Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

As part of this year’s JOMP recognition and celebration of the U.S. Black History Month (BHM) which occurs every February, I pulled this title off my BHM TBR which I had pulled together here. I had bought this a while ago at one of our trusty FoL Book Sales, and, as part of the aforementioned Black History Month and also as part of my TBR focus, I thought that this book, although a little intimidating in some ways, would do the job as my next read.

It’s a little like what I had expected, but then also nothing like I expected but overall was a significant read. Did I enjoy it? Umm. Let me say this: I think it’s an important part of the American canon; I think it’s a valuable contribution to African-American literature and it’s an on-the-boots look at life for one African-American character in mid-twentieth century American society.

Ellison was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, but pieces of an earlier draft were published as short stories across the literary landscape as far back as 1947. (Thus, there can be some debate as to when this story was actually published.)

I found it to be a very powerful read – full of passion and anger (rage, really) of the protagonist as he (justifiably) rails at the unfairness of his life and times. It’s also an intellectual journey into one African-American person’s experience and journey through life before the Civil Rights Movement, and as such, it was a tough read – not just from the intellectual/philosophical approach, but also because daily living was so hard for people of color at that time in the U.S.

However, don’t let this mention of high-falutin’ intellectualism make you turn from this novel. It’s also a strong narrative and bildungsroman of a young man’s experiences in the South and what happens when he ventures north to NYC.  I’d also argue that it meets the definition of a Kunstlerroman (which is a subcategory of bildungsroman but recounts the coming-of-age of an artist figure. I just learned that the other day, so thought I’d share.)

Ralph Ellison.

So – to the story itself. The narrator, an unnamed man, is introduced at the start as living in a cellar below-ground in a large city, his home lit by hundreds of light bulbs powered by energy that he has pilfered from the municipal electric company, payback (he feels) for society and those around him who do not see him as a human or as a valid member of society. It’s this idea of invisibility which is the dominant theme throughout the novel and it’s this idea of being uncounted and ignored that is the motivation for most of the protagonist’s actions throughout the narrative.

Since this novel is a coming-of-age project, the action flashes back to the narrator’s childhood in the South and his early educational years. As a college student, he attends a black institution and while there, is tasked with escorting a campus VIP around the grounds and the college’s environs. It’s here where things rather go off the rails for this poor protagonist as he tries to please the VIP guest while also exposing the visitor (as requested) to more unsavory aspects of African-American life in the area.

The ramifications of this visit lead to the protagonist moving up north to a large city in hopes of a better life, and he gets heavily involved with the Brotherhood, an organization of other black men with the expressed goal of improving conditions for African-Americans in the city. Our hero becomes rather a local celebrity, giving speeches for the group, but it’s not without its problems, including his own doubts about the true goals of the group.

Things turn to a head in the city, for both the narrator himself and for those African-Americans not affiliated with the group. Riots ensue, looting happens and by the end of the novel, the narrator is back by himself, completely isolated from others and back to being invisible. The final piece of the conclusion is where you, as the reader, can see the growth of the narrator.

It’s not an easy novel to read. The plot is linear for the most part, but the last third is composed of a stream-of-consciousness internal conversation for the narrator. Reading about this part I’ve learned that it’s reflective of jazz music (very loose and free structurally speaking), but from my own reading perspective, it was pretty confusing. Now I’ve read it, I can go back and see what the narrator was explaining but when I was actually reading it, there were several times when I needed to reread different passages to try to keep up with what was going on.

One of my own problems in appreciating this read is that Ellison hearkens back to lit influences with which I’m not familiar (or don’t really appreciate): T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (bleugh), William Faulkner (yuck) and Ernest Hemingway (double yuck),

Again, don’t let this stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful read and an important title to experience. Just know that it’s got this non-linear tendency in places and good luck at the end…! 🙂

I am very glad that I’ve finally read this now I’ve finished the novel. It plays an influential part in African-American literature and political thought. It’s also highly unlikely that I’ll read this again though. :-}

Note and FYI: There are two different “Invisible Man” books out there: this one (called Invisible Man – no “The”) is the Ellison one. The other one is very different and titled “The Invisible Man” a scifi novel by H.G. Wells published in 1897. (Haven’t got to the Victorian one yet.)

