Invisibility in african american novels

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006
25 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table Of Content

1. Introduction

2. Physical blindness

3. Psychical blindness
3.1 Meaning of psychical blindness
3.2 The eye-metaphors
3.2.1 The blindfolds
3.2.2 The third eye
3.2.3 Rinehard’s sunglasses
3.3 Telling names
3.3.1 Reverend Homer A. Barbee
3.3.2 Brother Jack
3.4 Invisibility as a result of blindness?

4. Native Son
4.1 Physical blindness
4.2 Psychical blindness
4.2.1 Bigger’s own blindness
4.2.2 The blindness of Bigger’s surrounding

5. The Street
5.1 The blindness of Lutie’s surrounding
5.2 Lutie’s own blindness
5.3 Telling names
5.3.1 Mrs. Hedges
5.3.2 Min

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Blindness is a red line throughout many African American novels published in the middle of the 20th century. However, this does not mean that black protagonists are over-averaged disabled. The inability of seeing does more refer to a special type of blindness: a psychical one. This kind of disablement is “a matter of the construction of [the] inner eyes, those eyes with which [one] look[s] through [the] physical eyes upon reality”[1]. It is a way of refusing to recognise people and their character traits, which African Americans were often confronted with. This ignorance of the - mainly - “white” society is picked out as a central theme in many African American novels and, therefore, it will be the topic of the following term paper. To proof this thesis, the following work will analyse some example scenes from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 published Invisible Man. Because one single book is not sufficient to state a thesis for a whole genre, additionally scenes from Richard Wright’s 1940 published Native Son[2] and Ann Petry’s 1946 published The Street[3] will be briefly analysed. Even though a comparison between all three novels would have been interesting as well, this paper will take its main focus on one single novel, to go as deep into detail as the limited space allows, instead of giving only a cursory overview of different works. For the same reason, this paper will not contain a summary of the discussed novels as these are expected to be known.

As the title of the paper probably wakes the expectation of an analysis of the physical blindness, this topic will be worked out in the second chapter, concentrating on Invisible Man, and, in 4.1, briefly on Native Son. The attempts to point out its metaphorical meaning and to connect this with the psychical blindness, discussed in the third chapter, will be made.

The main part of the analysis in the third chapter will be the examination of the psychical blindness that affects the main protagonist as well as the minor characters of Invisible Man. A closer look will be taken on the repeated eye-metaphors as well as on the function of the telling names. According to the title of the book, the attempt to answer the question, if invisibility is a result of blindness, will be made.

To proof that Ellison’s novel is not the only one that deals with the topic of blindness, the fourth and fifth chapter will deal with Petry’s and Wright’s novels that were published in the same period.

2. Physical blindness

As already Thomas LeClair has pointed out in his essay about Native Son and Invisible Man, sight and blindness are central topics in these two novels.[4] But this statement seems to mean the physical blindness that guides the readers of Invisible Man and Native Son through the whole novels. The sightless persons – Rev. Homer A. Barbee and Brother Jack in Invisible Man and Mrs. Dalton in Native Son – have mainly a symbolical function: to represent the psychical blindness of the other seeing characters, and not only, as could be assumed, to be an important part of the storyline itself.

Rev. Barbee is completely blind and wears dark glasses (Ellison, e.g. p. 99, 100, 104) to hide his disability. This would have worked out if he had not fallen down and lost the glasses (Ellison, p. 113). Maybe his physical blindness had strengthened the influence by his fellow men on him; he trusts those people who are able to see, and he allows them to see for him as well. He takes in their values instead of developing his own ones. He is unable to see through Dr. Bledsoe’s machinations and believes him to be as honest as Bledsoe presents himself, by blinding other people with his double identity. Barbee believes that Bledsoe wants him to preach in the college church only for the black congregation; and so he addresses only the students of the college, the “daughters and granddaughters, sons and grandsons, of slaves” (Ellison, p. 101). He is unable to see that there are also white guests present, and therefore, he is also unable to understand that his preaches are only used by Bledsoe to impress the guests and not because Bledsoe is convinced by Barbee’s message. Due to his restriction in seeing the world as it really is, he escapes into the ideal world of religion where no threats and dangers exists and no one could be harmed due to the protection of God.

Brother Jack’s blindness is revealed comparatively late, not until he looses his glass eye (Ellison, p. 381), similar to Barbee loosing his glasses. At the first meeting between Jack and the narrator he wants to convince the Invisible Man that he is able to see through him (Ellison, p. 235) and that he knows what he feels. At this point, this seems to be impossible, because he had only listened to one single speech of the narrator and does not know anything else about him. Ironically, he is the one who promises the narrator that he will teach him how to see - an impossible task for a blind person. Brother Jack’s blindness shows the fact that Ellison uses this symbol to combine physical and psychical blindness. Only a few moments after the narrator had detected Jack’s mentally blindness, he begins to ask himself which one of Jack’s eyes is the real blind one (Ellison, p. 384), a state at which he begins to recognise that he has been blinded by the brotherhood from the beginning on.

