Racial Identity though Invisible Man A Multi-Genre Writing project on Ralph Ellison's historic novel Drew Huskey / ENgl 4850

Dear Reader,

The idea of finding oneself, or beginning to understand who one is and how they will impact the world is central to a high school classroom. With that, the issue of race, value, and worth around the concept of color becomes more important every day with 24 hour news cycles and racial tension in the United States. In a high school English world embodied by traditional texts such as The Pearl or Scarlet Letter, the idea of changing the literary canon to new and prevalent texts seems all the more necessary at this time. That is why I plan to initiate the teaching of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The culture surrounding Ellison’s novel is not too far off from racist culture today. So, I believe it will be a text that fosters growth in classroom discussion on both personal circumstances and issues surrounding racist culture. I want to focus on the idea of identity, but I also want the unit to encompass the cultural nest of 1930’s lynchings, photographic documentaries and the incorporation of Ellison’s photography career as a secondary source, and racial injustice surrounding urban work. Still, to remain central to the topic I want the unit to consistently drift toward the idea of identity. I want these high school students to understand their working identity and the journey to “find oneself” through all of these ideas in the text. Also, I want them to be able to understand this novel’s use of supernatural stories and invisibility as a way to actually form one’s identity even further. I want them to catch glimpses of society that may exist in their lives today. I do want this to ultimately have the goal of increasing their desire of close reading, as well as their talent on analyzing the text. Finally, I want them to grasp an understanding on taking an idea from a primary text and furthering it through their own argumentative essay. For example, a final paper topic might be to find areas where the narrator experiences invisibility and if in fact it creates his own singular identity or seems to strip it away. I am definitely interested in the entirety of the text, but for a high school classroom that may not exactly have the time to read the whole text, I want to make sure the Battle Royal, the letter to northern workers, expulsion from school, entrance to the Brotherhood, Todd Clifton’s death, the eviction speech, and the Harlem riot is included. These will not only initiate the main discussions on identity, black oppression, and racial conflicts in the classroom, but also give historical culture surrounding the actual Harlem Riot of 1935 as well as segregation laws following along the time. My questions will aim to foster greater meaning from the text, and will not necessarily be given at one time like above. Some might be essay prompts, others may be a part of bell ringers or class wide discussions. Either way, the questions that I intend to ask are built on the idea that students will come away with a greater understanding of the concept of identity and especially their own identity and individuality in a time when they are high stressed and taking SAT’s, applying for colleges, breaking away from the family unit, and attempting to establish themselves as singular people. I especially want to talk about the lack of names when their name means so much, and the onset of isolation in a school society defined by having the most friends and the greatest societal influence. I also want to embrace the challenges of individual identity, stereotypes, blindness, and white privilege. All of these topics will be extremely difficult and even questionable at times to teach in the confines of a high school class, however I want this to be a time in which students truly grasp an understanding on using the past to critique the present. I want them to see the range of issues happening in the 1930’s, why it was so difficult for black men and women to have any form of personal identity, and where these issues still exist today. I want to spend time using journal entries to gain insight from those that don’t share fully out loud, and also to create a basic space to make sense of such a difficult text. I want to be strongly discussion based and take advantage of socratic circles, as well as craft the unit in a writing format to give students constant opportunity to explore instead of answer basic plot questions. More than anything else, I expect to face challenges surrounding student involvement in discussions as well a discomfort to speak out. However, what I want them to know is that the use of the novel is not solely to generate a meaningless discussion around the issues of society. I want them to take away the knowledge that literature and fiction is a tool to learn about culture, gain insight into the past that historical sources cannot always give, and learn how to use a text to apply knowledge to a personal idea. To do so, I feel as if the concept of identity, and invisibility surrounding this identity, is extremely important to understand. High school students have a need to address the culture around them in ways that is not solely from the views of parents or the majority of the community. As a high school student I had an urgency to gain insight from all angles on the problems I knew inhabited the past that still seem to cycle through the 24 hour news on a weekly basis. With mass media and the onset of so much technology this is more possible than ever, however I want to continue to incorporate into these new outlets the craft of the novel. I believe it will lay a foundation for students and their understanding of it as they enter college, no matter what challenges the class will face.

Timeline of Events during Invisible Man's publication

Invisible Man in the Theater:

The Prologue in Words

Expository Piece:

The goal of this multi-genre writing project is not only to present a text in numerous fashions, but to actually think on teaching the text. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is about the invisible nature of a black man in a white man's society. With that, it is about the breakthrough power of the minority voice and the creation of African American culture and talent that is enjoyed by the majority. The novel itself is written in quite possibly the most eventful and challenging time in American history. Never has this nation seen a second World War, heightened racial tension, the emergence of a Harlem renaissance movement, the jazz age, modern electricity, centralization of New York as an economic center, and the list goes on and on. Infinite prompts and argumentative essays could arise given the basic culture and events surrounding Ellison's text, so the characters and subject matter only go to further the ability for Invisible Man to be a critical piece of literature. As a final note to students, this text can be extremely difficult, so for those around the middle or early high school age the basis of genre writing will be plot and context. However, for upper-class and college students the center can shift to surreal images, the "battle royal", allusions to major historical figures, what the brotherhood actually means, and how the narrator gets caught up in the Harlem riots. Ultimately, though, this text can be used in writing to the classroom and as a means for students to become a family and open up. How are you, at times, invisible like the narrator? What did it mean for a black man to be invisible then and what does it mean today? How has the meaning shifted? Where do white women, let alone black women, belong in this text? All these and more will look to be answered in the multi-genre project.

