I recently finished reading “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. I got it from Reed College as a part of getting accepted. It came with a little notebook to write down thoughts with the mantra “Knowledge through skepticism” inscribed on the front. I actually did end up using it. Through this book, I’ve been able to find some acceptance–acceptance for others, for the situation we’re in, and for the world in general.
Basically, the book follows a young black kid trying to find his way in the world. His name is never given (probably the most blatant symbolism possible). Throughout his journey from the rural south in the time of the Great Migration to Brooklyn, he meets many “superiors” who treat him in unique ways but all essentially use him as a tool for their own benefit. At first, he’s blind to this. But, by the end of the story, he realizes that, in many respects, he is invisible. Society does not see individuals, and especially not African-Americans in this time.
The book introduces some big ideas in the very first few pages with one of my favorite lines: “Democratic ideals and military valor were rendered absurd by the prevailing mystique of race and color.” Essentially, the main character is attempting to navigate a society that is the product of democratic ideals and military valor. But no one sees the main character. It amazes me how much people can ignore unless they’re involved in the implications immediately and directly. It’s almost as if his blackness is the absence of light. There is no justification for racism–in the book, at the time, or now. Consequently, society is absurd.
But it’s not just him, as I mentioned before. And it’s not just black people. To an extent, all individuals are invisible. People don’t see others because they don’t try to. In their minds, it’s not in their interests. It’s much easier to see people as symbols of one-dimensional things–love, innocence, vulnerability, intelligence–rather than as individuals with a mind like your own.
Vainly, his realizations translated to me. I’ve been realizing that the world is unforgiving. It doesn’t really care about your precious little life as a triumphant story. But in that humbleness, I know I’m not the only one who has realized that. This book is an example. There are people out there that do truly see you, even if society as a whole doesn’t. And if you want to be seen by others, you have to see others.
The world is going to throw me around. I know it. Even if I’m much more privileged than the main character, I’m still going to have to deal with people that use me as a tool for their own gain. Knowing that, I’m at peace. Even if I lose a sense of where I am or who I’m with, I won’t lose a sense of who I am. I’ll see others but be different.