray and leave, but the well calculated speech articulately playing about the law, drives the angry crowd to mutiny.
The hero could have been an asset to his people had he known his identity and kept it, however, he finds himself an asset of the Brotherhood — a cosmopolitan outfit controlled by rich white folks, who believe in a scientific approach to the story of dispossession and equal opportunities.
Through their money, ideological indoctrination and women they try to hoodwink the invisible man into believing that his race stand for the common man, yet they want him to remain as poor and shackled like his ancestors.
At the end of it all he becomes his own man, disowned by the Brotherhood, which calls him a traitor because they “did not employ him to think”, but to be their mouthpiece; the new dispensation championed by the “black nationalist” Ras Exhorter, and his society, which feels betrayed.
With nowhere to run to, the protagonist ends up in an underground cellar compounding the dream of the freedom of the black race confined to the periphery of history by the mighty goons ganging up to frustrate them by snatching their best brains, soaking them in their soot and discarding them to dry in sun baked hope when their usefulness is sapped. The black man remains invisible because the world “refuses to see (him).”