3. Psychical blindness

After a brief introduction about the meaning of the psychical blindness, the following chapter will analyse some exemplifying scenes. As this chapter will make out the main part of the analysis, it will be divided into several smaller points to assure the lucidity during the length of the chapter.

At first a brief overview about the meaning of psychical blindness in Ellison’s novel will be given. Second, the different types of eye-metaphors that appear throughout the whole novel will be dissected to proof that the complete book is full of eyes that follow the reader like a red line. This point itself will be split into several smaller points, again due to clearness reasons. Starting chronologically with the beginning of the narrator’s story, the first metaphor to be examined will be the blindfolds that the black boys have to wear during the battle royal. The next stop on his journey up to the north is the paint factory, in which an accident happened that leads to his hospitalisation, where he comes into contact with the next eye-catching metaphor, the third eye of the doctor. Eliding some more of the numerous allusions to people’s eyes, the last part of this metaphor-chapter will deal with Rhinehard’s sunglasses and their meaning.

The second main point in this chapter will get granular on the function of the telling names of Rev. Homer A. Barbee and Brother Jack. As both names allude to (more or less known) historical blind persons, their similarities and differences will be compared to each other briefly.

The last point will try to answer the question, if the previously discussed blindness of the narrator’s surrounding is to blame for his own invisibility. After the research on the physical blindness, this should at the same time be the conclusion for the third chapter.

3.1 The meaning of psychical blindness

Throughout his story, the Invisible Man faces a lot of blindness. But more than physical blindness, he has to face a psychical one. The people he meets are unable to see him as an individual being and all their stereotypes about blacks are activated as soon as they recognise him. He has hardly a chance to prove that he has an own individuality that might differ from their view of blacks. The reduction of his character to his skin-colour is very obvious as he is introduced to Emma and she, not knowing about his speaking competences, has doubts about the narrator’s appearance and the effect that it might have on the listeners; she is worrying if he not “should be a little blacker” (Ellison, p. 245). At the same evening he is faced with another prejudice about black people - that “all coloured people sing.” (Ellison, p. 253).

But as several scenes show, the narrator himself sometimes misses the ability to a clear sight as well. “My eyes filled, I could barely see.” (Ellison, p. 253). At the beginning of his first speech for the brotherhood he “suddenly […] was blinded” (Ellison, p. 273) by the spotlight. Here he does not recognise that it is not only the physical blindness that makes him unable to see, but also the falsity of the brotherhood, that makes promises that it could not keep.

As Ellison’s novel is full of blindness- images, the main focus has been set onto the following eye-metaphors.

3.2 The eye-metaphors

The next three points will concentrate on some of the different eye-metaphors and how they affect the reader’s awareness on the topic of the blinded and blinding characters in the novel. Although they are not always that obvious as in the following points, they definitely make out an important part of the story, as they – sometimes unconsciously – remind the reader permanently that the novel is about sight and, of course, about its opposite. Due to the mass of metaphors, only a few ones will be picked out to be analysed more detailed.

3.2.1 The blindfolds

Ellison uses several metaphors of sight and blindness to stress the importance of this topic. The first important happening of the novel – the battle royal – carries out the image of blinded persons, in form of blindfolds that the black boys have to wear during the fight (Ellison, p. 22). To intensify the entertainment for the white society they have decided that it would not be enough to let the boys simply fight against each other but to let them fight blind. The boys do not recognise their exploitation; they believe they will get compensation in form of money and gold for their fighting and feel even some kind of pleasure during the fight. They are unable to notice that they were only used for the amusement of others and obey the instructions of the people outside the ring, still convinced that they will be rewarded for their efforts during the fight. Even though they experience with their own bodies that the gold bars are put under electric power, they still try to grab them, blind to the fact that this kind of wealth is unreachable for them.

Because the reader does not get an insight view of the blindfolded boys, he has to rely on the comments of the narrator about their feelings. The narrator perceives that the blindfold makes him unable to control his emotions (Ellison, p. 23) and that this is probably the explanation for the brutal behaviour of the other boys. Everyone is fighting against everyone and no one remembers that they have been friends before and that friends have to stick together. They just want to please the audience that gets increasingly into rage as well as the boys get increasingly brutal. The irony is that not only the boys are blinded by the blindfolds and the “upper society”, but also the “upper society” is blind to recognise that these boys are human beings that have feelings and emotions. As a result of the blindness on both sides, the situation runs out of control, because nobody is able to see a way to stop it.


[1] Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. London: Penguin Books, 1965. p. 7.

[2] Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2001.

[3] Petry, Ann. The Street. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

[4] Le Clair, Thomas. “The Blind leading the Blind: Wright’s Native Son and a brief reference to Ellison’s Invisible Man.” College language association Journal. 1970: p. 315-320.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Invisibility in african american novels
University of Mannheim
African American Novels
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Invisibility, African, American, Novels, Ellison, Petry, Wright, Native Son, Invisible Man, The Street, Afroamerican
Quote paper
Stefanie Krause (Author), 2006, Invisibility in african american novels, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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