Ellison took home the National Book Award for his work 71 years ago today!
Originally published in 1952, Invisible Man was the first novel by Ralph Ellison, who was virtually an unknown author at the time. Written in first-person narration, the book explores the complexities of Black life through the eyes of a young, educated Black man. From the South to Harlem, Ellison takes readers on a complex journey of shadow work that uncovers the very worst parts of oppression and racism in America.
On January 27, 1952, the literary work earned Ellison a National Book Award, and he became one of the most prominent voices of the 20th century, effectively shaping the landscape of Black literature. In honor of the anniversary of Ellison’s historic achievement, we scoured the internet and hundreds of reviews to find 4 good reasons everyone should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man at least once.
It is a novel of shared humanity.
“Though I could not have articulated it back then, I was overtaken in that moment by an ambivalence akin to that which Ellison’s unnamed protagonist expresses in the final line of “Invisible Man” — “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” I knew intellectually, because Callahan had explained it, that the lower frequencies were the registers of our shared humanity. Through his protagonist’s voice, Ellison was making the audacious claim that he, a young Black writer in segregated America, could conceive a young Black character with the capacity to speak to the universalities of human experience through the dogged particulars of his own.” - Adam Bradley, The New York Times Style Magazine
The idea of being invisible is particularly acute for marginalized people in America.
“In 2012, I was a high-school English teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland, when Trayvon Martin, a boy who looked like so many of my students, was killed in the suburbs of Florida. Before then, I had envisioned my classroom as a place for my students to escape the world’s harsher realities, but Martin’s death made the dream of such escapism seem impossible and irrelevant. Looking for guidance, I picked up Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, which had been a fixture of the “next to read” pile on my bookshelf for years. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison writes in the prologue. The unnamed black protagonist of the novel, set between the South in the nineteen-twenties and Harlem in the nineteen-thirties, wrestles with the cognitive dissonance of opportunity served up alongside indignity. He receives a scholarship to college from a group of white men in his town after engaging in a blindfolded boxing match with other black boys, to the delight of the white spectators. In New York, he is pulled out of poverty and given a prominent position in a communist-inspired “Brotherhood” only to realize that these brothers are using him as a political pawn. This complicated kind of progress seemed to me to accurately reflect how, for the marginalized in America, choices have never been clear or easy. I put the book on my syllabus.” - Clint Smith, The New Yorker
The novel highlights the interdependency of us all and the complexity of identity.
“It is a novel about a paralyzed man, one who does not know where to turn next after struggling against and negotiating with a world that mistreats him, clutching desperately to optimism amidst his society’s insanity. It provides a good deal to think about, but no easy answers. It begins with the word “I” and ends with “you,” forcing readers to contemplate how connected they are to the stories of others, and, as his narrator says, on a deeper level than they might realize.” - D. Quentin Miller, WBUR
The lessons in the novel will be relevant in perpetuity and present a reflective moment worthy of analysis by young Black readers for generations to come.
“The novel works to protest against racism and the cloak of invisibility that is placed on Black people. It addresses the oppressions faced by people of color that goes against mainstream White society. In this way, Invisible Man is considered an existentialist novel or bildungsroman.” - Russia Robinson, Wordpress
Purchase your copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison here.
4 good reasons everyone should read Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” at least once. Ralph Ellison in Rome, 1957. Photo Courtesy of James Whitmore/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images