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ABSTRACT: I use Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to consider the requirements of existentialism to be relevant to racialized experience. Black existentialism is distinguished from white existentialism by its focus on anti-black racism. However, black existentialism is similar to white existentialism in its moral requirement that agents take responsibility so as to be in good faith. Ralph Ellison's invisible man displays good faith at the end of the novel by assuming responsibility for his particular situation. The idiosyncratic development of the novel can be interpreted as an example of the ways in which existentialist values ought to be instantiated through unique individual experience. However, blackness, or any racial identity, is not itself an existential structure because it is not universal. Rather, existentialist requirements for good faith can be applied to racialized situations by both whites and blacks.
American traditions and institutions perpetuate the disadvantaged positions of nonwhites in ways that black people have experienced as personal in particular situations. This importance of race in public and private life, as well as subjective experiences of racism, have drawn to existentialism both black and white philosophers who address racial issues. Indeed, the marginal status of existentialism in philosophy is a good match for the marginal status of racial studies, and the marginal presence of black philosophers. Also, the awareness of human difficulty by existentialists, generally, is relevant to the specific difficulties of the American black experience.
Ralph Ellison has been claimed and interpreted by existentialist theorists and critics, since the mid-1950s. The early existentialist readings of his novel, Invisible Man, look naive today because in their emphasis on the universal dimensions of the narrator's predicaments, which are read as existentialist predicaments, they ignore the extent to which Ellison was addressing white racism. (2) Those racially-neutral readings are no longer credible in the context of the anti-racist scholarship of the second half of the twentieth century, which requires that non-white racial status and the effects of racism on that status be addressed before claims about universal humanity can be made. This requirement blocks the use of universalist claims to protect, conceal and sanitize continuing racism in public action and unspoken belief. (3) The unacceptability of generalizations from black experience, which do not acknowledge the effects of racism on that black experience, to all human experience, is mirrored by the unacceptability of generalizations from white experience to all human experience.
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If existentialism is a universalist type of humanism, this raises the question of where exactly in Invisible Man Ellison's existentialism can be read. Throughout the novel, the narrator explores typical existential modes of authenticity, alienation, absurdity, and anxiety. The famous "I yam what I am"
scene when the narrator reaffirms his black southern "roots" through his rediscovered love of roasted sweet potatoes suggests
authenticity — because what he is, is a source of shame for him under white eyes. (4) But he transcends the shameful object that he is by affirming it, so that he is no longer a source of shame to himself. As someone who loves roasted sweat potatoes, he would still be a shameful object under white eyes but what he is under white eyes is something that he has to apprehend through his own eyes. And, he does not have to accept the vision of himself held by whites, or other blacks who see themselves through white eyes. (Although an alternative and perhaps more Sartrean application of the concept of authenticity, here, might locate it the narrator reaffirming his love for roasted sweet potatoes in [deliberate] defiance of how that love is regarded.) (5)
Ellison's narrator experiences alienation, directly from whites and insideously from blacks (beginning with Bledsoe). There is absurdity in the way events in his life cause situations to errupt that have no connection with his intentions, and this gives rise to his chronic and acute anxiety. However, these typical existential structures of authenticity, alienation, absurdity and anxiety are insufficient to constitute an existential awareness without responsiblity. But it is only at the end of the novel that Ellison's narrator assumes responsibility for his situation, when he announces his intention to emerge from his underground refuge. He then tells us he might have "a socially responsible role to play," even as an invisible man. It's ambiguous whether he intends to be responsible to whites, as well as blacks, but it's definite that he is assuming responsiblity for himself. (6) The important point in terms of a specifically black existentialism is that regardless of the existential dimensions of situations caused by the bad faith of others — and authenticity, alienation, absurdity and anxiety are all conditioned by bad faith outside of the narrator's subjectivity — a complete existential awareness would require that one address one's own bad faith, no matter one's position in the oppressive situation. That is, blacks, no less than whites, have to address their own bad faith, where bad faith is a concealment of the freedom one had of not choosing to be in a particular situation. (In Ellison's narrator's case, the choice was acceptance or non-rejection of the white view of black people that made him invisible to whites.)
