Monday, February 18, 2013

The outsider as Negro in modern
black novels

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

The phenomenon of the outsider both as a “marginal” man and the man “from underground” is neither new nor confined solely in American society. Yet it is not too farfetched to say that the outsider as archetype has found no turbulently modern expression than in the fabric of the Negro life in contemporary America. Notwithstanding the existence of other minority or ethnic groups in America whose encounter with mainstream American experience must of necessity produce outsiders in different guises, the black outsider is here given focus for analysis because of the overridingly explosive history, let alone the problematic character, of the Negro situation. But this study is not interested in mere sociology although that will not be brushed aside if it throws light on a fuller understanding of what it means to be a Negro on American soil. It assumes that an insightful probing into the Negro question may be found in the works of no less than the committed Negro novelists themselves.

It must be conceded that modern American writers other than the blacks have written with sympathy and understanding about the plight of the American Negro. There is Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, or Harper Lee or Mark Twain or even William Faulkner. Yet it takes a Negro to speak for his own kind how it is to be black in a world where he is at once an insider and outsider. The major novels by two notable black writers are here selected not only for being pivotal in the literary history of modern black fiction, but also for their perceptive treatment of the Negro as outsider. Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man are deemed to provide an in-depth perspective on the Negro dilemma. No pretensions are here made as to exhaustiveness of analysis, limited as it is to the works cited. Still, if some shards of truth into the Negro reality are afforded by looking into Wright’s and Ellison’s representative works, then that is justification enough for this essay. Extra-literary knowledge is brought to bear on the exploration of the black man’s problem to make possible a view of it on a wider perspective.

What is the outsider, to begin with? He is a man sundered both from within and from without. As a self-divided man, he is torn between two conflicting personalities in himself. As an outsider to society, he is painfully aware of his essential otherness or separateness from the rest of his fellowmen. He feels he is so different from others including even his family and friends. A virtual stranger even to himself, he cannot live side by side with other people without a danger of divorce. This existential situation breeds in him a sense of estrangement so that he either retreats into a shell of indifference as a kind of defense mechanism or else turns into a rebel out to defy the untenable scheme of things. Shuttling between two worlds in neither of which he fully lives, he ultimately emerges without roots; the very ground shifts under his feet so that he is rendered a vagrant without moorings, without a place to lay his head on.

The Negro outsider easily fits into the above sketch of the outsider. So, too, does a host of other fictional outsiders who may be said to be his prototypes if not actually his ancestors—from Dostoevsky’s man from the underground to Camus’ stranger or even Kafka’s K. They all share the weird feeling that there is a slip somewhere in the machinery of the universe. Both Wright and Ellison do not hide the fact of their common indebtedness to these old Continental masters. It devolves on them to translate their shared inspiration to their own personal idiom and the characteristic temper of their time and race, and in the process enable the Negro to see the spectacle of himself up against societal forces that shake the core of his being. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Camus’ Meursault are both outsiders implicated in a crime against society. In their Negro counterparts, violence also figures prominently in the surface action. For the Negro, as for their European models, it assumes a meaning larger than the life it blots out.

The Negro, like the other ethnic groups in the States, is often referred to as a hyphenated American, i.e., “Negro-American” or “non-white.” This label, attached to the blacks, explicitly suggests the blatant discrepancy in their peculiar identity. The hyphen fulfills two contradictory functions—that of dividing an entire nomenclature into dual components, or that of combining elements to form a compound. Applied to the almost nominal entity that the Negro has been reduced to, it cannot but confound his wits. It is as if splitting one’s personality into opposed fragments and then living a socially integrated, happy life as a flesh-and-blood human being is the easiest thing there is. W.E.B. DuBois says: “The Negro ever feels his twoness—an American Negro, two souls…two warring ideals in one black body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”1

Fundamentally, the problem of the outsider as Negro is the problem of identity. Divided against himself to the quick of his being, he is in desperate need of wholeness. He is a man in search of himself. His salvation consists in finding himself, that is, in self-realization. But the whole trouble with being a Negro is that he is not even accepted for what he is. He is not defined on his own terms as though he does not really exist in his own right. He is conferred existence, if at all, only in relation to and by virtue of, the whites. It is with reference to the latter that the black man assumes a shadowy existence of sorts. The struggle for self-definition in the particular societal setting he is in thus becomes the Negro outsider’s all-consuming passion. For him it all amounts to a question of all or nothing.

