In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, the narrator seeks to reconcile the dying words of his grandfather with navigating his own reality and identity. His grandfather confesses that he had “been a traitor all [his] born days, a spy in the enemy’s country” (16). This is not the reality that he wants for his descendants, and so he exhorts his family to “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction” (16). The words of his grandfather haunt the narrator throughout his journey toward identity as well as his discovery of the true intentions of the Brotherhood. To some extent, the words of the narrator’s grandfather ring true in the words and actions of Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer. However, like the cynical, dying words of his grandfather, the narrator is unwilling to accept Ras’s words and deeds as the only way for uplifting the black race.
Even though it seems as if Ras’s methods in Harlem are not in any way rational, he represents the voice of reason for both Clifton and the narrator who have been manipulated to believe that the Brotherhood has their best interests at heart. He is tired of seeing other black men get manipulated by organizations like the Brotherhood and affirms Tod Clifton’s potential to be a great leader. He says to Clifton, “Recognize you’self inside and you wan the kings among men!” (373), identifying the fact that Clifton is more than just a pawn to be used by the Brotherhood but that he could be just as powerful and influential as previous black leaders like Marcus Garvey. He also uses reason against Clifton and the narrator to show the irrationality of the three men fighting in the street against one another. He asks, “‘Is this sanity? Standing here in three shades of blackness! Three black men fighting in the street because of the white enslaver? Is that sanity? Is that consciousness, scientific understahnding?’” (372). This demonstrates the irrationality of the Brotherhood that is pitting black men against one another to further their cause, attempting to show the narrator that his unity with the Brotherhood will not end with the uplift of the race.
Instead of overcoming them with yeses and destroying them with complicity, Ras the Destroyer seeks action that represents what the narrator seems to want throughout the novel. The narrator recognizes that words do not mean much if they are not followed with action. As the Exhorter, Ras is satisfied to move the people to his side and to undermine the Brotherhood. However, after Clifton’s funeral, Ras proclaims that words are futile if they are not followed by action, and so he calls the people to action when he announces, “It is time for Ras the Exhorter become Ras the Destroyer!” (485). Even though the narrator wants change to occur peacefully throughout the novel, through science, reason, and organizing, Ras’s transformation to the Destroyer causes the narrator to recognize that action is what is needed, even if it means complete destruction of Harlem in the process.
Despite the narrator’s agreement with the need for action, Ras the Destroyer’s methods include burning tenement buildings, shooting white police officers, and hanging white mannequins through the streets of Harlem. At the end of the novel, Ras does not represent the voice of reason or the path to identity for the narrator. Instead, he is a voice that needs to be silenced which occurs when the narrator throws the spear at Ras and it rips “through both cheeks” and locks his jaws shut (560). This is not the world that the narrator wants either, one of violence, bloodshed, and destruction. Instead, the narrator seems to be looking for some sense of compromise between scientific methods of the Brotherhood and action, like Ras, that is rooted in the vision of unity and true brotherhood instead of complicity, manipulation, and violence.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage International, 1995.
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