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Monica Kempski Summer Reading Project

Social Protest

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison was a momentous novel of its time. The story

follows a young college-age black man (IM) in his quest of personal identity. The novel

exposed the evils of racism that are difficult to eradicate. Ellison portrays the racial

barrier that prevents blacks from gaining their rights. Without their rights and say, blacks

become invisible and dispossessed. Social protest is a way to address dissatisfaction and

allows one to be known and visible. Thus, invisibility is shattered.

Racism is a prominent evil in the novel that provides the fuel for many events of

social protest. First, IM obtains a job in Harlem to work for The Brotherhood, a society

that is involved in the protest for equality and harmony. IM loyally worked for them as a

speaker, but towards the end of the novel he finds out that the group is racist through their

planned riot to sacrifice African Americans. IM felt betrayed when he discovered the

society’s true meaning. The social protest he had devoted himself to was fraud, thus

driving IM to seek solitude to discover himself. When IM first arrives in Harlem, he sees

Ras the Exhorter using his racist attitude to rally up people with the objective of chasing

the whites out of the area. However, in return, the original racism of whites to blacks is

the root of his protest. This is a clash of double racism. When the whites were evil to Ras,

he in turn developed an attitude against the whites that influenced his actions. Also in the

plot, a policeman shoots and kills a black man named Clifton on the street. Beforehand,

he had caused no trouble other than doing his job in the street. Social protest arises from
this racist act. In Clifton’s eulogy, IM encourages the population of Harlem to take

immediate action in a riot. This is a clash of double racism. These events that IM

witnessed lead him to escape the evil and find his own path in life.

Significant speeches given by IM and others outline several paths for people to

follow to obtain what they want. Here, IM used his own bottled up anger and the anger of

other blacks to his advantage. First, IM’s graduation speech implied social protest in the

ideals of Brooker T. Washington. In the speech, he talked about the importance of

education in climbing the steep ladder of equality. In IM’s view, education allows for

whites to see that blacks could blossom in educated. Thus, they would earn there respect

from whites by implying that blacks are not the ignorance in society. IM gave his second

important speech when part of the community was about to riot in illegal actions during

an elderly couple’s eviction from their apartment. Here, IM suggested that all blacks must

be “law abiding people and slow-to-anger people.” (275) IM was implying that if a

person truly believes in a non-violent approach to equality, they will act respectively,

even if dispossession comes into the issue. Later in the story when IM works for the

Brotherhood, he reiterates blacks’ dispossession in an arena speech. Even though the

crowd was doubtful at first, he identified the problem. “And do you know what makes us

so uncommon?......we let them [disposess us!]” (343) In this line from his speech, IM is

continuing to urge the public to react to the apparent inequality of blacks to whites.

These speeches use social protest to express the path of non-violence to gain equality. In

contrast, Ras the Exhorter is at the opposite pole when it comes to ideals to gain equality.

He and his men engage in violent forms of protest. At the riot due to Clifton’s death, he

rallied up his followers to obtain guns and ammunition to doom the opposing population
to death. Both approaches of social protest can be chosen by people depending on what

they believe. IM’s approach defines a calm person who will take a slow and passive

approach in life. In contrast, Ras defines an efficient person who will do whatever it

takes, despite morals to get what he wants.

The setting of 1930s America was perfect for Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man.

Social protest arises, often concentrating on the evils of racism. Through the novel, IM

did whatever he could to help Harlem defeat racism. He gave several speeches that

influenced many African Americans to act in social protest, encouraging that population

to no longer remain invisible. In return, evil backfired and IM used his own experiences

and ideals to escape underground. Here, IM discovers who he is and what he believes in.

After this experience, he solidifies his discovery by writing about his experience. IM

further realizes that he must, instead of remaining invisible, in order to alter the status

quo.

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