It is for the foregoing reason that he cannot come to terms with a social setup that denies him the right to be himself. Richard Wright, in describing the genesis of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, writes, “…he is a product of dislocated society; he is a dispossessed and disinherited man, he is all this…and he is looking for a way.”2 And Wright quotes Henry James’s statement as pointedly applicable to the tragedy of the Negro: “No more fiendish punishment could be devised…than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by the members thereof….”3

The truth of the matter is that the Negro is not really turned loose if we take Bigger’s word for it. He said all his life his restrictive society never gives the chance to make something of himself. He wants to be an aviator or a soldier so that in spite of himself he could relate himself to the world and live a normal life like all the rest. The blocking forces of that world however relegate him to the status of a dog, giving him no room to assert himself as a man. In the country of the white man, one gathers from Wright, to be black is a big joke, an error, an act of crime. That is the grim reality that Bigger is confronted with. Wright explains his hero and his kind, thus: “There was in…their minds…a wild and intense longing…to belong, to be identified, to feel that they were alive as other people were…to feel satisfaction of doing job in common with others.”4 But in a Jim Crow country where the Klansman holds a reign of terror, where white is might, where one race of men lords it over another, that is simply next to impossible. In the words of Bigger himself, “…We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like living in jail.”5 A compartmentalized social structure that excludes rather than includes, that smothers rather than uplifts the scums of the earth, may not long perpetuate nor serve the ends of the powerful without being met with its antithesis of rebellion.

It is against this backdrop that Wright intends Bigger’s crime to be understood. Bigger has always feared the white man before whom he cringes in humiliation and shame. Hence, he could not bring himself with all his cohorts to rob a white storekeeper although he could have done so and get away with it. He communicates with the Daltons, his white masters, mostly in timid monosyllables, saying yessuh and yessum only when spoken to. And because he fears them, he hates them all. It is true that the Daltons take him in their employ. But they are a part of the system that brutalizes the Negro. Mr. Dalton owns the slum tenements that keep the Negro in his place. Conditioned in accepting his own insignificance in the face of WASP superiority, and degraded to an almost sub-human level of penury by man’s exploitation by man, Bigger is brought to the limits of his patience or endurance and thus becomes a kind of a perverted Cartesian: I murder, therefore I exist.

The reader knows all too well that Bigger has accidentally killed Mary Dalton. He knows that in his heart of hearts he has killed a thousand Miss Daltons before, and the physical fact of her death in his hands is but its concrete objectification. In killing her, Bigger kills by extension all his white enemies of whom she is the symbol. That Bigger has killed is not however merely a matter of getting even with his oppressors. For him whose existence is rendered meaningless by a world that denies him out of hand and tears apart his personality, murder gives him a sense of freedom, of wholeness. At least it is an act he can call his own, something he has done of his own accord in assertion of his rebellion against the powers that be.

No burden could be more terrible than proving one’s inherent worth as an individual by an act of violence unconscionable as it is. But when one is driven to it in order to show a cruel world that one is not an abstraction nor “an empty husk of identity,”6 then one could stand up to the consequences without fear. That is why Bigger could feel no compunction nor feel sorry for it all. That is also why he refuses audience to the Negro preacher who persuades him to repent and turn to God. Bigger later throws away the cross given him, for he knows that the picture of life the preacher represents and even his own mother’s religiosity are nothing but evasions of reality, an escape from the truth he had known in the act of murder. “I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em…”7 he says. The whites and others have been blind to the truth of his own humanity, to the hard fact of his own being. Mrs. Dalton’s sightless eyes are a symbol of the blindness of the world around him, the same blindness that almost leaves him scot-free. Bigger merely wants to be treated like a human being, and not made to feel like a dog. Only Max, his lawyer, sees him as he is. For once in his life there is the one man who understands him. “You treated me like a man,”8 he tells Max. Purged of fear and hate by his crime, made whole at last in the core of his personal reality by a baptism of blood, he accepts now without bitterness or rancor and without hope of mercy the sentence of death meted out to him by the society he has outraged.

Ellison’s “invisible” man also pursues the same struggle for self-discovery as does Bigger. But while it is Bigger’s creator who asserts that the Negro is America’s metaphor,9 it is Ellison who has thought of that metaphor in the negative, that is, while other writers present the black man as all too conspicuous, he presents him as invisible.10 The dramatic impact of Bigger’s violent action is a bit subdued in those of Invisible Man. But their common search for identity and the meaning of that quest stems from the same built-in contradiction of being a black man in a white man’s world. Though they differ in their personal reactions to their respective milieus, with Bigger turning into a defiant rebel and Invisible Man remaining a nameless wanderer, they are both drop-outs of a callous society blinded by racial prejudice. But Invisible Man makes one discovery unknown to Bigger. It is that his search for himself entails struggle not only against whites but against blacks as well.

