Black Lives and White Sight: Reading Invisible Man in This Age of Black Death – Part 1
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
— Matthew 6:22-23
It is a great and solemn and incomparable moment when two men look themselves in the eye and discover one another. This moment, this mutual look, is in some sense the root formation of all humanity without which the rest is impossible.
— Karl Barth
But what kind of society will make him see me, I thought…
— Invisible Man
This question of visibility and dignity at the center of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is also the question that haunts the Black experience in America. How will they see us, we wonder?
Will their gaze possess true moral sight or will they look only to evaluate, grading our humanity on a curve in proportion to their perceived safety?
The Issue of Sight
It has been a devastating several months for all Americans. Yet, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of multiple Black Americans at the hands of the police reminds us that we always fight for our existence and livelihood on multiple fronts. Double consciousness—the multiplicity of concerns and consciousness that comes with being Black in America—means double warfare. In the Black experience, there is more than one pandemic at work in this land.
In the midst of this upheaval, I recently finished re-reading “Invisible Man.” In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, Ellison’s novel jolts me with fresh force, exposing how untenable our society remains when it comes to the value of Black lives, Black bodies, Black people. Throughout the novel, Ellison effectively distills the question of Black visibility to the issue of white sight.
Will They See Us?
In this classic novel, Ellison’s unnamed Black protagonist represents the Black experience in America. He’s decent, earnest, and plays by the rules white society has given. Yet, his humanity remains invisible in the eyes that behold him.
He’s determined to climb society’s ladder to one day set foot on the solid ground of equality. He’s obedient to the white trustee of his college, Mr. Norton, who gazes upon the protagonist as a test case for the efficacy of philanthropy. To Mr. Emerson, a northern white business owner, he pledges to work faithfully.
Ellison’s protagonist lives with pharisaical adherence to the laws of respectability politics and ideals of self-improvement, only to be boomeranged between false hope and dehumanizing embarrassment, finding himself used and discarded by each figurehead and institution he encounters.
Eventually, Ellison’s protagonist turns toward activism in Harlem. He becomes a mouthpiece for a multi-ethnic movement called “The Brotherhood.” The Brotherhood is led by a white man, Brother Jack, and their mission is “a better world for all people.” Here too, Ellison’s protagonist is soon confronted with the ugly truth. In the eyes of this movement, he is not a man, but a commodity.
Everywhere he turns, he is not seen, but invisible.
Just as Ellison’s protagonist is confronted by his invisibility at every turn, so too at nearly every turn, Black folks are reminded that our lives are not valued. Each day, we steel our nerves ready to face yet another story, another video that begs the age-old question, “What kind of society will make them see me?”
The Image of the Glass Eye
In a plot point that’s all too familiar, it’s the callous response to a Black man’s death at the hands of the police that eventually awakens Ellison’s protagonist.
After Ellison’s protagonist leads a funeral protest, he finally understands how he is perceived. Brother Jack berates Ellison’s protagonist for speaking without the permission of the Brotherhood’s committee. As Brother Jack pounds the table and yells his rebuke, Ellison showcases the root cause of Black invisibility from his protagonist’s view:
“…suddenly something seemed to erupt out of his face. You’re seeing things, I thought, hearing it strike sharply against the table and roll as his arm shot out and snatched an object the size of a large marble and dropped it, plop! into his glass…and there on the bottom lay an eye. A glass eye.”
Each branch of society embodied by these figures—and society as a whole—possess a glass eye, a defect that renders Black life invisible, not fully worthy of humane treatment, but “simply a material, a natural resource to be used.”
 Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics: The doctrine of creation, Part 2 (Vol. 3, pp. 251–252). London; New York: T&T Clark.