Invisible Man: Crash Course Literature 308

Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature
and today we’re discussing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is not the H.G. Wells novel from 1897,
THE Invisible Man. That’s a different book. This one came out in
1952, won the national book award that year. And it’s less about science experiments gone
wrong, more about racial prejudice in America. The other way you can tell the difference
between them is that Invisible Man is better. And today we’re going to talk about why Invisible
Man is such an important American novel. [Theme Music] So David Denby writing in the New Yorker said: “Whatever else it is, the book is an intricately
wrought structure of myth and symbol, a novel devoted to initiations, rites of passages,
testing, annihilation and rebirth… (Ellison) struggled to define a black culture
as something precious but indissolubly linked
to white culture – a task always difficult and always controversial.” And Invisible Man was published at a time when
racial attitudes in the United States were in flux. I mean, there was a growing sense that racial
inequality and segregation that had been the
norm for centuries was about to change. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Invisible Man was published not long after
the end of World War II, in which 1 million African
Americans had served, all in segregated units. And many of these soldiers felt that segregation
conflicted with the US’s espoused ideas of equality. African Americans were fighting in Europe
at least partially for racial equality, and they were returning home to a country
where they weren’t afforded equal rights. And this dissonance is part of what led African
Americans to demand equal rights as citizens of
the country for which they had risked their lives. Shortly before Ellison began writing the book, the Pittsburgh Courier started its “Double V” campaign, calling for democracy: Victory at Home!, Victory Abroad! The idea was that black citizens should
support the war effort and that they also deserved
to be supported in their own country. The campaign featured photos of black and
white people together, emphasizing that equality was
good for the war effort and good for the country. The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision wouldn’t happen until two years after the publication of Invisible Man, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act
took another 12 years. By then, Invisible Man was a famous book and
an important voice in the Civil Rights Movement,
but it remains so today. Invisible Man was a product of its time and place,
but it also sprung from Ellison’s personal experiences. He was born in 1913 and grew up in poverty. He attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and met Langston Hughes and Richard Wright one summer in New York while working to earn money for school. Wright encouraged him to become a writer,
and Ellison spent the next seven years crafting
Invisible Man. He said, “When I was a kid, I read…novels…and
always, I was the hero. I identified with the hero. Literature is integrated.
And I’m not just talking about color, race. I’m talking about the power of literature
to make us recognize again and again the
wholeness of human experience.” Thanks, Thought Bubble. So the essential failure that made segregation
possible was the failure by white people to understand
African Americans as fully human. And when Ellison talks about the wholeness
of human experience, that’s one of the things he
gives his unnamed narrator in Invisible Man. The narrator is a black man on a quest to
find his true self while facing racism and
disrespect from all sides. We follow him from his childhood in the south
where he’s awarded a scholarship to the state’s
black college. But he gets expelled from college in his junior
year and he goes to New York City to find work,
and then his workplace explodes. During his recovery he happens upon an eviction. This elderly couple’s possessions are being
roughly moved out onto the street, and he
speaks on their behalf. And this leads to a job with an organization
called The Brotherhood, where he briefly feels
that he’s found his place in the world. But the Brotherhood also doesn’t work out
for him and he becomes disillusioned. His friend from the organization is then shot
by the police. And now it’s time for the Open Letter.
An open letter to police shootings: Hello, Police Shootings.
It’s me, John Green. It’s been 64 years since Invisible Man was
published. In 1952, as in today, African American men
were disproportionately likely to be injured
or killed in interactions with police. That isn’t a political statement,
or a subject for debate; I actually made a video about this talking about
the immense amounts of data on the subject. The difference between then and now, and I
do live in hope that there is a difference, is that today those shootings are much
more visible. 64 years after the publication of Invisible
Man, systemic racism remains a very real
part of American life. That’s part of why the book continues to feel
so relevant; it reminds us that all people everywhere
have the right not to be invisible, to develop
their own identities, and to be respected. Best wishes, John Green. But to get back to the story, near the end
of the book, a riot breaks out. Our narrator is grazed by a bullet and joins in with a band of looters, ultimately helping them burn down the tenement apartment building where most of them live. He finds himself running from a group of young
men and he falls through an open manhole where he
decides to stop fighting and remain underground. So in the 1952 review of the book, Orville
Prescott wrote of Ellison, “He is not interested in literal realistic
truth, but in an emotional, atmospheric truth which he drives home with violence, writing
about grotesquely violent situations. With gruesome power he has given ‘Invisible
Man’ the frenzied tension of a nightmare.” And like a nightmare, Invisible Man isn’t only
about what happens, it’s also about how it feels. The story is structured as a series of episodes,
and in each of these episodes we see the narrator
become more and more disillusioned. Like before being awarded a college scholarship
he’s first made to participate in a fight, a “Battle
Royale” with other boys from his school. He worries that the dignity of his speech
accepting the scholarship will be compromised
and he has to deliver it with a mouth full of blood. Nathaniel Rich describes the scene as “a masterpiece
