Invisible Man is a daunting book.
It’s daunting in terms of the complicated questions author Ralph Ellison raises about race, culture and society. In terms of how the book addresses universal themes such as invisibility, opportunity, self and community. In terms of i ts place in history, published just before the dawn of the modern Civil Rights movement. Even in terms of its length (nearly 600 pages).
Nevertheless, during the blustery days of Winter Study, dozens of students, faculty and staff came together to explore Invisible Man as part of Williams Reads. Free copies of the novel were distributed across campus, followed by public readings, a talk at the College museum and lunchtime discussions and presentations. The events were designed to stimulate conversation and deepen understanding—in short, to build community.
Now in its fifth year, Williams Reads is “a wonderful idea,” says history professor Leslie Brown, who helped select Invisible Man as this year’s book and taught a Winter Study course about it in January. “We read a book collectively, and through that book and its reading we engage together—and apart—on the intellectual project of thinking about our worlds, the ones we inhabit, the ones we came from. We examine and assess differences and similarities, recognize our conflicts and incompatibilities, but also our crosscurrents and confluences.”
What to read after Invisible Man:
In anticipation of Williams Reads, English professor Vince Schleitwiler asked students in his “Introduction to African American Writing” course last fall to read Invisible Man and identify what book they would tackle next. Here are some of their recommendations:
Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window: ?A Drama in Three Acts (1965)
Lorraine Hansberry was a dramatist working in the 1960s in Harlem. In The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, she depicts a Village Jewish intellectual confronting his inability to engage in his politically charged atmosphere. She consciously avoids addressing “black issues” through the “emotional protest against black social conditions.” Ellison addresses a similar hypocrisy in Invisible Man in his narrator’s involvement with the Brotherhood. Like Ellison, Hansberry develops black and white characters without pitting them directly against each other; both are simultaneously victims and oppressors. She addresses themes in opposition, many of which the Invisible Man struggles with: cynicism, idealism, ambition and humility. Where Ellison is free to embroil his narrator and reader in moral ambiguity, uncertainty and frustration, Hansberry is constricted to the stage, working within the audience’s limited ability to “read between the lines.” The reader can return to the themes of Invisible Man with the insight and clarity conveyed onstage.
—Kendall Follert ’13
Chester B. Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965)
Cotton Comes to Harlem seems to grab the reader from the very get-go. The suspenseful shoot-outs, the run-ins with various different women and the flavorful dialogue are enough to keep any reader thoroughly entertained. If you’re a fan of Shaft, or any other “bad mamma jammas,” this book comes highly recommended.
—Isaac Nicholson ’11
Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923)
Throughout Invisible Man I was intrigued by the somewhat surreal nature of events that occur around the nameless narrator: figures of speech often became literal, and situations escalated to violence within absurdly short amounts of time. I later learned of Ellison’s reputation as an experimental author with this novel. Similarly, Jean Toomer’s classic, Cane, is recognized for its offsetting experimental content, comprising a collection of poetry, prose and drama that focuses on the heritage and life of African Americans in the U.S. If you enjoyed the experimental and modernist narration of Invisible Man and want to read another, similar migration narrative, take a look at Cane, and brace your artistic self.
—Keelia Willison ’14
Ann Petry’s The Street (1946)
Unhappy with Invisible Man’s lack of any significant female characters? … Ann Petry offers up a powerful story detailing the life and struggles of an African American woman in an urban setting. Lutie Johnson enters Harlem filled with American ideals, believing in an individual’s ability to rise up and achieve a better life. She leaves the city a broken woman. In this visionary book, Petry reveals that, for women, oppression in the city is a combined result of racism, sexism and economic hardship. Prepare for a story that will make brutally clear the extra challenges facing African American women in Harlem.
—Elizabeth Cornett ’14
Gayl Jones’ Corregidora (1975)
Though a great novel documenting one man’s journey navigating race, Invisible Man’s ambiguity disconnects the reader from his personal journey. Corregidora is a painful and intense dramatization of a young black girl’s passage into womanhood and the obstacles that stood in her way. The main character, Ursa Corregidora, is a direct descendent of slave women who were used by their master, Corregidora, as prostitutes. Her life has been shaped by their pain, and she struggles to find her own path in spite of this dreadful past. Corregidora is a difficult read, but you will not want to put it down. Jones takes readers out of their comfort zones and places them in the midst of real-life agony.
—Quaneece Calhoun ’11
For a complete list of student reading recommendations, click here.