The reason why Ellison’s hero is invisible is that he is black. Black is actually the absence of color, reflecting no light. But this invisibility is more than mere opaqueness. Because he is black, no one takes notice of him. Invisible Man’s obscurity is not so much ontological as it is social. The other’s look is either one of recognition or non-recognition. If the former, then one feels sure of himself, of the solidity of his being, of his humanity. If the latter, one begins to doubt one’s existence. Invisible Man complains: “I am invisible…simply because people refuse to see me….You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds….You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world….”11 A nonentity, a nobody, he can have no name. Remaining nameless, he is catapulted from one adventure to another in an attempt to discover who he is. He goes forth in complete non-identity to continuing non-identity. And he is full of illusions about life as he ventures forth into mundane reality. When reality catches up with illusion as it must, he withdraws into his hole to piece together the shattered fragments of his hopes. He then goes through some change in his outlook after being shorn of illusions. His misadventures have almost destroyed him but they made him learn his lessons.

In dealing with the white man, Invisible Man arms himself with his late grandfather’s code of subservient rebellion. In effect it is a sort of nonviolent resistance: “Son, after I’m gone, I want you to keep up the good fight….Our life is a war….I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction.”12 These words practically ask him to put on a show of smiling acquiescence while drowning the White persecutor in a surfeit of his own venom. This ethic of disguised servility assumes that the white man is indeed powerful. But as the reverse of this could be the truth, then it simply becomes suicidal. In fact it easily makes a prey of the whites who envy the Negro for his legendary potency. They mock what they themselves do not and cannot have and then turn it against the Negro who is the real source of strength.13 Invisible Man, for instance, remembers having participated in a battle royal in which he fights with other Negro boys for the entertainment of white dignitaries who reward them with gold coins put in a rug that is actually electrified. Here is a case of brutish “mocking of Negro’s envied potency,”14 a potency turned against itself! What the whites themselves cannot do because of their impotence, they relish in the Negro’s doing it for them. This also explains Mr. Norton’s giving Jim Trueblood a hundred dollars after listening to this story of committing incest with his own…daughter. The local Negroes ostracize Trueblood but the whites appear to be outwardly understanding and generous to him—to undermine him with grins, agree with him to death and destruction? The very words of Invisible Man’s grandfather are turned against themselves as if to give them a dose of their own medicine.

What if the face of the enemy turns literally black? Obedience no less becomes tantamount to self-destruction. The equally devilish blocking characters in the novel are opportunistic Negroes who have gained influence by kowtowing to whites. Their loyalty is to the source of that power for whom they are ready to turn traitor to fellow Negroes. As Invisible Man is expelled from the college for Negroes for inconveniencing the white benefactor Mr. Norton, Dr. Bledsoe tells him: “I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. Yes, I had to act the nigger.”15 Bledsoe virtually stabs him in the back with a letter of reference that, he is to learn some years later, is actually derogatory. Another elderly Negro victimizes him. Brockway, a boilerman at a paint factory in the north and blindly loyal to the white management, tricks him into overpressuring a boiler which explodes and kills him.16 Nothing hurts so hard than betrayal by one’s own people. Yet, Invisible Man relates it all with ironic detachment. He is not spared the pain for sure, but he can see through the almost farcical drama in which he is caught. He muses: “…one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker…and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray.”17 Given this confusion of color and identity, real invisibility could after all be a means toward authenticity. It could even be immensely preferable to false masks.

Invisible Man’s urge to help his own people in spite of it all derives from a superior knowledge denied them in their blindness. As an outsider he has the ability to see deeper through the larger issues of life that affect the fate of everybody. This messianic motivation gets him involved with the Harlem Brotherhood. Endowed with oratorical skills, the same talent that wins for him scholarship in college, he attracts the attention of the Brotherhood which is committed to the cause of underprivileged Negroes. Encouraged by his newfound white friends, he enlists in the party. But his first speech before an assembly of Negroes on the theme of social justice gets the disapproval of the party leader and its theoretician as being evasive of ideological principles. Under strict discipline, he is made to study its scientific doctrines. Here he stumbles again on another blind alley. With Tod Clifton gone, a young party worker who wills his own death because of disillusionment with party discipline, Invisible Man later on severs relation with it and attempts to come to terms with Ras, founder of a rival organization called Black Nationalist Party that champions Negro separatism and hate of all white people. But Ras calls him a traitor and tries to have the mob lynch him. He luckily escapes and lands on a coal bin through an open manhole as the sound and fury of race riot above go on unabated.

Invisible Man feels being used by the Brotherhood as a sort of a natural resource for the furtherance of their own ends, to be dispensed with after outliving his usefulness to the party. He says: “Here I had thought that they accepted me because color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men….”18 It may be recalled that Bigger was similarly treated by the communists, except Max, who looked upon him as some kind of abstraction, a symbol of exploitation.19 The outsider who is possessed by a will to an integrated life cannot find fulfillment in political organizations that actually value ideologies more than persons. The process of dehumanization around him is thus interminable.