of storytelling, transfixing and indelible. But it is also the purest expression of Ellison’s
argument: a race stripped of volition and dignity,
divided against itself, callously exploited,
rendered both invisible and blind.” Later when he’s expelled from college, he’s
surprised to find the headmaster, who he always
admires, scolding him saying, “You don’t even know the difference between the
way things are and the way they’re supposed to be.” The narrator is astonished to hear the headmaster
imply that he would sacrifice anything, including
others’ lives, to hold onto his position in power. And then in the Brotherhood he again feels
like he’s found a place to belong, where he
can be successful, but as he takes on a position of leadership, he gets an anonymous note in the mail, telling him to be careful not to go too fast and risk upsetting people who don’t want to see a black person succeed. This is something civil rights activists heard
again and again in the 1950’s and 60’s: “Go slow!
Let’s not make too much change!” And when the narrator sets the warning aside, he finds himself undermined and he’s eventually abandoned by the Brotherhood which leads to the bloody and destructive riot. At every turn, the narrator finds that the
things he believes in most deeply turn out
to be not what they seem. And in each of these situations and in others,
the narrator’s invisibility is made apparent. The people in power disregard his humanity
and they turn their backs on him or the things
he cares about. And throughout the novel, Ellison uses
imagery that invokes vision to help reinforce
these ideas of invisibility and lack of insight. The boys wear blindfolds during their Battle
Royale. A speaker at the college who praises the founder
of the school turns out to be blind. And Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood
is revealed to have a glass eye just as he and the
narrator start to express their conflicting views. And when the narrator obstructs his own vision
using dark glasses, he’s mistaken for another
person altogether – a man named Rinehart who’s been using
his own invisibility to create several different
personas in Harlem. And much of this experience of
invisibility has to do with race, and people’s
perceptions and prejudices. The narrator’s search for a strategy to escape prejudice leads him on this path through many other characters who believe that they’ve found the solution. And that if everybody, including the narrator, would
just follow their lead everything would be fixed. Like, his grandfather advocates that he should: “…overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em
with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction…” and in that process diminishing himself before
white people he’ll somehow achieve equality. The headmaster believes the solution lies
in modeling your behavior on white people
who’ve achieved power; he thinks that’s how he’s become powerful. And then there’s Ras the Exhorter who
thinks destruction of whites is the key for
black people to gain their freedom. Our invisible narrator doesn’t find a viable
path in any of these options. Through all his experiences and disillusionments,
the narrator begins to understand that he needs
to develop his own identity and beliefs, and that he’ll be of no help to himself or his
community if he prescribes one path to freedom
for all people, or blindly follow someone else’s path. In the end he comes around to the idea that
understanding who we are as individuals is
what enables us to move forward. This is reinforced brilliantly in the Epilogue.
The narrator says: “When one is invisible, he finds such problems
as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one
with the other, depending on who happens to
be looking through him at the time. Well now I’ve been trying to look through
myself and there’s a risk in it. I was pulled this way and that for longer than
I can remember and my problem was that I always
tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. So after years of trying to adopt the opinion
of others, I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.” The critique Nathaniel Rich wrote: “Ellison’s hero discovers his own identity
through a process of negation. Disenchanted and Disenchanted and sickened
by his experiences in society, he comes to realize
the cruel extent of his powerlessness. The only escape available to him appears
in the form of a manhole, through which he
escapes underground. An invisible man can’t be a college president,
or a business leader, or a politician. But at least he is spared the indignities
of an oppressed class. If you can’t see him, he might be anywhere.
He might be everywhere.” But then again, at the end of the book, the
narrator is planning to emerge from his hibernation
and to take his place among society once again. In the cellar, alone, he has found himself. And while he’s unsure of what his place in the
social order will be, he recognizes that he can’t
make the impact he wants to, from underground. His final words to us are: “Who knows but
that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” And indeed, parts of his story are universal. It’s up to us to find ourselves and to carry
our responsibilities to improve the social
order in which we live. But it’s the phrase “lower frequencies” in
that sentence that’s always stuck with me. Ellison here has made into a great American
hero a character who in most great American
novels would play a bit part. Ellison said later of the novel: “The hero’s invisibility is not a matter of
being seen, but a refusal to run the risk of
his own humanity, which involves guilt. This is not an attack upon white society! It is what the hero refuses to do in each
section which leads to further action. He must assert and achieve his own humanity;
he cannot run with the pack and do this – this
is the reason for all the reversals.” And by telling his individual story, the Invisible
Man brings light and visibility to many stories. Thanks for watching.
I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is filmed in The Chad and Stacy
Emigholz Studio here in Indianapolis and it’s
made by of all these lovely people. It’s made possible by you and your support
at Patreon, a voluntary subscription service that
allows you to support Crash Course directly. You can also get lots of great perks so please
check out the Patreon: Thank you again for watching and as we say
in my hometown: Don’t Forget to be Awesome.