Unreflective reactions of black people to oppression, such as idealization of whites, self-hatred and acceptance of powerlessness, are richly explored and reflected on by Ellison's narrator throughout the long, loosely plotted story. The existentialist rationale for this kind of exploration and reflection is that racism has individual pyschological effects that have to be processed on an individual psychological level before general intellectual and ethical positions can be authentically assumed by the same individual. That is, the invisible man has to both conceptualize racism and undo its effects on him as a particular individual before he is in a position to play a responsible role: white anti-black racism literally casts him underground in the first place and his hibernation and narration constitute a psychological processing (or therapy) so that only when he completes telling his story is he free as an "existentialist hero." (7)
The fact that black existence is structured by anti-black racism does not in itself entail that black existence is more existential than white existence or that, on the grounds of race, black existence typifies an existentialist perspective for everyone. Rather, existential philosophical tools can be applied to black (racialized) existence just as they can be applied to white (racist) existence. In the application to black existence, racism, as a complex of daily structures imposed by others, becomes a required subject of analysis. Symmetrically, in the application of existentialist tools to white existence, racism, as a complex of daily structures imposed on others, becomes a required subject of analysis. On both sides of racism, good faith would come out at the end of the analysis, after a process of individual reflection on particular events. That is, racism, for blacks and whites, involves acts of bad faith that in each case belong to particular individuals. Racism, (like death on Heidegger's construction, but without the depth or inevitability of death) is in each case, as either something done to me or something that I do, my own.
The foregoing demand for particular exploration and reflection sets the standard of a careful existentialism on the level of individual existence. The justification for the standard is that existentialism is supposed to pertain to the existence of individuals: Individual existence is always particular, not just as a general abstraction, such that everyone's particularity can be considered the same, but in living fact, such that everyone's particularity is experienced uniquely and needs to be described in its specificity. If the careful standard is accepted, it means that the awareness of responsiblity that avoids bad faith in individual situations does not come automatically to anyone. An existentialist philosopher, such as Sartre, may speak of such acknowledged responsiblity as potentially present and ethically imperative for everyone, but there is no assurance that it is present to anyone, much less to everyone who is aware of the bad faith of others. People do not assume responsibility for themselves in difficult situations unless they have fully experienced their difficulties and accepted them. The pain caused by the difficulties has to be experienced before one can be free of it. Denial of pain is a psychological defense that also blocks release from pain. The burden of having a human psychology that works in this way cannot be avoided any more than the burden of having a human biology that works in its ways can be avoided. Choices of death, anesthetization, or insanity are attempts to avoid the workings of human pyschology (and biology). However, such choices and other forms of evasion have consequences that limit further choice. Evasion in these forms is therefore a self-destructive abrogation of individual freedom, assuming that choice or freedom is an essential part of human identity. Furthermore, even though the consequences of evasion may not be consciously chosen along with the evasion from which they ensue, they become the responsiblity of the evader.
I'll close with another example of the relevance of good faith to race. Franz Fanon posits racism as an existential structure when he explains how the internalization of white racism interferes with his bodily self-perceptions or bodily schema. But, why doesn't Fanon reject the overlay of racism on his normal bodily schema? Since he is able to describe that schema without the distortions imposed on it through his perceptions of how white racists perceive him, there is reason to believe he could reject the distortions. (8) And even if he cannot reject them, he ought to realize that there is an important sense in which he is not his body. As described by Sartre, the consciousness that is aware of itself is too non-material and transparent to be identical with anything that could be racialized, i.e., with a body. (9) While few contemporary philosophers would be willing to call such a thin Sartrean-Cartesean consciousness a "self," it can nontheless be guilty of bad faith by lying about its own no-thingness and transparency, that is, its inability to be causally determined by things that are not it, that is, its freedom.
In response to this objection, Fanon might insist that particular existence for whites and blacks entails bodily existence in a sense of identification with the body that cannot be denied. And in that sense, black bodily experience is unjustly burdened by white racism. Thus, while racism might not distort a disembodied sort of Cartesean philosophical self-identity, it undeniably distorts existential identification with one's body for a racialized person. (10) To ignore this distortion is to generalize from white experience to all human experience in a way that has a racist effect precisely because it ignores the ways in which racism makes bodily identification more compelling for black people than white people. That is, it would be easier for a white person, whose bodily schema is unimpeded and whose bodily existence is therefore less problematic than that of a black person, to choose not to identify the self with the body. Nonetheless, this unfairness is a problem of good faith from the perspective of a white person; it does not lift the responsibility of a black person to work out his or her freedom. I have been talking about existentialism as though existentialist philosophers agreed that it derives from Sartre's mid-century writings. Some African American philosophers have suggested that any intellectual focus on a particular type of situation, such as a situation experienced by blacks in a racist culture, is a form of existentialism. I don't mean to dispute the value of narrative — I merely assume that criticism is also valuable.
