Ten Minutes with Adam F. Bradley: On Invisible Man
It’s been 70 years since the publication of Ralph Ellison’s iconic novel. Hear how it continues to resonate today from a writer who studies the author’s most private documents.
Adam F. Bradley
Jun 24, 2022
See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.
Invisibility is not a fixed position. It’s a transient state.
Adam F. Bradley
Adam F. Bradley: I like to say that I first met Ralph Ellison when I was 19 years old—he already passed away. It’s a kind of ghost story because, you see, I encountered Ellison the way that most of us encounter famous authors, which is on the page.
I remember reading those opening lines—“I am an invisible man”—and seeing within it something of my own story. A young Black man finding his way into himself and his relationship to community, his sense of civic responsibility. All of these were things that I was grappling with as a biracial kid from Salt Lake City, Utah, and to have that book was powerful, powerful, powerful medicine for me.
My name is Adam Bradley. I’m a writer and a professor of English at UCLA. I’ve written extensively about the life and literature of Ralph Ellison.
Ralph Ellison is a Black American author born in 1913 in Oklahoma City, who came of age down south in Alabama at Tuskegee University, and finally makes his way to New York as a young man where he ends up spending the remainder of his life. He was a guiding figure in arts and culture during his lifetime, writing on race and music and politics and literature.
He was also, surprisingly, the author of only one novel. Although, if you’re going to write one novel, that novel (laughs) might as well be Invisible Man, one of the defining works of the 20th century, that lives on in our own moment.
Invisible Man tells the story of an unnamed protagonist, a young Black man who travels from a Southern college to New York City with the idea of making enough money to return and finish his degree. He ends up, in this process, confronting the realities of a segregated America, shaping society away from the very things that are tearing him down over the course of the journey that he takes us on—a journey where he faces racism, bigotry of all types, in which he fights against people’s mismeasure of his humanity.
Ellison begins his novel with a prologue, an introductory section that sets the tone and the theme of the work. It describes one of the settings in the book, where the main character inhabits what he calls his “underground hole”—a long forgotten basement of a segregated apartment building bordering Harlem. He has made it into his own personal hideout, equipping it with a total of 1,369 light bulbs. The prologue also introduces Ellison’s concept of invisibility, this function of the inner eye of those who look upon the protagonist and fail to see him.
I’d like to read a passage from the prologue that engages with the idea of light and shadow and invisibility:
“Perhaps you’ll think it’s strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light, but maybe it’s exactly because I’m invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. A beautiful girl once told me of a recurring nightmare in which she lay in the center of a large, dark room and felt her face expand until it filled the whole room, becoming a formless mass, while her eyes ran in bilious jelly up the chimney. And so it is with me. Without light, I’m not only invisible, but formless as well. And to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some 25 years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.”
Ellison struck upon the idea of beginning with a prologue pretty late in the nearly seven-year period of the novel’s composition. “I wanted to throw the reader off balance,” Ellison writes, “to make him accept certain non-naturalistic effects. It was really a memoir written underground, and I wanted a foreshadowing through which I hoped the reader would view the actions which took place in the main body of the book.”
The prologue gives him the ability to make his protagonist into a writer as well, to foreground how the protagonist is transformed by virtue of this act of imagination, this writing of his life that we’re to consider in these interceding chapters between prologue and epilogue.
This photograph by Jeff Wall drew inspiration from Invisible Man. He has this image that literalizes the setting of Ellison’s novel. Our eyes are first drawn above to the countless filament light bulbs hanging from the ceiling—perhaps even the 1,369 that Ellison details in the book. Wall overwhelms the image with the clutter of everyday objects: dirty dishes, clothing, a lounge chair, an old phonograph. Finally, our eyes settle on a solitary human figure, the bottom right quadrant of the frame: a young Black man, back mostly turned, seated in a folding chair.
This image epitomizes Wall’s style, which he’s practiced since the 1970s, of photographic cinematography. He stages elaborate scenes, charged with symbolism and iconic images, rather than seeking out fleeting moments in his frame.
Ellison himself thought quite a bit about how he would represent Invisible Man in a visual sense. In fact, he thought about how Invisible Man would look in the movies.
In a note that I read from Ellison’s private computer, he puzzles over how he could have his character, over the course of the book, disappear from the screen and then reappear, to fade in and out in that way. And behind that, I think, is an understanding of something fundamental about the novel, which is that invisibility is not a fixed position. It’s a transient state. And over the course of the novel, the protagonist flickers in and out of visibility, depending on who’s surrounding him, depending on his own internal construction of identity, depending on a host of factors that Ellison explores in the novel.
Ralph Ellison was trying to do something radical in Black American literature. This is a book, after all, that begins with “I,” “I am an invisible man”; and ends with “you,” with that haunting final line of the novel, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Now, I didn’t really appreciate it at the first time of reading the book, but I’ve come to appreciate now just how audacious that last sentence is. You see, this is a moment in which a great deal of Black literature would tend to be dismissed by white readership as only focused on and relevant to Black people, and here we have a young Black writer channeling the voice of a young Black character and claiming the capacity to speak not only for himself, but for you, whomever you may be. It’s a really bold, bold moment in the book that still has resonance today.
Ellison believed that we are all capable of making that connection to a work of art, of building the bridge. No art should be inaccessible to someone based upon their identity–their race, their gender, whatever it might be. Some readers will have a privileged and particular relationship to Ellison’s novel based upon their identity, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point of entry for any reader to access the power of the story.
I think of my daughters when they’ll be able to read the book in five or six years. When they read it, a lot of the specific references that the novel makes will be unclear, will need a little bit of decoding, yet so much of the story itself, the power of this personal narrative of finding identity and finding one’s voice, all of these things will endure. So in that regard, it’s a book very much of his time, and yet it dilates to account for a host of issues that we still are grappling with today.
Adam F. Bradley is a professor of English and the founding director of the Laboratory for Race & Popular Culture (RAP Lab) at UCLA. He is a writer-at-large for the *New York Times*’ T Magazine, where he contributes essays and profiles on arts and culture. Bradley is the author or editor of six books, including Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop; The Anthology of Rap; and the New York Times bestseller One Day It’ll All Make Sense, a memoir he wrote for the rapper and actor Common. He has also written extensively on the literature and legacy of Ralph Ellison. Bradley’s latest book, The Poetry of Pop, unlocks the mysteries of word, image, and sound in popular music across genres, featuring the music of Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé, and others.
This episode was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez and Joan Horn, with original music by Barry Olusegun-Noble Despenza and sound design by Brandi Howell.
MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Ten Minutes with K. Melchor Hall: On Black Motherhood
Listen to the acclaimed writer talk about Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture Mother and Child, and its connections to rest, intimacy, and reproductive justice.
K. Melchor Hall
May 4, 2022
Pleasure Gardening with Tourmaline
Listen to an audio tour exploring sites of freedom dreaming in Manhattan.
Tourmaline, Arlette Hernandez, T. Jean Lax
Jun 16, 2021