December 8, 2004
This Speech Which is Not One
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible
Man portrays the development of a young black man from his experiences
in high school to his recognition of his invisibility in the larger society.
The most evident vehicle for this portrayal is his recollection of different
speech acts he makes over the course of his life. In the end, however,
it is the speech he does not make in the middle of the Harlem riots that
has the most impact on the events of the novel.
The riot occurs near
the end of the novel, when the narrator’s decision to “overcome ‘em with
yeses,” as his grandfather has suggested (16 ), has led to total anarchy
in the streets of Harlem. Because the Brotherhood thinks things are
going so well up there, they do not see the warning signs until it is too
late. When the narrator finally arrives in Harlem, the neighborhood has
literally exploded into fire, blood, and broken glass (535-36). Unlike
earlier episodes, the narrator finds himself adopting a more passive stance
at this point: “I felt no need to lead or leave them; was glad to follow;
was gripped by a need to see where and to what they would lead” (542).
When he follows the group to an old tenement building and realizes they
will be burning it down, he hesitates, but the others don’t: “I looked
for hesitation in their vague forms” (545). When he doesn’t see it, he
continues on. “It didn’t occur to me to interfere, or to question . . .They
had a plan” (546).
Although in earlier
moments—at the eviction and at Clifton’s funeral, for example—the narrator
has felt the need to address the crowd and give them some instructions
on how to proceed, he doesn’t feel the same impulse here. In fact, he just
follows the crowd, follows their will, and helps burn down the building.
Afterwards, he explains, “I was seized with a fierce sense of exaltation.
They’ve done it, I thought. They organized it and carried it through alone;
the decision their own and their own action” (548). Finally, the narrator
realizes, black people aren’t just sheep to be herded around, instead,
they are intelligent people capable of acting in their own best interests.
Although the end result
of the riot is destructive, the sense of protest against oppressive conditions
that the black population of Harlem has voiced has been heard by the larger
society. Interestingly, it is only when the narrator actually keeps silent
that true progress can be made.