Essay on Search for Identity in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

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Between the Great Depression and mid-1940’s, many blacks struggled for acceptance and visibility in America. Oppressed by white society and overwhelmed by its control, they often endured countless betrayals and indignities simply for acknowledgment of their existence. In spite of suffering so much, however, many blacks lost more than they had hoped to gain, including their humanity and identity. Ralph Ellison, a prominent author fascinated by man’s search for identity, thought that blacks were invisible primarily because whites refused to "see" them. He believed that true identity could be revealed by experiencing certain endeavors and overcoming them (Parr and Savery 86). Ellison explores this theme in Invisible Man, which depicts the …show more content…
Before he died, the narrator’s grandfather advised his family to use deception to "overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction…" (qtd. in Schor 56). Dr. Bledsoe, the local college president, also misleads the protagonist, convincing him that pretense is necessary for achievement. The narrator thinks that if he meets society’s expectations–despite whether he supports them or whether he compromises his integrity–he will be rewarded with respect and acceptance (Parr and Savery 88). These false impressions, however, allow others to exploit him and take away parts of his identity. For example, the hero is asked to recite a speech to the town’s leading white citizens, but the crowd, really a group of drunk men, forces the narrator to participate in blind boxing matches and suffer several other humiliations. He endures them, though, hoping to win the audience’s approval even at the price of his dignity (Schor 58). According to Valerie Smith, "the mere possibility of a reward justifies any insults…to which [the narrator] may be subjected" (93). Simply to gain acceptance, he is losing a part of himself, and this eagerness to fit into society prohibits him from doing otherwise.

The narrator’s loss of identity also stems from his inability to understand or accept his black heritage (Draper 674). He is ashamed of his Southern roots, and he often disparages his ethnicity and racial traditions. He even fails to acknowledge others who
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