Dr. Carol Marsh-Lockett
South, North, Inward, and Underground: Migration in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
The history of the United States is a history of migration: the Pilgrim’s migration to the New World, the Native Americans’ forced migration to the West, the Africans’ forced migration to the New World. In Invisible Man Ralph Ellison tells the story of the forced migration of the unnamed protagonist from his roots in the South to the North. There is also a metaphorical migration of the protagonist from blindness to vision, in which he learns the true mechanisms that drives the society in which he lives. This essay will examine the protagonist’s migration both from the South to the North and from blindness to vision utilizing Farah Jasmine Griffin’s analysis of the migration narrative.
In the early twentieth century the United States underwent a major geographical population shift. Known as “The Great Migration”, scores of African Americans left their southern roots for what was believed to be greater economic opportunities and social freedom in the North. Unfortunately, many African Americans found the North just as oppressive as their Southern homeland. Derived from the slave narrative, artistic accounts of this northern flight can be related as a migration narrative. The migration narrative can be manifest in a variety of forms: autobiography, fiction, music, poetry, photography, and painting (Griffin 424). In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison uses the form of the memoir as related by the unnamed protagonist as he recounts his move from his college campus in the South to the northern landscape of Harlem in New York.
In Invisible Man, Ellison foretells of the migratory nature of the novel when the protagonist dreams of his grandfather and of receiving a briefcase with a note it that says, “To Whom It May Concern, … Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (33). According to Farah Jasmine Griffin, there are four pivotal moments of migration. The first pivotal moment of migration is an act or event that prompts the departure from the south (423). This event in Invisible Man begins when the protagonist is assigned as a driver for Mr. Norton, a white trustee of the college. While driving Mr. Norton, the protagonist inadvertently introduces Mr. Norton to those members of the Black community who are marginalized by the Black college community - Jim Trueblood and the patrons of the Golden Day in particular, the Vet. Trueblood has been ostracized by the college for impregnating his own daughter. Trueblood symbolizes the justification of the white dominate society for subjugation of the African American community. The patrons of the Golden Day are marginalized because they represent that part of Black society that not only understands but refuses to conform to the dictates of the dominant white society. The Vet is the central voice of truth when he tells Mr. Norton that “already he’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!” (Ellison 94). The Vet explicates the true relationship between the protagonist and Mr. Norton and in turn the true relationship of the Black man within the dominant white society: the Black man is not seen as an individual but as a tool to be used by the dominant white power structure in order to justify and maintain their position of power.
In migration narratives, the South is seen as “an immediate, identifiable and oppressive power (Griffin 425). This power is represented by Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. Dr. Bledsoe works within the dominant white power structure to maintain his position of authority. The protagonist’s exposure of the Black community’s marginalized members to the dominant white society, represented by Mr. Norton, threatens Dr. Bledsoe’s power and authority within his proscribed place in society. In order to maintain his power position, Dr. Bledsoe sends the protagonist north to New York and ensures his banishment from the college, and in turn the South, by furnishing the protagonist with what the protagonist believes to be letters of recommendations but are letters on condemnation. “I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (Ellison 143). This statement underscores the pathology that forces the action and the protagonist northward.
The second pivotal moment of migration that Griffin talks about is a detailed representation of the initial confrontation with the urban landscape (423). This confrontation revolves around how the fate of the South, represented by the migrant and retentions of the South, is shaped (425). In Invisible Man the protagonist’s initial confrontation with the urban landscape occurs on a subway ride. Experiencing the subway for the first time, the protagonist is shoved into a subway car and is shocked at the close proximity of the passengers, in particular his closeness to a white woman. His southern fears manifest itself in his need to want the woman to understand that it is against his will that he is standing so close to her. The protagonist notes that though everyone is shoved against each other, no one seems to notice the other. The episode ends with the protagonist being shot out onto the platform “feeling like something regurgitated from the belly of a frantic whale” (158). As the novel progress, the protagonist unknowingly becomes a victim of the dictates of society and responds by purging himself from society. As the protagonist leaves the subway he is surprised to see so many Black people, Black people situated in positions that was not known in the south, like store clerks and policeman. It is also here the protagonist encounters for the first time Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer. Ras represents active resistance to the dominant white power structure that the protagonist has never encountered in the south. It is this lack of resistance helps perpetuates the protagonist’s invisibility and facilitates the protagonist to become a tool for the dominant white power structure.
