Rhetorical Strategies Emphasize African American
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison outlines the plight of an African American individual to find his personal identity in a world where the white man or Caucasian individual dominates the social strata. This novel incorporates numerous rhetorical strategies to highlight the struggle of African American people to attain a significant and admirable identity.
The strategies used include powerful imagery with respect to the image of the African American man, specific diction that relates the relationship that exists between the domineering white class and African Americans, and even Marxist allusions to the workplace that emphasize the broad spectrum of Caucasian dominance. Throughout this novel, the African American man who lives beneath the ground struggles to find his true identity. Other characters throughout the novel contribute to this struggle, and give him an idea of what their character is in comparison to his own.
One example of such a character is Dr. Bledsoe, who speaks these words to the narrator, “I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself
But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am. (Ellison 142-143) By close reading this quotation, the rhetorical strategies used to emphasize the identity of Dr. Bledsoe as an African American man, and the general plight of African American individuals, can be recognized. The first rhetorical strategy used is Dr. Bledsoe’s use of broken English. He says, “I’s” instead of “I am”, and “Yes suh” instead of “Yes sir”. This shows how Dr. Bledsoe conforms to the ideals of the white society in assuming that African American people are illiterate and uneducated. By using this grammatically incorrect English, Dr.
Bledsoe is creating an identity for African American people that the narrator can recognize. An identity that is incorrect and demeaning of the African American race. The second rhetorical strategy used here is the repetition of the word “control”. This word is used twice within about five words to emphasize the point that the relationship between African Americans and Caucasians is one grounded in control. This speaks further to the identity of the African American individual in their history as being controlled by the white society in the times of slavery.
Furthermore, the repetition of the word “control” allows for an emphasis to be placed on the idea that the whites control the African American people, and the identity of the African American man is grounded in that control. A third rhetorical strategy used in this quotation is harsh diction associated with the word “Negro”. This diction, used by an African American man, further emphasizes the identity of the African American people as discriminated and lacking unity. Dr. Bledsoe uses this racial discriminatory word, “Negro” in referencing his own African American people.
This diction emphasizes the lack of unity among people of the African American race to work together and support each other in realizing freedom from oppression, and shows the identity of one African American man, Dr. Bledsoe, as an attacker of his own race. This passage as a whole, incorporating the rhetorical strategies of broken or grammatically incorrect English, the repetition of “control”, and the harsh diction of the word “Negro”, create the identity of the African American man, Dr.
Bledsoe, as selfish, discriminatory, and solely interested in his own gain at the cost of his own race’s happiness, freedom and livelihood. This allows the invisible man, or narrator, to soak up the strong, immoral and clearly one-directional identity of one individual, who is African American like himself. Another example of a rhetorical strategy used to emphasize the African American struggle for identity comes in the reference to the Optic White paint. This situation introduces an allusion to Marxist philosophies, involving the social hierarchy of the workplace.
The passage referenced emphasizes a direct correlation between the products in the workplace, and the social situation at hand between the whites and African Americans. “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through! ” (Ellison 217). By close reading this quotation the rhetorical strategy here can be identified as a historical allusion to Marxist philosophies, where the workplace serves as a beacon of social interaction.
This allusion can be seen through the relationship between the coal, and the Optic White paint as it can be referenced with the relationship between African Americans, and the white society. Coal is often seen as something that serves to mark or even spoil a piece of paper or something that would otherwise have been pure. Therefore, this coal can be seen as an example of African American individuals as they are seen from the eyes of the white society.
These African Americans, from the perspective of the white society, are like pieces of coal that mark, taint, or spoil the white man’s society with their culture, customs, and general appearance. Furthermore, they are seen as the problem of the workplace, which need to be corrected by the Optic White paint or the white people. Therefore, this white paint can be seen as the white people. They come in to cover up the taints of the African American people, as the white paint covers up the black coal.
These white people are in essence hoping to cover up any cultural practices of African American people so that by their daily routines they are seen as white people, who need to be cracked open to see the blackness that truly lies within. In addition, this passage can be referencing the plight of the African American people to do whatever is necessary to gain acceptance and tolerance from the white society. Due to the fact that African Americans remain in the scorn of society, they want to do whatever is necessary to gain approval from their white superiors, even if that means symbolically covering themselves in white paint.
This workplace allusion to Marxist philosophies and the comparative relationship between African Americans and whites by use of the analogy between the Optic White paint and coal allows for another idea of African American identity to be implanted into the mind of the narrator or Invisible Man. The identity of the African American individual is further explored and exemplified when the narrator finds a coin bank. This scene incorporates the rhetorical strategies of intense imagery to describe the picture of the
African American individual as well as the symbolic reference of a bank as a representation of something that continues to follow a person around for the rest of his or her life. The passage begins with the vivid imagery, “…the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro…stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. (Ellison 319). The rhetorical strategy initially used in this passage is intense description, which gives way to vivid imagery and allows the reader to clearly picture the atrocious attributes given to the stereotypical African American individual. “Very black, red-lipped, wide-mouthed” and “enormous grim” are the words used to describe the African American individual upon this coin bank and thus provide the vivid image of an African American person exaggerated for their stereotypical qualities.
The identity of the African American man is referenced here by the fact that this image is placed upon a coin bank. White people use this coin bank as a fun and entertaining way to store their money. Furthermore, the African American image being placed upon this coin bank shows that African Americans are seen by the white populace as tools used by the white society to entertain and organize things they’d rather not do themselves.
In addition, a bank is something that stays with an individual from life until death. Therefore, this exaggerated image of the African American individual placed upon this coin bank signifies that this stereotype will stay with the African American people for their entire life. This coin bank situation provides another example of how the identity of the narrator is being formed by the situations he encounters throughout the course of this novel.
The three examples provided, show how rhetorical strategies have been implemented into this novel in order to emphasize the identity of the African American people. These rhetorical strategies include: the use of broken or grammatically incorrect English to emphasize the stereotype of the African American individual as uneducated, the repetition of “control” to emphasize the relationship between African Americans and whites revolving around control ever since times of slavery, the harsh diction of “Negro” sed by an African American man to show the disunity of the African American race and thus the individualized and cynical identity of some African American people, the allusion of Marxist philosophies to emphasize the social hierarchy of the workplace, the analogy of coal and optic white paint to represent African Americans and whites to emphasize how the relationships between the two are seen in the workplace, further highlighting how the identity of the African American people is constructed, intense imagery highlighting the stereotypes of African American physical features, and the placement of these images on a coin bank to reference the identity of the African American people as a tool to the white race. All these rhetorical strategies serve their suggested purpose and also allow for an emphasis on the identity construction of the African American people. More specifically, these rhetorical strategies adhere to how the identity of this invisible man, who has been living away from society for so long, can be newly created.