Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great American novel.
Ellison’s ability to make the reader feel the racism of the time is unsettling. The painful experience of living in a country that views you with disdain—that sees you as a problem—permeates the text.
It is also a deeply philosophical novel. Consider the following outline of the novel written by Ellison to his literary agent as he was beginning what would be a 7-year writing process:
The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.
Ellison’s novel is deeply existential. The nameless protagonist (nameless because of the cultural identity the slaves lost when brought to America) deals endlessly with alienation and anxiety—conditions Ellison links to the harsh realities of being black in America. This protagonist tries to find meaning in religion, romance, and revolutionary movements, but ultimately discovers that no place safe. Meaning is illusive when forced to live with dehumanization. He finds himself unable to actualize being in a society that fails to see his humanity. Ultimately, he makes the conscious decision to retreat from life and become in actuality what he is culturally: an invisible man.
While race is a relatively new subject of formal philosophical inquiry, writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison have explored philosophical issues as it relates to the black experience in America. Through their fiction and essays, they allow suffering to speak by giving voice to those who are permanent residents in the decay that that is the underside of American democracy. No discussion of fiction and philosophy should ignore the rich legacy of Black-American literature.
If you have not read Invisible Man, I encourage you to do so immediately.