Friday, August 24, 2018

Final Discussions!

Teagle Bougere, Court Theatre, Chicago
Thanks to all for a great final round of discussions!  Just a sampling of things we discussed:

On the Epilogue:

Epilogue - he’s learned to think for himself

Epilogue didn’t have the depth and the imagery of the prologue
The reader was supposed to resolve it for himself

It wasn’t supposed to be resolved

The lower frequencies are humanity - his and ours

Invisible Man can’t really internalize his grandfather’s words until the end

The last pages were difficult - there’s nothing happening - difficult to focus

There were a lot of digressions - you needed to find the narrative thread

He came to the realization that you can’t stay in hibernation forever
Louis Armstrong wouldn’t throw the bad air out - because that’s what makes the music
Last page: “ is this which frightens me: Who knows but that… why is he frightened?  It’s a possible burden to advocate for others, and knowledge is frightening

Epilogue is anti-climactic

Did he write the epilogue before writing the middle?

The ending is unsatisfying - you know the ending is coming, but as he gets more involved in the world, the contrast is very strange

On Women in Invisible Man:

Ellison’s feelings about women remind me of the movie Crash - a lot of misconceptions, a lot of complicated motives - the portrayals are not simple

Does Sybil have to be intoxicated to get Invisible Man to compromise his integrity?  The intoxication is important

Sybil and her request - it’s making stereotypes / myths of both white women and black men

Do the women need to be in the story?  Are there any fully rounded women in the novel?  Even Mary is a stereotype, albeit a positive one

He started out trying to use Sybil, but she ultimately tries to use him

I don’t think he sees women as being actual people

Sybil - the character - she’s like a prophetess

On Invisible Man's future:

When he leaves the underground, will he really change?  He might think he’s learned from mistakes, but maybe not

Exchange of “I’m your destiny” with Mr. Norton - does it imply that they are one another’s destiny?

Is it an optimistic ending?

Can Invisible Man use his invisibility for good?

When he emerges, I don’t think he will be as gullible - he’ll be more skeptical

Castration as acquiring knowledge - maybe ignorance was paradise

On the Brotherhood:

There are engines within engines - he finally sees that the Brotherhood doesn’t care about Harlem

Rinehart was running a scam - but everybody: Bledsoe, Brotherhood, they are running scams too

The Brotherhood pretended that it didn’t see color, gender - but you have to honor differences - a melting pot versus a salad bowl

Jack and the glass eye - a symbol of blindness - red hair - Communism

Parallel with David Copperfield: IM started innocent, then became disillusioned

Other thoughts, images, questions:

Ras on the horse - biblical - 4 horsemen

Being underground is hibernation

The sickness was both outside and inside me

Ellison - as a younger writer he covered a Harlem riot in the 1940s

Position of literature in a chaotic American landscape - a lot of people are reading comics - where does the novel fit in?

P 441 - the nuns on the subway (underground) - one is all in black, other all in white (with bare black feet) - rhyme - your cross ain’t nearly so heavy as mine - a competition of suffering

passage above - he is beginning to see the way race makes all of us messed up

The thought in this book is post- Christian

The artist is a special person who might be able to help us in this world where God is gone

The reader experiences everything without always understanding what it means

You forget that this all takes place over a short period of time - in fact, he’s still very young, a kid really

I thought we would see more of the book’s earlier characters at the end - only Mr Norton, but IM is still invisible to Mr Norton

Rinehart - kind of like Superman, with glasses he’s Clark Kent

None of our group understands what happened to Tod Clifton - why was he transformed - did he go mad?

Odors and smells -the epilogue talks about bad air and good air - Was Ellison a sensitive person?

What about the violence -it’s building up, then he falls in the hole

Rinehart - a natural character for the times and context - a numbers runner was an important figure in that era

The novel reads like an action movie - very cinematic

Clifton’s doll doesn’t burn easily - does this have significance?  You can’t kill Clifton, or you can’t kill racism? It’s slow to change, slow to burn

Important line, p. 452: “Could politics ever be an expression of love?”

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Invisible Man Character Theories

The school has been placed, the head of school has been named. There are two other things within the text surrounding the university that Ellison addresses: Mr. Norton and Jim Trueblood. Who were these men modeled after?

While it is mere theory, I believe that Mr. Norton, because of Mr. Bledsoe’s deep admiration, may very well be Samuel C. Armstrong. Armstrong was very instrumental to Washington. The “Bostonian smoker of cigars” as he is referred to in the text, Mr. Norton declared himself a “New Englander” like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Armstrong was raised in Massachusetts where the famous African American writer of Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853) William Wells Brown made his claim to fame. At one point in the text, Mr. Norton described his beloved daughter as, “… being more rare, more beautiful, purer, more perfect and more delicate than the wildest dream of a poet. I could never believe her to be my own flesh and blood." When discussing his book Up from Slavery (1901) Washington describes Samuel Armstrong as “the most important part of his experience at Hampton…a great man - the noblest, rarest human being it has ever been my privilege to meet.” While the texts are not the same, the sentiments read similarly. Another interesting correlation, while traveling to the Golden Day in Invisible Man, the protagonist said that he was carrying an important General. While in the text this was a fib, in real life Samuel C. Armstrong was the Lieutenant Colonel to the 9th United States Colored Infantry in 1863. Again this is theory; you can draw your own conclusions.

