“Invisible Man”, Afrofuturism, and Ethnocentrism

A text that I thought would be an interesting one to study through the lens of afrofuturism is the one I started reading at the beginning of this semester(and probably won’t finish until the end of the semester given the pace I usually take my own reading at), “Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison. This book has been revered for decades since its release and has definitely been analyzed as an afrofuturist text before me but, none the less, I feel this would be an interesting book to study with that intent.

Without spoiling too much of this book, because I recommend everyone reads it for themselves, I should give a basic plot summary: This book is told from the perspective of the main protagonist recounting his life story after he has taken to hiding underground. One of the recurring elements of his life is that he feels he is constantly being overlooked as an individual and objectified, even by those who claim to care, because of the color of his skin. He goes through many extremely dehumanizing and unfair events throughout his life such as brawling with a group of other black men for the entertainment of a group of rich white men, being expelled from the Tuskegee University for showing one of the major donors the “true nature of blacks”, and being told he must reject his past and identity so he could become the mouthpiece of a group called “The Brotherhood”. One section of this book that stood out to me and made me think about our discussions in class and, more importantly, afrofuturism as a whole was a conversation the narrator has with a very wealthy White man who’s funding helped create Tuskegee University, in this conversation the wealthy man says

“So you see, young man, you are involved in my life quite intimately, even though you’ve never seen me before. You are bound to a great dream and a beautiful monument. If you become a good farmer, a chef, a preacher, doctor, singer, mechanic- whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate.”(Ellison 43-44)

This man’s fixation with the narrators fate isn’t directly related to the narrator, per se, but is more about his general obsession with the the success of Blacks as a whole. This isn’t just a general wish for everyone to succeed and have a prosperous life, this man defines his fate by his impact on the black community. The issue I found with this is that he believes that Blacks only positively impact his fate if they succeed by his standard of success, he doesn’t genuinely care about the personal fulfillment these people strive to find or what they want out their lives personally, he wants their success to be the “advancement” of the race. The way I saw it, the underlying goal of his fate is for Blacks as a people to be on the same footing in society as Whites, which means he sees them as lower or less advanced in some capacity and that he must help to bring them up to the standard created by white controlled American society. His beliefs remind me of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” in that it shares this conception that Blacks and Black culture are so unadvanced that they require a helping hand from the God fearing, progress oriented White man. What the donor and Kipling see as a noble cause is really rooted in unconscious, condescending racism and their own ethnocentric beliefs in their own culture. This attitude held by the donor relates to beliefs espoused by Hegel, that Black culture is simply not as advanced as white culture. Snead summarized Hegel’s feelings on this very clearly when he said “Hegel’s definition of black culture is the prototype for the fulfillment of culture in the future; black culture is the antitype, ever on the threshold.” This attitude is one that has been felt throughout society and its one that simply has no logical explanation, it’s only rooted in a fear of what is different and a feeling of pride to establish some sense of superiority. It also, again, comes back to this ethnocentric belief that European, American, and White culture in general are some how more advanced than Black culture. “Invisible Man” is a great book to study through the lens of afrofuturism because it depicts the struggles facing black culture and also helps illuminate the need for recognizing that one culture cannot be defined by the assumptions and standards of any other culture.

One Reply to ““Invisible Man”, Afrofuturism, and Ethnocentrism”

  1. A worthy choice of text here, Luke; it’s sometimes seen as the earliest Afro-futurist text (before that term was coined) although we can go back further, and need to think about specifically African, rather than African-American-futurist texts, too.

    I like very much the ways you are thinking through the problems (as the novel does) of White patronage creating a vision of Blackness that is defined by the terms of White success – European/Western, in Snead’s terms. You also do some good work with summary here, too. The next step would be to get into some analysis of passages that offer moments of what we’d call the Afro-futurist – does that reside only in a kind of magical supernatural quality? You might know about the trope of the “magical Negro,” coined by Spike Lee about film but also evident in White visions of Blackness in literature, a trope we need to call out when its in action because it limits individual identities of Blackness…so there’s much rich work to do here!

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