There is also in Invisible Man a feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that he has no control over the things which happened to him. It is as if his fate is thrust upon him without his having participated in shaping it. Even the major decisions that shape his destiny are being made for him by other people who do not give him the opportunity to have his say in the matter. Or if he speaks up at all, the message of his speeches simply goes over the heads of his listeners. All this could be the result of his being a person of no consequence, of his being “invisible.” Yet his “invisibility” sharpens his hindsight that enables him to philosophically assess the meaning of the events in his life. Being nobody, no man with no name, he winds up as everyman. All through the course of his hard-luck adventures, he has donned on dubious identities, and even gets mistaken for other persons so that he is at once every man and no man in particular. Refused recognition as a man both by whites and blacks alike, he turns his gaze inward and finds for himself the authentic self that has for so long eluded him. His feverish search for identity comes within his ken at last. “All my life I had been looking for something….I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer….I am nobody but myself.”20

The world of Invisible Man is a dizzying wasteland of black and white, each vying with the other in convincing him of his nonexistence. For all that, having encountered his authentic selfhood after peeling off the false ones, and dying to them all, he achieves a new sense of freedom. This sense of personal liberty, born of self-discovery, makes him realize his infinite capacity to love. “In spite of it all, I find that I love,”21 he says. From that freedom premised on love originates the idea of social responsibility, an almost mystical consciousness of one’s stake in the fate of all. Thus he says as the novel winds up, “…even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”22 In saying this, Invisible Man’s story assumes a far-ranging meaning outside the race controversy, even beyond the ambience of the fictional landscape delineated with virtuoso strokes. After the storm of his life and the better wisdom gained underground, he hopes to transform the world without. Reculer pour mieux sauter. Invisible Man on the higher frequencies speaks for us all who are engaged in the business of living in a community of people who are rendered puppets of their own conditioning. His quest becomes ours, too.

In the case of Bigger Thomas, the world is polarized into a clear-cut duality of black and white, and to the latter he vents the full force of his fury. Unlike Invisible Man, the essence of his entire being is anchored on hate, which is actually but the inability to love. His quarrel with society is the protest of life wronged and maimed to fit the sinister schemes of those who exercise power. Bigger Thomas revolts to show that no one can willfully abuse the dignity of a human being without having to pay the price for it. As Bigger in prison examines the loose ends of his life, he goes a bit further in the contemplation of the larger purposes of existence. He takes the long view and raises the eternal questions: “If he were nothing, if this were all, then why could he not die without hesitancy?...Why this eternal reaching out for something that was not there?”23 And as Bigger’s story draws to a close, one realizes that his revolt is not really confined within the limits of his immediate environment, but has taken on a metaphysical dimension. His crime is also a dramatic defiance of the transcendent principle operating in a temporal scheme that to him makes no sense. He asks thus: “Why this black gulf between him and the world, warm red blood here and cold blue sky there, and never a wholeness, a oneness, a meeting of the two?”24

The final redemption of the outsider as Negro may come about when people around him begin to see him less of a Negro and more of a human being. From the moment the black man himself transcends the parochial dichotomies of color or lack of it, he stands above the ordinary rabble in the awareness of the essential oneness of all that live. Invisible Man’s credo of social responsibility and Bigger’s metaphysical questioning of the human predicament indicate that they may not have strayed too far afield. To really find back one’s feet upon the right track would entail a radical turnaround of consciousness so that, seeing oneself in the other, there really is neither underdog nor topdog, neither black nor white but only one common humanity under the skin.


1 Quoted by Addison Gayle Jr. (ed.) The Black Aesthetic (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1972), xxi.

2 Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1940), xxxi.

3 Quoted by Sanders Redding, Soon One Morning (New York: Alfred A.Knoff, 1963), 56.

4 Wright, op.cit.

5 Wright, ibid.,

6 Richard Wright’s term quoted by Edward Margoli, ed., The Art of Richard Wright (Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), 21.

7 Wright, ibid., 358.

8 Wright, ibid., 354.

9 Quoted by M.G. Cooke (ed), Modern Black Novelists (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971), 1.

10 Albert H. Morelicad, Harold Blum and Others, One Hundred Great American Novels (The New American Library, 1966), 194.

11 Ralph Waldo Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, Inc., 1947-8, 1952), 3.

12 Ellison, ibid., 19.

13 Cooke, op.cit., 66-67.

14 Cooke, ibid.

15 Ellison, passim,

16 Ellison, ibid., 436.

17 Ellison, ibid., 12.

18 Ellison, ibid., 18.

19 Ellison, ibid., 437.

20 Ellison, ibid.

21 Wright, op.cit., 351-352.

22 Wright, ibid.

23Wright. ibid.

24Wright, ibid.

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