The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

“When this book was first published, I hoped it would soon become only a history of what racism used to be. I feel profound regret that it has not.” Lois Mark Stalvey.

When I was reading through “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) last semester, I found it to be an amazing resource for several things, one of which happened to be a bibliography of further reading. That’s where I came across mention of Stalvey’s book, considered by some to be a historical publishing landmark in terms of sociology and racial awareness in the U.S.

Piqued by the title, I tracked it down in the university library… And then, I even read it. 🙂

A biography of sorts, a journey in many ways, Stalvey’s book recounts her (and her family’s) gradual awareness of racism in its many forms in the U.S. in the 1960s. At first just living on the peripheral edge of racism’s impact, the Stalvey family (who were White and who are led mostly by Lois) slowly become more knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Movement and its importance. Seeing it negatively impact their friends, family and community, this social “awakening” (of sorts) leads to a solid commitment to Stalvey and her husband to become deeply involved in the issue. And involved they get. The family jumps in with both feet first.

This autobiography of a family’s experience of one of the most troubling social ills of our time was eye-opening for me in several ways. I used to think I am quite informed about the issue on the whole, but to actually LIVE it, every day… To commit your family to the cause with such focus is the stuff of legend. The Stalvey family didn’t just walk the walk.

It’s especially amazing when one considers the time period when this occurred. It’s the early 1960s. Racism is rampant throughout the country. Segregation is widespread throughout the American culture and there is a lot of societal resistance to any changing of the ways (notably from the whites). There are increasing pockets of violence and unrest in the larger cities, and the U.S. is facing one of its toughest challenges: how to integrate (or even if they should integrate). It reads as though the place is a tinderbox (which it was in many ways).

As the book continues, you read about the family and their efforts to effect change: among their friends, in the community, and in the larger area of federal impact (such as housing and education). The family face ongoing racist resistance from their neighbors; they lose friends and have to move to different cities from time to time, but their commitment doesn’t waiver. (They are scared. They are worried. But they don’t lose their bravery.)

Looking back at this time from the twenty-first century, it’s very sad and disheartening to see how far we haven’t come. The Civil Rights Movement was more than 60 years ago, and the country has improved in some ways. That’s true. But reading this book was a constant reminder of yet how far the U.S. has to travel to make the promises of yesteryear come true.

This was an astonishing and very sad read for me. It has removed any doubts I may have had about how societally-entrenched racism and other social ills are in the fabric of our world here in America, and I finished the book feeling rather low about any hopes for change in the future.

But you have to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and keep on truckin’. Change comes. It may not come on my timetable, but its forward movement is incremental but inevitable. Educate yourself first. Then do something about the world around you. It’s evolving, but crikey. It’s slow.

Step by step…

Travel: The Civil Rights Movement of Memphis

Relating back to our Spring Break trip to Memphis:

We not only went there for Elvis and the other musical connections, but also because it is home to the National Civil Rights Museum and the historic Lorraine Motel, outside of which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a sentinel event in the history of civil rights in America. 

Although I’ve lived here in the U.S. for a long time now, I’m still continually surprised by how much life is impacted by racial issues in this country. I know that I shouldn’t be that surprised – after all, the U.S. has had a long, difficult and complicated history of race relations and TBH, England was also complicit in that trade, so it’s not as though England is above that. It just seems to be much more of a recent event that impacts ordinary everyday life, but perhaps that is just me who feels this way. (Very well could be.) 

So it was important to me to make time to visit and pay homage to the city which played an integral part of this movement, so off we trundled (via Uber) to the National Civil Rights Museum, a modest and rather unassuming building that is added to the original site of the Lorraine Motel (including the marked balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.) 

You do have to make an extra effort to get to this site, as it doesn’t seem to be very close to any of the other attractions, but I could be mistaken on that. (It just seemed quite a long drive in the Uber.)