Griffin talks about the ancestor/ancestral figure as a significant part of the development of the migration narrative. The ancestor/ancestral figure provides the migrant with a connection to South. If the ancestor/ancestral figure is situated in a non-significant presence in the text, then the South will be portrayed at a place of horror and the ancestor/ancestral figure will be of no use to the migrant in the North. However, if the South is established as a place of birthright, then the ancestor/ancestral figure will play an important part in the migrant’s navigating the urban landscape (Griffin 425). Griffin describes the ancestor/ancestral figure as a buffer for the migrant against the impact of urbanization (426). While in New York, the protagonist encounters several ancestral figures. On the day he heads out to deliver the last letter given to him by Dr Bledsoe, he encounters a man pushing a cart who calls himself “Peter Wheatstraw, the devil son-in-law”. The man speaks in southern dialect and in rhymes and rhythms that are reminiscent of the South. The man recognizes the protagonist as being from the South. The protagonist tries to ignore the man but becomes embarrassed and angry when the man shouts “Why you trying to deny me?” (Ellison 173). This character represents the southern roots that the protagonist has been taught to deny within himself. Later in the text, the protagonist encounters two more ancestral figures: a yams peddler and Mary Rambo; owner of a rooming house. After being released from a hospital after a metaphorical “rebirth” caused by near death experience, the protagonist meets Mary Rambo who takes him in once he is banned from the rooming home where he first stays upon his arrival in New York. Mary represents the nurturing, mother figure for the protagonist since he is unable to return home because of the shame of being force out of school. The other ancestral figure is the yam peddler. After his “rebirth”, the protagonist is able to reconcile his past with his present and accepts his southern roots as indicated by his wholehearted enjoyment of eating yams right in the middle of the street (Ellison 265-266).
The third pivotal moment of migration is the portrayal of how migrants negotiate the urban landscape. Griffin describes this moment in terms of domestic, street and psychic spaces that are sites of contestation for migrants and the powers that seek to control them (428-429). The major site for contestation of the protagonist in Invisible Man is the Liberty Paint factory. It is in the factory the protagonist is “made into a new man” by a horrific experience. After being confronted with the truth behind the letters of Dr. Bledsoe, the protagonist takes a job with the Liberty Paint factory. While working at the factory, the protagonist encounters oppression and racism; he expected to do what is told and not ask questions (Ellison 200). The protagonist is once again confronted with his southern root when he encounters the “immediate, identifiable and oppressive power” of the South (Griffin 425) in the form of Lucius Brockway. Brockway is Black man who has been with the factory since its opening. He is the only one who knows the correct way to mix the paint in order to achieve the quality that the owner expects. He, like Dr. Bledsoe, depends upon his relationship with the dominant white power structure to maintain his position of importance. When he learns that the protagonist inadvertently walks in to a union meeting, he immediately becomes threaten. To negate any threat by the protagonist to his position, Brockway allows the paint boilers to explode, almost killing the protagonist. It is after this accident that the protagonist has a “rebirth” (Ellison Chapter12). In the factory hospital, the doctors attempt to give the protagonist an electrical lobotomy. The lobotomy attempts to strip away the protagonist’s identity and in essence this begins the stripping away his blindness in order for him to begin to see exactly who he is and how he is expected to navigate the through society.
The fourth pivotal moment of migration is a vision of the possibilities or limitation of the Northern, Western, or Midwestern city and the South (Griffin 423-424). Griffin goes on to say that this stage provides “a consideration of the sophistication of modern urban power, an evaluation of the consequences of migration and urbanization, and a vision of future possibilities (430). In Invisible Man the protagonist is introduced to the Brotherhood, a representation of Communism that states that they are working for a change for the betterment of all people. The protagonist feels that this is where his talent for speaking can be put to good use as a voice for those who are unable to speak. As the protagonist becomes more involved in the Brotherhood, he begins to realize that the he is also invisible to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood uses the protagonist only as tool to serve their goal to promote the organization’s ideology and increase their membership. In his final act as part of the Brotherhood, the protagonist arranges a funeral for a former Black member of the Brotherhood who, after the leaving the organization, is shot and killed by police in the street. It is the act the precipitate is full realization of the dominant white power structure and his role within its confines. While running way from a mob, the protagonist falls into a hole. It is here in the darkness of the underground cellar that he if finally able to see the truth about society and his invisibility. With nowhere to go, the protagonist decides to reside underground. It is during this self-imposed exiled that the protagonist acquires ‘sight’, his is able to see who he is and what society is.
Ellison’s Invisible Man is an excellent example of the migration narrative that tells the story of dislocation and disconnection that resulted from the Great Migration that many Black people experienced upon their arrival from the South. As stated by Griffin, there are many interpretation of the migration narrative and the close reading of migration narratives such as Invisible Man can serve not only as a catalyst for discussion about this historical event but also encourages a closer look at the migration narrative in a more broader text.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Introduction. “Who set you flowin’? The African-American Migration Narrative.” African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000. Ed. Hazel Arnett Ervin. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999. 423-432.