Dana Edwards Prodoehl is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Marquette University. Her research areas include African American literature, identity studies and social justice.
I’ve always found a kindred spirit in the narrator of Invisible Man. And, this is a strange experience to share with others—often it is met with disbelief and confusion. For one thing, I am white. For another, I am a woman. Neither of these realities is shared by the titular character. But, somehow, even with our extreme differences, when I read Ralph Ellison’s beautifully-penned descriptions of Invisible’s thoughts and actions, it is hard for me to not see myself in him. John F. Callahan, Ellison’s longtime friend and biographer, recounts a similar connection, although he is an Irish Catholic from New Haven, who, like me, ostensibly can share nothing with an African American from the segregation-era south:
“Yes, that’s me, I felt when I finished Invisible Man…Because I felt out of place at Jesuit Holy Cross I found a kinsman in Invisible Man, who was somehow an outsider at his Negro college.”
Is it a mutual experience of being an outsider, as Callahan posits, that draws the narrator and the reader together? Or, is there something deeper going on in these narrator/narratee relationships?
Mikhail Bakhtin might be useful here: he suggests that in order for narrative, especially short story and autobiography, to be effective, it must build relationships with its readers, who may or may not see themselves in the protagonist. This echoes both mine and Callahan’s experiences with the novel: even though we do not see ourselves in the protagonist explicitly, we are able to connect with him through a construction of mutual subjectivity—as any good reader understands, the narrator’s “I” often becomes the reader’s “I.”
What this means for me, as a good reader, is that when Invisible tells me about his run-ins with the Brotherhood or Ras the Destroyer, I imagine what I would do if placed in similar situations. Essentially, I become one with the narrator in ways that, given my racial, gender and historical identities, seem incomprehensible. The cause of such synergy is the author’s creation of sympathetic characters and my role as sympathetic reader. The result is a transformative experience for the reader: whereas on the first page, we stand outside the rhetorical structure of the novel, by the last page, we become part of, and are thereby changed by, the rhetorical structure.
As many academics know, fall is job search time again. And, preparing my own job documents has led me to ruminate on my ideal course: a semester-long exploration of how Ellison’s novel can affect social change. But, can I offer students a text simply because its contents have changed me? If we truly do believe that literature can have a transformative effect on students, then why not expose them to works that transformed us as professors?
Assigning such works will grant students exposure to a handful of lessons necessary to creating a more socially just world: 1) the idea that knowledge is created through exegetical practice and ongoing conversations, 2) contingent on the first, once they see how knowledge is created, they will be more able to take an active role in creating knowledge for themselves, and 3) students will, ideally, share their knowledge with others, both inside and outside the university.
To return to Ellison, I don’t think it is unwarranted to suggest that he had this kind of ripple effect in mind when writing his novel. We must only look to the riddle of Invisible’s grandfather for evidence: “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”
Without minimizing the deeper layers of this scene, the advice suggests that the listener gain, hold, and apply knowledge in order to ultimately subvert that which controls them. For the grandfather, this is the American system of segregation. While neither we, nor our students, may be struggling under the same yoke, we can take the lessons gained from knowledge and employ them to right the wrongs we see in the world, as the grandfather prompts his son and grandson to do.