Trueblood was a much harder character to try to trace. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but this, like my thoughts about Mr. Norton, is merely a theory, a possibility. There were many former slaves responsible for Tuskegee University coming into being; however, one thing that stood out to me in particular was a thing and not so much a person: the Syphilis Experiments. Conducted between 1932 and 1972, the syphilis experiments were a scandal that haunts the grounds of the Tuskegee University medical departments. In that time, the doctors had a much slighted point of view of African Americans, men in particular. Doctors reported a complete lack of morality on the part of the blacks stating that "virtue to the negro race is like angels' visits - few and far between. In a practice of sixteen years I have never examined a virgin negro over fourteen years of age." (Jones, 1981) Subjects in these experiments were assumed to be receiving treatment for “bad blood;” this was not true. In the text, after talking to Kate his wife and trying to go see the preacher about the incestuous acts he had committed while dreaming, Trueblood said, “I went to see the white folks and they gave me help. That I don’t understand. I done the worst thing a man could ever do in his family and instead of chasin’ me out of the country, they gimme more help than they ever give any other colored man, no matter how good a nigguh he was.” At that time in the experiments the men received “treatments” of ineffective medicines, meals, transportation and consults with the doctor regarding their physical feelings.  It’s a stretch but considering that at the time of the test African American men were viewed as sexual deviants with “bad blood”…  Jim (Crow) True (bad) blood has a lot of logic to it. If one simply must connect dots, this seems to be a link in my book, but you can judge for yourself.

Ralph Ellison is a literary genius. While Invisible Man was loosely based on names, places, times, and acts of his real life, I have no doubt that his imagination crafted the masterful novel. But like dreams, the mind is incapable of “making things up” and if ideas must come from somewhere, I think that these theories work for great material to use for his literature, but you decide: fact or fiction?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Social Responsibility and Tuskegee

No one really wants to hear the history of a thing, the background of a person, the etymology of a notion. Let’s face it: what we really crave is the unknown and if there is a little mystery, a little dirt, a hint of scandal, well… most of us are front and center ears and eyes wide open and attentive.

What we know is that Tuskegee was founded in 1881 by George Campbell, a former slave owner, and Lewis Adams, a former slave and a southern community leader as a free man. In a single room cabin, like many schools of that day Tuskegee began small. Booker T Washington was brought on as the first head of school and as a professor. The school, one of only a few institutions of higher education for colored people, was authorized under House Bill 165.  Under Washington’s leadership from 1881 until his death in 1915, the school was able to gain funding and grow to be a large and beautifully crafted campus.

 Ralph Ellison was a student at Tuskegee University and while the college is not named in his novel Invisible Man, it is assumed that the college attended by the protagonist was indeed modeled after Tuskegee. Likewise, Mr. Bledsoe, the head of the school in the text, is said to be a written depiction of Booker T. Washington himself. Mr. Bledsoe was not “cruel,” but his intentions were selfish in many ways. This too has been said of many of Washington’s practices.  In the prologue of the text, after the battle royal, as the protagonist was giving his valedictorian address for the esteemed white men of the community, we can hear the drumming of Mr. Washington’s tutelage in the scene. There was a moment when, after swallowing blood and while being asked many times to repeat the phrase “social responsibility” from his speech, the protagonist accidentally stated “social equality” and the room was none too amused. While social equality at the time depicted in the novel, the 1930’s or 1940’s, was discussed in hushed tones among many blacks, Booker T. Washington believed that the foundations of economic equality were more important than social equality and it was clear that Ellison was making his understanding of how others viewed this point  known within his writing.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Discussions - Round Two

Another great set of discussions! For additional comments, don't forget that we're on Twitter: @UCPL_librarians #UCPLBigBook

Here are just a few of the points that came up this round:

Electricity is a theme - shock, light,etc

Liberty paint - the slogan is “keep america pure”

Chester Himes’ The Lonely Crusade - another novel featuring problems of African Americans and unions

Where is the broken bank?  Is it still in his briefcase?  It’s his baggage that he has to keep carrying around - what does he do with it in combat?

What about Bledsoe’s letters?  Are they still in there? No, they were dropped off with the business offices

He’s still really naive

“I want him to control his temper”

He’s mad at people for banging on pipes - so what does he do? Bangs on the pipes

A reader is really mad at IM

Master the bulldog is a black and white dog - fear, violence and restraint

Learning to have his own opinions for the first time

Why was he uncomfortable with Mary?

Mary represents everything about being a child - he doesn’t like that

Ambivalent feelings about Mary - knew that he needed to leave her place - didn’t want to face her, felt guilty

We have to assume that he really does want to grow up - Mary won’t allow him to fall on his face

When he broke the bank, why did he keep the money?

Involvement with the Brotherhood - reminds a reader of a Charlie Chaplin movie in which he gets caught up in parade - fascinating parallels to the film The Great Dictator

The role of the grandfather - a reader is confused - what is the grandfather’s message?  It is part of the baggage...

Hospital scene - reader feels “Ellison must have taken drugs at some point” - it was so trippy

How did Ellison learn about ect (electroconvulsive therapy)?

When IM gives his speech, the audience replies with a baseball metaphor - you’re throwing strikes - an improvisational twist?  - also, strike is violence, and a labor term

Chthonian - having to do with the underworld

Is Lucius Brockway like a Happy House Slave?

What drives Brother Wrestrum?  He’s envious, IM is uppity, why wasn’t he (Wrestrum) recognized?  Thought IM was a threat to the Brotherhood

Example of dispossession - ch 14, p. 314 - when the drunk man asks him to dance: he doesn’t get to decide whether that’s insulting or not - other people decide for him that it’s insulting - Ellison is prescient about political correctness

Chapter 18 ends with IM believing he’ll be vindicated - more naivete

Powerful black union was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Workers