It’s in part of the older section of Memphis with lots of red brick buildings and smaller roads, but despite this location, the area was busy with tourists. Not a whole ton of places to sit down and have a cup of coffee or anything, so might want to keep that in mind when you’re dropped off there. (I think there was a vending machine, but there was definitely a very limited selection if you need a respite and some munchies.) 

But we weren’t there to eat. We were there to pay our respects to a fallen civil rights icon, and so to be at the actual site of one of the most important civil rights events in the nation was very impressive. (We also happened to be visiting around the same date in the calendar only fifty years later.)

The Lorraine Motel’s exterior has been kept exactly the same as though time has stopped, and even includes period-appropriate cars that sit in the parking lot under the balcony and the rooms. There’s a huge permanent wreath in that location, and it’s really quite a place for awe and respect with a rather hushed and well-behaved crowd around it. It’s more of a hallowed ground than tourist haven, and generally, people seemed to appreciate that. (I was pretty impressed with this, to be honest.) 

Although you can’t actually go into the hotel room, you can visit the neighboring museum to learn more through interactive exhibits. Inside the museum, it’s not as big as I had expected but the exhibits and general curation were to a high professional standard. I rather get the impression that this museum is a labor of love from a small community group rather than a big museum association. That doesn’t dilute the message in any way, but may be one explanation for the size. I’m not sure. 

The message of the civil rights movement is conveyed through mostly displays and it can take as long (or as short) as you’d like as you are given time to consider your thoughts in relation to the exhibits. It’s a steady stream of visitors and I recommend that you don’t be in a big hurry when you visit here as there is a lot of moseying around (at least when I was there). Plus – school kid groups as well, so there’s quite high traffic. 

However, don’t let that put you off. The museum is worth visiting, and once you see the location of King’s murder and can put it into context with the rest of the civil rights history, it’s a powerful experience. 

So – that was a good and thought-provoking afternoon. 

We also visited Beale Street that day, an old wide street that has some really interesting history, but I think it’s more of a nightclub scene now than anything else. (Some interesting public art displays as well as one of the most curious general merchandise stores I’ve ever visited, but you might want to stay aware as we came across some rather rough-looking people as well.) 

So, our overall experience of Memphis was really good, and I really recommend a visit if you’re interested. What really elevated the trip was the fact that everywhere we went, we were met with kind and generous people. Honestly – it was the people who made the difference here. 

For our other Memphis shenanigans, check out this post.

March: Book One – John Lewis/Nate Powell (2013)

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Poking around on the interwebs, I came across this graphic novel title and seeing as I was in the mood for a little sequential art, I picked it up at the library. As this was also an autobiography of a leading Civil Rights activist and U.S. Congress person John Lewis, it also was right up my alley for the Black History Month project as well. Win-Win!

I was not familiar with John Lewis, but learned a lot about his life and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement via this graphic novel and loved reading it. And it wasn’t all about Lewis – I learned about the fledgling  civil rights movement, how and where the activity started, and who was whom in the struggle.

This GN is number one in a projected trilogy, with Book Two just published this year, I think. (I have already asked for it via inter-library loan as I am so intrigued by Lewis’ later life and activism.) Lewis was born to a sharecropper in rural Alabama, he met Martin Luther King, Jr., and was involved with the Nashville Student Movement and the burgeoning sit-in movement that was just about to spread across the country. Non-violence was the name of the game, although obviously not everyone stuck to those rules. (Understatement of the year.)

This is a serious book about a serious subject, and yet it’s palatable for even a reluctant reader and the learning is camouflaged inside the graphic illustrations and the actual story. It’s about Lewis, for sure, but it’s also about activism, about the unsung heroes who sat at the lunch counters and who wouldn’t move, about Gandhi and his non-violence philosophy, and about getting some basic rights for people who were as American as anyone who is born on this soil.

So, this was a great read for me, and, clearly, it would be a super read for anyone looking to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, about the Jim Crow years, about the 1950’s and 1960’s in the U.S., and all from the perspective of someone who was there and who lived this.

If you can’t tell, I loved this graphic novel and can’t wait for Book Two to arrive. Lewis (and his collaborator Nate Powell) are great story-tellers of his own life.

Part of JOMP’s Black History Month .

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