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On American Education and Assimilation

Ralph Ellison’s views on education and assimilation into ‘American’ society, as expressed in Invisible Man, differ greatly from those of Booker T. Washington as expressed in Up From Slavery. Ellison quotes Washington in the text of Invisible Man, yet his views of race relations take exception to Washington’s. It can be concluded that Ellison was influenced, or inspired to write Invisible Man, because of Washington.

To begin an analysis of these two author’s works, it is necessary to have a brief historical placement of their lives. Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856, and as he states in Up From Slavery, " . . . in the midst of the most miserable, desolate and discouraging surroundings." After nine years as a slave in Virginia, the Civil War had ended, and emancipation was a reality. At the age of twelve, Washington was already working in the only occupations he could find—mining and other labor-intensive and dangerous work. Not content with hard labor as a life’s goal, he made his dream of going to school a reality. Washington was able to acquire a general education while working as a servant for Mrs. Viola Ruffner, the wife of a mine owner, who fostered his desire to attend night school. Soon after, with patience, luck, hard work and a burning desire, Washington graduated from the Hampton Institute, a school of industrial education. With the recommendation of his Hampton mentor, Samuel C. Armstrong, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute with the goal of educating and uplifting his race through industrial education. Washington went on to become a renowned speaker for his time, and he was well regarded by both blacks and whites for his teachings of coexistence. (Lauter, 982)

Ralph Ellison was born in 1914, after the struggles of reconstruction, which was still present in the collective memory of America. Like many others in this era, Ellison migrated to New York—Harlem—after attending an industrial school in the South. Ellison was expelled from school after showing white patrons the ‘black quarter’; His action was deemed inappropriate behavior. Like Washington, he was no stranger to hard work. Employed at a paint factory that was little more than slave labor, he joined left-wing causes and supported communist-like politicians to further political aims. Ellison never saw himself as an activist, yet his works would become the subject of scrutiny as political rhetoric. Invisible Man was published in 1952—two years before the supreme court would rule in Brown vs. Board of Education that ‘separate but equal’ doctrines were unconstitutional. The timing of its release was a foreshadowing of the strife and hardship that would become the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The concept of being invisible relates his feelings as a black man, not a man, but being viewed as something different by whites because of his pigmentation. Ellison’s life, writings and philosophy on race relations may, perhaps, be summed up in his quasi-autobiographical language from Invisible Man below—(Sikorski, 1996)


I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Invisible Man, not to be confused with the science-fiction novel, tells the story of a young, black man in high school. He gives a powerful speech at his graduation and is asked by a group of affluent and influential whites to give the same speech at one of their gatherings, but he is haunted by the dying words of his grandfather that encourage him to ‘keep up the fight’. The main character believes the opportunity would be a great triumph for his community and agrees. Before giving the speech, he is invited to partake in a ‘battle royal’ with his schoolmates. The battle turns out to be a shameless and brutal form of entertainment for the whites, who view the event like a strange sort of cock fight. After a brutal beating, near-electrocution and a good deal of embarrassment, he delivers his speech.

The most obvious allusion in Invisible Man to Washington’s rhetoric comes in the main character’s speech after the battle royal, which is a near quotation from Washington’s speech at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895. From Invisible Man

We the younger generation extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator . . . A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal; ‘Water, Water; we die of thirst!’ The answer from the friendly vessel came back: ‘Cast down you bucket where you are.’ The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket, and it came up full of fresh sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon river.