100 Replies to “Invisible Man: Crash Course Literature 308

  1. I am curious why the 1369 light bulbs aren't mentioned. It's a pretty big establishing number, I mean why pick a specific number if it doesn't matter.
    I just got out of section eight housing that I paid above fair market price for and now I have internet at home, so I get to stop lurking and all that. But when the bulbs burnt out, the team got around to it when they got around to it.
    The idea of having specifically 1369 light bulbs is also important. He wants to be lit up. He revels in nobody telling him the lights will be back on pretty soon. It's his own superhuman ingenuity that got him his current count.
    Well done, expedient, but this is important, especially in a light/dark blind/seeing context.

  2. Nerdy dude in a Ralph Lauren shirt preaching progress…hard not to see ironic parallels between this and the very syndrome Ellison so eloquently delineated in his narrative ;-P

  3. F you Invisible Man is way less fun of a read then The Invisible Man. I would never read either again but I'd take the H.G. Wells book any day.

  4. I really enjoy crash course but feel that we are getting slightly bombarded by racism. I'm white and have black friends not once, ever have we spoke about the colour of our skin. Instead we talk about football and other fun stuff.

  5. Razz doesn't believe in destruction of whites, he believes in race, Harlem is a sacred territory, “How the hell you call these white men brother?” “This is my territory, the black mahn’s territory.” He is the other side of the Brotherhood. He believes in the identity as a racial identity and purity. We are brothers of the same color, he uses brother here in a different sense, you are betraying your own race if you hang out with whites.

  6. The main reason about black's being shot more than others is because they will not surrender! and white's do get shot! I am tired of the people who say, "blacks are targeted" when most robber's are black and few are white. That is why our prisons are full of black's, so I must add here, that I am part black through my father's side. So please don't say I dont understand.

  7. I am enjoying this great novel….. and it's most excellent writing… thank you for the youtube "Crash Course" review… also well done.

  8. Thank you for your presentation. I just finished reading the book and there were some things I didn't get, especially in the ending. Let's say you answered some of my questions. Thanks again!

  9. "Sixty-five years after the invisible man systemic racism remains a very real problem" Hank, I love your content, but keep your own political view out of it. Systemic racism isn't a thing anymore. Racism is an act by the individual. Black and white people are shot at about the same rate by the police. More black people are arrested with violent crimes. It's a poverty problem, just looking at the superficial numbers and asserting it is because race is a little shallow.

  10. John or Crash Course usually chooses less discussed books in the curriculum to talk about because popular books have been discussed else where. I don't understand why so many people have a problem with these videos. It is as if the act of making the video is offensive to someone.

  11. I legit couldn't get past the wall of "no craps given". Until I watched this. John breathed life into this book, gave me a reason to read it, and it was so helpful.

  12. I only clicked on this video because I thought it was about THE Invisible Man. Authors should really think about their titles

  13. Factually, police are less likely to shoot a black man than a white man, everything else being equal, but more likely to use physical force.

  14. seufz…i wish he would read some of Heinrich Bölls books…Johns point of view would really fit to describe the situations of the persons after the "Nullpunkt" (after WWII)…

  15. To say that blacks are being killed by police, while not saying that blacks commit a disproportionate share of crime in our country, is to merely subscribe to the same trite politically-correct comments that keep us divided. Cops don't start each tour of duty wondering how many blacks they can kill that day. However, there are radical groups of blacks like "Black Thugs Matter" that call for the murder of cops and white people in general. Where are the references to those racists?

  16. I read the book before I went to NYU, and I would've never taken a Social and Cultural Analysis class that helped me understand more of the world that I'm living in than anything else ever did weren't it not for the book. Try to understand the words first before you jump the bandwagon of dismissing it. The subject matter might be uncomfortable for a lot of people, but so is the world that you live in but you don't really see or understand.

  17. TBH The Invisible Man is a pretty fun read. But Invisible Man is definitely superior, and should be understood as an important novel.

  18. I just bought the book and this just showed up in my recommended feed and same for other books I’ve bought. It’s starting to feel like my phone is watching me.

  19. 😖 The title of this video is misleading, as you recognised! This would not arise if you included the name of the author in the main title. Failing to inform your students which volume is the subject of your course is ridiculous. Clarity at all times is a sound principle.

  20. I had to read this in my AP lit course in senior year of High School. It was an…interesting experience. A great book, no doubt, but not one that I'd read for fun.

