Possibilities in Ralph Waldo Ellison's Invisible Man

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Possibilities in Ralph Waldo Ellison's Invisible Man


In the 1900’s opportunities for black people were very limited compared to the 21st century, where jobs are in abundance and more people seek-out for those opportunities. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, edited by Neufeldt and Sparks, an opportunity is, “A combination of circumstances favorable for the purpose; a good chance as to advance oneself” (413). It is not what opportunity is made available unto oneself but what decision is made to advance oneself to a higher level in life. In Invisible Man, Ralph Waldo Ellison on the belief of a land of infinite possibilities/opportunities composed this novel; his first novel. Ellison believed that a wise and opportune person can turn a pile of rocks into a bag of rocks; basically saying that one may take what they have available unto them, and create better opportunities, for themselves and other generations to come. Invisible Man is about finding oneself and in that nature of discovery, running with one’s destiny, and making any possibility into infinite possibilities, turning the smallest of opportunities into the biggest of opportunities. Invisible Man is about finding possibilities where possibilities seem impossible.

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1st in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Ellison gained international fame from his first novel Invisible Man, which was inspired from his belief in the myth of the frontier, where he viewed the United States as the land of infinite possibilities and opportunities. The close-knit black community in which Ellison grew up in supplied him with images of courage and endurance.

While growing up many of times one may find themselves searching for their purpose in life through the different activities that one may join and often times quit in search of something of better interest, something that he/she may feel fits their personality/character in a better manner. Darnell Tingle once said, “Character is what you know you are, not what others think you have”.

While Ellison was surrounded by the faces of unfamiliarity he also felt lost, however invisible at the same time, wondering ‘What am I doing here… is this place really for me… do I want this?’

Ellison tried to find himself while asking others around him questions only he could answer.

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Ellison said in the first chapter of Invisible Man, “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (589). It had taken Ellison a long time to discover himself, and Ellison had took every opportunity he could to find himself, whether it was walking the streets with whites, or working with them, Ellison had done it.

Ellison had experienced something he thought was unreal. He had walked the same streets as whites, had eaten in the same restaurants as whites, and even sat next to them on subways/buses. Ellison had experienced something, that in his time was very uncommon; white people who had respected black people; were polite to him; fully aware of the fact that he was black. Ellison says he doesn’t believe that these white common folk, even noticed his blackness, it was almost as if he was invisible; on those streets, on those subways/buses, in those restaurants he had became; the Invisible Man.

Walking about the streets, sitting on subways beside whites, eating with them in the same cafeterias (although I avoided their tables) gave me the eerie, out-of-focus sensation of a dream. My clothes felt ill-fitting; and for all my letters to men of power, I was unsure of how I should act […] I hadn't worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon after brushing against me in a crowd. Still I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me, that they would have begged the pardon of Jack the Bear, never glancing his way if the bear happened to be walking along minding his business. It was confusing. I did not know if it was desirable or undesirable...
Sometimes the opportunities that we are presented with can sometimes confuse us into the misconception that the opportunity should be desired. Here Ellison was with white people, what many black people, in his day, had at least wanted to experience at one point in there lives. Ellison was shocked on how polite and kind white people could be to him, although he was black. However, Ellison failed to realize was that they didn’t really notice Ellison’s blackness, because in this world, surrounded by white people, he never was in it. This experience eludes to a fantasy or a thought that Ellison had of “What would it be like?” What would it be like to be a black man in the 1900’s surrounded around white people who were racist towards black people? \

Opportunities surround us and are presented to us in different forms, however our eyes have to be open into seeing these often wonderful and desirable opportunities. Ellison was presented with a opportunity but with opportunities come dilemmas, in this case, Ellison’s was, should his opportunity be desired or should it be left alone?

Works Cited

Benston, K.W., ed., Speaking for You: Ralph Ellison's Cultural Vision (1986);

Hersey, John, ed., Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays (1974); O'Meally, R.G., The Craft of Ralph Ellison (1980). http://www.levity.com/corduroy/ellison.htm

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Crossing the Danger Water: 300 years of African American Writing. Ed. Deirdre Mullane. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. 589-600

Webster's New World Dictionary. 1995.


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