Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Invisible woMan

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Currently I am taking a class (with a very long name) called: “Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” in essence, it is a case study on prison narratives. So far we have been working our way through Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison. Bear with me here when I discuss a book from another class, it connects, I swear. The title, Invisible Man, is apt because the reader does not know the narrator’s name which emphasizes his loss of identity, therefore his invisibility. Other characters (specifically white) also do not treat him like he is fully human. But in my opinion the “man,” the narrator, in this title is not truly the most invisible, he has a voice (his narration), he has a place in the novel, he learns lessons, has conversations, and does actual things. In my opinion, (at least in the first half of the novel because that is as far as I am in…) the women are the most invisible. The mentions of women in the book are so superficial and rare that they could be counted on almost one hand and the words about them on two. When I say “mentions” I mean that sometimes there is only a couple of descriptive words before the narrator’s focus switches to his own thoughts or to another’s (specifically a man’s) actions.

The invisibility of women in Invisible Man is pertinent to this course because their invisibility can help one understand at least in some partiality the frustrations that were expounded upon in the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977) and in Barbara Smith’s article “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism” (1977). Although the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s was seen as fighting for equality for all, it seems counterintuitive that Invisible Man, an artifact of the time, a narrative piece devoted to discussing racism, contains only one gender’s struggles.

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One thought on “Invisible woMan

  1. First, I love that y’all are reading Invisible Man in your class. Such a dense work that needs to be taught and read more often!

    This is a really great claim: Although the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s was seen as fighting for equality for all, it seems counterintuitive that Invisible Man, an artifact of the time, a narrative piece devoted to discussing racism, contains only one gender’s struggles.

    You definitely aren’t alone in this observation, and throughout the text there’s all kinds of problematic stuff going on with women (I’m still haunted by the way the narrator describes the white stripper in the Battle Royal scene early on…). Both Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison (and others, just to be fair) were taken to task later on for their masculinist emphases. One argument presented is that they formulate black male agency by subjugating women (objectifying, dehumanizing, fetishizing, etc.). I’m not sure I see this as completely true because I think there are important moments of cross-gender emphathy, but I do think that there’s something about Jim Crow that suggests that if black men want to be as powerful as white men, they have to assert patriarchal privilege over women. Do you think that Ellison is critical of such a view, or do you think he participates in it? (maybe both…)

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