In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed
Incipit vita nova.
Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book, or if not all, at least their meaning.

Dante,La Vita Nuova

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Too Muchee!

There is so much I want to say. I just passed page 300 and I don't know where to begin.

First, Ellison's character development is astounding. We have met about twenty characters or something and each person is as developed as he or she should be, according to how much time, speech and description they are given. Many aren't given more than a few pages, and they are quite vivid, deep. Take for instance, Trueblood, the farmer who impregnated both his wife and his daughter. His story, which was heard in its entirety by one of the rich, white trustees for a black university, gave us a glimpse and all there is to know about this one man and his situation. He was living in wretched poverty, a truly desolate situation. He dreams one night that he is sleeping with a white woman and with it comes all the conflicting emotions and fear--only to wake up atop of his daughter. Now, the more wonderful (and I mean "wonder"ful in its truer sense) thing he does is allow people who are supposedly uneducated and inarticulate, to speak in the most articulate, lyrical, metaphorical manner using southern black vernacular, while inserting double entendres to delineate truths that are not acknowledged by any of the characters because they were meant for me, the reader. EX: Trueblood (even his name for Pete's sake!) is explaining the dream in which he came to have sex with a white woman: Everything in the room was white and I'm standin' there knowin' I got no business in there, but there anyhow... I tries to git out, but I don't find the door; and all around me I can smell woman...Then I looks over in a corner and sees one of them tall grandfather clocks and I hears it strinkin' and the glass door is openin' and a white lady is steppin' out of it....she looks straight at me. I don't know what to do. I wants to run, but the only door I see is the one in the clock she's standin' in... [and the clock is] gittin faster and faster all the time. I tries to say somethin', but I can't. It leaves tons of room for interpretation, doesn't it? He's trapped in a white world. He doesn't know how to get out. The only exit is "time," but "time" is moving faster and faster, out of his control, not allowing him to leave. The woman stares right at him. She's alluring him to do what white society has labeled to be abominable. It's fucking brilliant.

Ellison juxtaposes Trueblood with another character, a black physician who served in WWII and learned his trade in France. He comes home only to realize that the color of his skin will not allow him to be a learned man who contributes to society and he speaks with standard grammar and high vocabulary, as the narrator points out, like a white man. In fact, he speaks directly to the white trustee without apology and in fact is the one with the knowledge to help when the white dude passes out. I leave out the setting for the sake of time and space, which is a shame because the Golden Day scene was unreal. But with this man, the concept of invisibility is slowly starting to settle in for the reader, although not as clearly for the narrator: But for God's sake, learn to look beneath the surface... And remember you don't have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don't believe in it...You're hidden right out in the open--that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn't see you because they don't expect you to know anything, since they believe they've taken care of that... Everyone is telling him who he is, how to be, what he can accomplish, in this case as an invisible man. 

What I find to be most awe-some is Ellison's ability to write in such a way to provoke a kind of tension between the reader and the narrator. The narrator is innocent and naive but becoming disillusioned. Trying to figure out what to do with his life AND WHO HE IS when there aren't many options (very similar to the Bigger Thomas conflict). The reader, on the other hand, feels frustrated with how slow to learn the character is because Ellison writes in a way that makes us think we know more than the protagonist (there is a term for that), but truthfully, we don't know what is happening to him, or us. We DON'T understand how much we are swept along with our own circumstances and how people tend to define us. (I just watched Fahrenheit 9/11. Damn the last administration to pieces!!) 

It's amazing so far. Much has happened, mostly concerning disillusionment. Being naive and thinking being black doesn't matter if he tries hard enough (the American dream), he moves to New York and goes through a hurricane of awakenings. I'm at the part now where he's meeting all the white folks who are fighting for "all people" strategically. And he has no power except for what they allow him to have- which is none at all. The illusion of power when really you're just a cog.


I took a break from this post and now I'm at page 400 and I'm amazed STILL. He brings back powerful images from past pages to create parallels-- like the religious hypocrisy he experiences while in the South. The reverend from Chicago who gives a sermon at the university and yanks, rips out everyone's heartstrings with the ups and downs of his thunderous voice--convincing everyone that they are part of a great African American- no, people's movement-- turns out to be blind. He has no idea what black or white looks like. The reverend moves people with his voice and his rhetoric, but really says nothing much at all, and literally cannot see anything at all... 