This text is taken nearly verbatim from Washington’s oration, and it goes further to imitate his rhetoric by postulating that race relations should be friendliness with southern whites, and that blacks should become willing partners with them. The allusion is powerful to those who have read Washington’s speech, because it implies not only a philosophy, but a call to action for blacks. In his address, Washington states that newly freed slaves should befriend whites and help them to build the nation and infrastructure. He goes on to say that it is the responsibility of blacks to gain knowledge and education in trades and industry so that they may be ‘worthy’ of their freedom and political equality. This is espoused in his concluding remarks from the address—

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest of folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than that of artificial forcing . . . It is important and right that all privileges of law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

Ellison places this allusion carefully, and takes a step toward his intentions of discrediting Washington. During the speech in Invisible Man, the main character is interrupted repeatedly and forcefully. He is grilled on his use of the words, ‘social responsibility’, and the white patrons ask him to repeat it seven or eight times. Under pressure, he utters ‘social equality’ instead. The placement of this phrase was no accident, furthermore, it is highlighted with nearly a full page of text. The inference is that the main character does not feel in his gut the words he is speaking. When pressured repeatedly, he says his true feelings—he advocates social equality. This is precisely opposite of what Washington states in his speech, as quoted above.

Another reference to Washington in Invisible Man is stated quite plainly, while the main character decides on participating in the ‘battle royal’.

I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington.

The two references to Washington are clues to let the reader know that the story is related to Washington’s words. It may even suggest to the reader who is not familiar with his works to research them for a better understanding of the text. It may be possible to infer the meaning of Ellison’s work without a knowledge of Washington, but it adds a great deal of resonance when they are taken together.

A continuous thread runs through Invisible Man from the beginning, after a brief introduction, with the death of the main character’s grandfather. His dying words are poignant and provide a theme for the rest of the work. He tells the main character that his life has been a disingenuous lie, and he repents his inaction.

Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight, I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the reconstruction. . . 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.

The words haunt the main character throughout the chapter, and eventually become clear in the end of the first chapter in a dream. The presence of the grandfather as a device hearkens back to the times of Washington and slavery. It cleverly acts as a conscience for the main character. When he slips in the word ‘equality’, it is the grandfather’s voice we hear.

After the main character’s speech, he is lauded with praise and is presented with a calfskin briefcase that contains a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. He is overcome with joy and pride until he dreams that night. In the dream, he is in a circus where he does not laugh at clowns. His grandfather is there, and his briefcase contains an envelope, which contains an envelope, and continues with a nearly endless cycle. When he opens the last, it encloses a paper which his grandfather makes him read aloud. It says, "Keep this nigger boy running." He wakes, with no insight, on his way to college.

The dream is Ellison’s final attack on Washington. The motif of the grandfather’s words is concluded. The message points out that with all of his apparent success, the main character is run around, without meaning, by whites. He is living through their lives for their lives, and he has no real freedom or equality. The phrase "keep this nigger boy running" echoes the grandfather’s deathbed warning and advice. The grandfather heeds him to "overcome ‘em with yesses" and "agree ‘em to death", which is exactly what the affluent white men have done to the main character. They give him what he believes to be victories—the opportunity for a speech, the chance to prove his worth in the battle royal, the college scholarship—all of it, to keep him running.

The multiple, overt references to Booker T. Washington are devices Ellison uses to make his reader aware of the purpose for his writing of Invisible Man. The text may be read and appreciated in its own right, and the ideas of Washington can be inferred from context, but the reader can gain a great deal more by understanding the references. The direct naming of Washington is, perhaps, a call for the unfamiliar reader to research Washington out of curiosity. The use of Washington’s words against him, the device of the grandfather, and the overall tone of Invisible Man make it an exposition of the failure of Washington’s philosophy. The text presents a viable and believable character who visualizes himself as a ‘Booker T. Washington’; he learns through experience and the echo of the dying words of his grandfather a great lesson. Washington’s call for friendship with whites, industrial education and assimilation into the ‘white’ America, will not uplift his race, but retard it. It will, in his words, "Keep this nigger boy running." The freedom and equality promised by the emancipation must be earned, struggled for and taken—they will not be given. This is counter to Washington’s beliefs, as stated in his Atlanta Exposition address of 1895, and is the main lesson to be learned from the story.


Works Cited


Lauter, Paul, General Editor. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, vol. II, 2nd edition.
New York: Heath, 1994

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man New York: 1952

Grace Sikorski, In-class discussion, English 232w: Pennsylvania State University

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