(1) This paper is part of a wider project on race, existentialism, ontology, phenomenology and the archetectonic thereof. It has benefitted from comments on earlier versions by Berel Lang, Felmon Davis and Frank Kirkland.
(2) Strictly speaking, there are two ways into this issue of the importance of racism in analyses of black existentialism. The first, that I am here criticizing as the naive approach refers to the interpretations of Ellison by contemporary critics who saw what would now be considered white existentialist themes in his writing, even though they did recognize his predicament as a black American. See for example, Ester Merle Johnson, "The American Negro and the Image of the Absurd," Twentieth Century Interpretations of INVISIBLE MAN, John M. Reilly, ed., New York: Random House, 1970, pp. 64-72. The identification of Ellison's work as posing distinctively black problems of existence, as Charles Johnson interprets it, for example (Being and Race, Bloomington and Indianapolis:Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 15-17), is a kind of halfway point to a distinctively black existentialist reading, such as Lewis Gordon's (see Lewis R. Gordon, "Existential Dynamics of Theorizing Black Invisibility," Existence in Black, Gordon, ed., New York: Routledge, 1996. pp. 69-79, esp. p. 73). Although, I will claim here that the narrator of Invisible Man is not an existentialist protagonist until the end of the novel.
(3) This is perhaps the foundation of black identity politics and it is pretty much taken for granted that ignoring race is an implicit form of white racism. But there are at least three different ways in which the claim has been made: Fanon's bitter reference to "denegrification" as an intention to irradicate blackness in individuals as part of a genocidal project; an insistance that ignoring race is a way of ignoring the known existence of racism and the problems it poses; an accusation that racial neutrality on the surface may conceal methods of picking out non-whites so that they can be harmed as nonwhites even though they are picked out on grounds that superficially appear to be unrelated to race, such as income or culture.
(4) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, New York: Random House, 1952,pp. 200-201.
(5) This would be parallel to Sartre's claim that a Jew is inauthentic if he is generous to spite the stereotype of avaricousness (Anti-Semite and Jew, New York, Schocken Books, 1965, Geroge C. Becker, trans. pp. 95-6). Ellison's narrator suggests that blacks who denounce roasted sweat potatoes or conceal their love for them, are inauthentic (though he does not use that word). Sartre would have to say that the Jew who is avaricious and displays his avarice is authentic. This example is problematic because a racialized person is already devalued in being racialized, and ascribing a vice to such a person adds a moral dimension to the original devaluation.
(6) "Old Bad Air is still around with his music and his dancing and his diversity, and I'll be up and around with mine. And, as I said before a decision has been made. I'm shaking off the old skin and I'll leave it here in the hole. I'm coming out, no less invisible without it but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose its damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that's my greatest social crime. I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibitity that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play." (Ellison,Invisible Man, pp. 438-9)
With this passage, the narrator gives us a concluding account of his situation: white racists are still present in society but he will be present as well, still invisible, i.e, black, but newly willing to participate as invisible, i.e., as black. The "old skin" refers to his position of withdrawal from being black, a position that despite being morally justified has to be left behind for him to go on as a member of society. In other words, there is now, a structure of a sulk, imposed on all that has (and has not) happened underground, that the narrator is here overcoming.
(7) Here, the sense of "hero" is not necessarily heroic or virtuous, but merely being a main character or perhaps, 'protagonist.'
(8) Fanon describes the interruption of his normal bodily schema by racism after beginning to tell us what the normal schema is like without imposed racist distortions. See Franz Fanon, Black Skin/White Masks (Charles Lam Markmann, trans. New York: Grove Press, 1967) pp. 110-144.
(9) The freedom of (non-material) consciousness for Sartre echoes the Cartesean theological tradition regarding mind-body dualism. That is, there is no way to give a satisfactory account of how a non-extended substance can be causally acted on by an extended substance. While Sartre's construction of consciousness as a sui generis upsurge is the foundation for his theory of freedom and therefore, responsibility (which is his main concern) the non-materiality of Sartrean consciousness also differentiates it from a physical human body. Indeed, consciousness in Sartre's sense is even differentiated from the ego of Descartes' Meditations which in Sartre's (Husserlian) analysis becomes an object of conscious reflection. See Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, Forest Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick, trans., New York: Farratr, Straus and Giroux, 1957, pp. 40-49.
(10) See Lewis R. Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, Atlantic Highlands, NJ : Humanities Press, 1995; idem, "Race, Sex and matrices of Desire in an Antiblack World," RACE/SEX: Their Sameness, Difference and Interplay, Naomi Zack, ed., New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 117-132.