AND LOOK! That's what invisible man is doing now for the Brotherhood! He even uses the same preaching style that he learned from the South to make big speeches, trying to define identity and passion for other people so they might join the movement or feel inspired, while still having no idea who he is and allowing others (or are they forcing it on him) to define who he is! He keeps referring to "putting on new clothes" and becoming someone new- even if he didn't feel it, that he would become "it"... If you act the part, you genuinely start to believe it at some point, not knowing it is hypocrisy.  He is metaphorically blind. 

It's so sad because right before he met the Brotherhood, he was just saying "What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?" (266) At this point, he thinks he is doing what he wants to do, but Ellison is dropping mad hints that this is not the case at all. Another point for "them," still zero for invisible man. 


In response to Gary, who wrote so poignantly about his struggle with whiteness, I am astounded to find a white guy who feels this way. Most "majority" people feel bad for past/present injustice, but they don't take it personally. Maybe he's on to something when he says that the struggle found him and not the other way around. 

His post also made me think of all the many which ways I could relate to this book. First as a minority who has the rest of society telling you who they think you are. I was talking about this with Mary and Mish last night- like, if you are AfAm who can't dance, people think there is something wrong with you. I remember in college, my friend Deshonda said, "I am NEVER late for class. If I'm late, I don't go. Or else I'm that black girl who walked in late. Colored People Time. Everyone notices me. If a white girl walked in late, no one would remember which one." You are defined by what "they" say you are and whether you fit that standard or you buck against it. Which reminds me of a great line in the book: "What a group of people we were, I thought. Why you could cause us great humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked. Not all of us, but so many." I like fried rice. I bow. I like conserving my money and being cheap sometimes. Suddenly those things become stereotypical and now I have to decide. Will I be loud and proud? Or will I try to break stereotypes? But I like fried rice. 

As an Asian American, your identity to the majority is defined by the media- because American history doesn't ever recount Asian immigrant experiences except for a few things: The Chinese built the railroads, the Japanese were placed in internment camps, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Most people today wouldn't look at me and assume that I have much to do with those things, except white-American folks over the age of sixty who never fail to tell me about the Korean War. Also, we live in a black v. white, now black v. white v. latino culture, and the Asian minority (which has so many unique ethnic groups within it) become the minority of the minorities (although the Native Americans top us in diminutiveness for sure) and that means there are not even enough stereotypes to buck against. I have been called Margaret Cho AND Lucy Liu AND the girl from Gilmore Girls. How can I look like all three? White frat boys from U of Illinois never gave me the time of day in college (oh, if I had the time to share my and my friends' stories), but after we graduated and moved back to Chicago, I got hit on by them at bars: Oh, you went to U of I the same time I did! How come I never saw you? What are you? Oh, Korean. What would your parents say if you brought home a white boy? My sister married a black guy and my parents are not about it. You know, the older generation is so ignorant sometimes. How big of him! What does he want me to say to that--oh my, you're quite open-minded. What, now that you're in the real world, you walk up to a table of Asian girls, buy all of them a round of drinks and think you can get some exotic ass?  

There's not much I can be to the general public. Plus, Betty Brown wants us to change our names. Talk about identity theft.

May I say, on top of this, I'm a professing, Bible-reading Christian. As an Asian American Christian, I have no clue what the white evangelical folks are up to- I mean, I do to some degree of course. But it seems like a different world, a world where white folks live and do crazy shit like curse homosexuals and then molest little boys or ask for money on PTL and then go to jail and write a book about how Jesus didn't really like money at all. Korean churches had other shit. The adults were super-conservative and the kids were super-heretical. In Chicago, there is a joke that goes "Let's make like a Korean church and split" because so many churches were dividing because of politics. It made me hate anything that was conservative and anything that was political. FUCK THAT SHIT! 

So add that. Now I carry all the stigma of being a Christian in a white, right wing Conservative Evangelical movement with George W. and all his Bible study friends ALONG with being a geisha-seductress, math whiz who plays the violin and eats fried rice. If you can imagine that there could be still another very large dimension to my identity crisis, there is the Korean immigrant culture that is instilled in me by my parents and family friends and how I grew up.  I can't even go into what Korean culture tries to dictate when talking about identity. It would make my little brain blow up trying to communicate that in English to mostly non-Korean readers. 

I'm not trying to say, oh boo hoo poor me who grew up in such an oppressive culture. But reading this book, it makes me realize just how powerfully a majority culture can create and manipulate the norm, and how many, including members of the majority, do not fit into it. Invisible Man does a good job of showing us that we all grow up a certain way and are told to have certain beliefs and are told to be certain people. 

But like Gary, something should not sit right in all of us. 

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