Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man is a novel published in 1952 about a young African American man who struggles to be seen as part of society. The first chapter of the novel, titled “Battle Royal”, paints the picture of the narrator/speaker brutally fighting other African Americans in a town festivity. Afterward, the speaker is allowed to give a speech that charmed the audience at his graduation ceremony. However, in order to give his speech, the speaker must endure through numerous brutal challenges.
Only then can he prove himself and his ability through the art of public speaking. This particular scene from Ralph Ellison’s novel underscores the importance of public speaking, African American literature and African American culture. The speaker pushes through the battle royal because he wants to give his speech, he wants to be heard by the community. He must face lust, electrocution and brutal brawl fights among numerous other African Americans with the intent of winning. The royal was so brutal that at one point the speaker states, “I fought back with hopeless desperation.
I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything else in the world, because I felt that only these men could judge truly my ability–,” (Ellison, 269). The speaker clearly wants the white men in the audience to hear what he has to say so that, maybe, they might judge his voice instead of judging him by his skin. There’s a moment where the speaker questions whether or not he should be trying to win the battle royal. “A lucky blow to his chin and I had him going too– until I heard a loud voice yell, ‘I got my money on the big boy. ‘ Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard.
I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance? ” (Ellison, 270). The speaker knows that if he were to give up, or refuse to fight that the white men would punish him for not doing what was asked of him. The speaker knows that the white men only see the color of his skin. They see him as some form of entertainment instead of an actual human being. He feels invisible because as long as the white men are blinded by the color of his skin his voice will not matter to them.
The speaker of the story proves during his speech that no one will listen to someone if they only say what their audience wants to hear. During the scene where the speaker is giving his speech he audience is not actively listening to his speech. Instead, they find it better to talk loudly to each other. Now, the speaker notices how he is not being heard by his audience, even though he just went through hell and back in order to be able to deliver his speech. Trying hard to get through his speech, the speaker continues to cough blood.
Close to the end, the men in the audience start making fun of what the speaker has to say. “Social responsibility,’ I said. What? ” ‘Social.. ‘ Louder. ‘”.. responsibility–,” (Ellison, 272). At this point, the speaker is frustrated and still having to gulp down his own blood. “The oom filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced… ‘Social… ‘ What? ‘ they yelled. ‘. equality–,” (Ellison, 272). These words sliced through the audience’s laughter and shred it to pieces.
For the first time since the speaker had started reciting his speech everyone in the room was listening. The African American boy they had just been yelling and laughing at had left them speechless. However, the silence did not last very long. The speaker mistakenly said something that the white men did not want to hear. Equal was not a word those white men would use to describe how they felt about African Americans. The speaker admits that what he said was a mistake, falling back into his grandfather’s curse. He believes that his grandfather cursed his entire family for generations to come.
He was always one to agree with the white men, but on his deathbed he stated that he was a “traitor”. He never said anything that would upset those around him, so he never spoke about what made him uncomfortable or about what he thought was wrong. He did that because it was not what the people around him wanted to hear. Now the speaker as proven that the only way to not be harmed is to be quiet and only say what people want to hear; therefore, the speaker will forever be an invisible man.
Booker T. Washin and W. E. B. Du Bois proved the importance of African American culture through their public speaking and literature in the real world. The rivalry between the two was known by many, and it still affects the events surrounding African American culture to this day. Booker T. Washington focused more on what skills that African Americans could provide after slavery was abolished. These mostly included agriculture and working on farms. Washington found hat he could accept segregation if the whites would help the African Americans progress in economics and agriculture.
However, this went against everything that W. E. B. Du Bois stood for during his civil rights movement. Du Bois believed that instead of accepting what the whites wanted that the African Americans should push for change. He believed that in order for change to occur African Americans needed to stop giving in to what the whites wanted to hear. They needed to provide their own voice and opinion in order to pave the way for equal rights. Likewise the speaker in The Invisible Man could have been the same way. Only he did not speak out about his beliefs, instead he made an error and instantly denied that he had meant what he said.
However, as Du Bois insists, speakers like Washington and the speaker from The Invisible Man will never bring change if they constantly give in to the peer pressure of those who oppose them. Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man brings out the message that both literature and public speaking were crucial factors of advancing African American culture towards equality. The speaker of the story proves that to be an invisible man is to not be yourself. Instead, he spews out words that feeds the white man’s ego. The words are what the white men want to hear, and not actually what the speaker believes.
Booker T. Washington believes that this is the way to provide, yet he still accepts that he and his fellow African Americans are below the white men. However, W. E. B. Du Bois believes that African Americans and the white men should both be equal and free. He also believes that change will not come from feeding their egos, instead he believes in speaking out about what he believes is right. This is crucial to the advancement of African American culture and paves the way for future African American public speakers during the Civil Rights movement.