  21. I used to be invisible, being homeless and untitled, one is invisible to the world.
    Or maybe society is blind even in the day light.

  22. Actually more white people are killed by cops thanblack people. Black people commit half of the nations crime and I have a 90 percent chance of being killed by a black person than by a white person (if that percentage is wrong then I apologize, but I, as a black American am more likely to be killed by another black American). All of this are FBI statistic data that was recorded in, I believe 2015, during the Obama presidency I must point out. And police brutality happens to everyone, one case specifically proving this point would be the unlawful shooting of Daniel Shaver, a case which has been under reported. In other cases its justified like the shooting of Corrine brown who was driven to complete insanity via Black Lives Matter dogma.

  23. I just wanted to let you know that I am working on my PhD and studying for comprehensive exams. As I work through all this reading, these videos are helping me to identify and understand larger themes in the novels better. Great quality and wonderful insight. Thank you!

  24. This book is very good.
    Like, I don't have any deep comments or anything to add, Ralph Ellison was a master of illustration with words.
    As an artist in training, if I can improve enough to convey HALF as much emotion and meaning as Ellison did with his writing, I'll consider myself a success.

  25. YOU ARE A LEGEND.. I honestly had a prejudice against John Green’s novels since they are widely read by young adult readers. Now that I know that he is THE JOHN GREEN I will read all his novels soon.

  26. A little disappointed Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground doesn't at least get a mention here. But I enjoyed what was discussed regardless

  27. Please consider doing some works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I am interested in their Christian views of the world and Dostoevsky said one of my favorite quotations about how we treat animals. Both are sorely needed in this hateful, spiteful society which uses the Christian religion to justify their arrogance and all manner of abuse and oppression of others.

  28. You could have mentioned that The Brotherhood was clearly modeled on the CPUSA and Richard Wright's account (in his autobiography Black Boy) of his brief time in the Communist Party in Chicago. In both Invisible Man and Black Boy, the protagonists quit the party in disgust when they discover that the party's white elite are using blacks for their own ends and have no genuine interest in improving the lives of blacks. In fact, in Invisible Man, it is made clear that The Brotherhood wants to provoke a deadly race riot that the party elite can exploit for political gain.

  29. My AP English teacher ruined this book for me by claiming its not about race. Maybe not just about race, but race is one of the things it is very much about.

  30. Lost all respect for this guy after he defend Jihad Jordan bin Peterson and the "enforced monogamy" as anthropology concept lie. It's not from anthropology.

  31. Why take black people takes so much time to get there "freedom " I'm from North Africa, every European nations trying to slave my ppl, why understand about slavery isn't about skin color because North Africa whitener skin, overall history my ppl fight those coksucker "European" along battle takes a years of sacrefay lives I'm grateful about who I'm and where I came from,

  32. I read the book but this was more of a recap than a discussion of themes. I'm still trying to figure out how to keep your channel from showing up in searches.

  33. While this book was a milestone in Civil rights, I don’t like when people try to pigeonhole a book into a solely having a certain political agenda. Ellison himself saw literature as timeless, and the book is not just about racism but also about the human experience as a whole. Even the last quote of the book argued that it “speaks for you” I.e. the reader. Its ability to bring a necessary humanitarian and racial perspective to the forefront while also being so universal is amazing.

  34. this book is. so very very good and so very very painful to read. i get why people would hate it because it calls out the very structure of America so explicitly and so honestly – people are going to be defensive, to say “but that’s not really true because” or “maybe but I would never do that” and it doesn’t let anyone pretend they aren’t a part of the problem so it’s easier for people to pretend it’s a made-up one. i mean, i don’t think it deserves the criticism for doing its job well, but ellison was very very good at doing that job.

  35. When watching this video my first reaction was surprise that I never read this in high school, then anger at remembering my school was more than a little racist, but finally I was sad because I realized that back in high school I couldn't have appreciated this book because back then I thought I was alot more enlightened about race than I actually was.

    If a 10 minute summary takes me through all that, I need to read this book.

  36. Im a black guy and i wanted to hear about the invisible man the one with wraps and glasses
    but ill check this out

  37. Read Invisible Man in the mid-seventies in my Black Lit class. My instructor always talked about finding your identity and this book helped in that regard. One of my all-time favorites!

  38. A book was written to change the racial status quo, but if you take a look at this comment section, you will realise the status quo is still alive and well. People want to silence any kind of attempt to even mention a writer as he is black writing about human experience as it is an experience of a black man. 21st century comment section reaction to “Invisible Man”: “Get lost, get invisible”

  39. Comment section: look at all the bigots in the comment section, clearly we haven't progressed very far 🙁
    YouTube Comment Algorithm: hides comments from me

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