Historical Context:

Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Movement: Inspired Ellison's work greatly. Part of his surrealism around the historical events of the novel use jazz music and the power of the movement.

Langston Hughes: Ralph Ellison was friends with numerous famous writers and jazz composers of the 1940's. As a member of the Federal Writer's Project he was well acquainted with popular literature and writing movements. After he left Tuskegee Institute in 1936 he moved to Harlem and began writing.

Booker T. Washington is an interesting historical figure surrounding the text. Most likely "Dr. Bledsoe" from Ellison's point of view, Washington at this time built a legacy off of students pursuing economic wealth. Ellison, however, glances at his bronze statue as a black man fitting the script in a "white world".

In American history in and around the time of publication, Franklin Roosevelt embodied the office of American presidency; establishing the New Deal, response to the Great Depression, and WW2. Quite possibly the the most eventful time in American history.

With the onset of WW2 around Ellison's writing career in Harlem, Adolf Hitler reigned in Germany and created the dictatorship and tyranny of world conflict.

Around "Invisible Man's" publication and a huge point of interest in the actual text, the Harlem Race riots of 1943 led to the deaths of 40 people and reaped mass destruction on the city. All in response to the growing tension and unrest of the subject of the text: The Brotherhood, black invisibility, unequal treatment by race, and segregation.

Newspaper Headline in Harlem from the riot over the last 12 hours

Literary Criticism:

Fiction, photography, and the cultural construction of racial identity in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man by Joseph Millichap: South Atlantic Review. 76.4 (Fall 2011): p129.

Joseph Millichap in 2011 returns to Ellison’s 1950’s novel with an interesting argument. First, he reminds the reader today, or the interested high school student, in Ellison’s lifespan, work, and unpublished novels. Now, he moves on to propose the argument of the visual arts lending a hand and guiding Ellison’s work. However, where critics before have been interested in blues, sermons, and jazz, Joseph is interested in paintings and photography. He believes that questions to Ellison’s views on racial identity can be answered in photographs, paintings, and pictures. His point is that Invisible Man is so obsessed with visual imagery: light and dark, picture and real, invisibility and visibility that vision is actually our guide into his thoughts on race relations. Not only that, but apparently post-Depression America as well as Ellison himself were obsessed with amatuer photography. Over 50 percent of American families owned a camera during this time and photography ended up lending a huge hand into documenting race relations. He also argues that the time of Invisible Man is stuck between naturalism and modernism. That black people are both the documentaries and artists, as well as the subjects of the time. Since photography became the center of both social art and personal documentation in the 1930’s Millichap argues that this led to Ellison’s passion for black identity. He eventually collaborated to create a photo series for a magazine entitled, “Harlem Is Nowhere” which became a precursor to his novel and began to shine a light into his passion to document the black person and regain some of their lost identity in segregation and white writing. Joseph then transitions to the cusp of his argument which is the photographic images Ellison gives the reader and the contrast images of black individuals have with white men. He even stresses the importance of the image of the white man in the paper after the narrator beat him. The fact that there is no black man linked to the image proves the lack of agency given to black men of the time. His argument is to all the text a Bildungsroman, but one of self awareness into the racism of the world that takes the black race out of depiction. Finally, he says that since the white race constructs the black identity of this time in terms of skin and facial features, it is even more up to Ellison to use images to create his own characters and develop their identity. Again, his argument is that the photographic memories of the text lead up to the narrator’s racial consciousness and eventually his formation of identity. No matter what, Ellison writes a novel filled with picturesque moments of the narrator developing identity in response to racial conflict throughout his life.

My Own Spin:

This piece of literary criticism is extremely important for the purpose of my assignment. Not only does it add a fresh angle to the issue of identity and self individuality, but also brings in new topics surrounding the cultural nest in the form of photography and visual arts of the 1930’s. To add a new perspective on the 21st century student, this criticism begins to look at how photographs and visual art render identity in a way that words cannot. This will not only interest the high school student today but also be applicable in a way that much of their lives and how they make meaning of it are surrounded by advanced technology and digital images. Millichap closes his argument by saying that, “the writer employs photographic tropes to reveal his title character engaging the images of himself and of others, both black and white, in order to develop his individual identity as a realized person and his social situation as a black man in a segregated America”. This opens the door for the student reader today to use secondary sources and photographs to see how their own identity is developed, as well as look back at the culture sounding Ellison’s writing to see how these photographs and picturesque ways of writing defined segregation in America. The pictures of the time and in the novel do truly reveal every character’s “otherness” to the white race. This can be used today in terms of discovering identity and especially transporting students back into the time of Ellison to relate to this novel. To conclude, Millichap’s argument pairs well with the contemporary reviews in the way that he addresses what the reviewer’s called Ellison’s “own way of writing”. By creating a novel largely written in a pictorial way, he creates his own agency as well as characters with agency that don’t fit the mold of the previously accepted white dominant world. All of this goes to show that Invisible Man has numerous teaching points surrounding the issue of one’s identity, especially for the student and those living in a time when racism is present yet more covert.


From, Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem

From, Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem: Peaking from the hidden place

Emerging from The Underground

Ellison's use of lights and "illumination"

Ralph Ellison, A Biography:

Early Life

Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and named after journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison's doting father, Lewis, who loved children and read books voraciously, worked as an ice and coal deliverer. He died from a work-related accident when Ellison was only three years old. His mother Ida then raised Ralph and younger brother Herbert by herself, working a variety of jobs to make ends meet.

In his future book of essays Shadow and Act, Ellison described himself and several of his friends growing up as young Renaissance Men, people who looked to culture and intellectualism as a source of identity. A budding instrumentalist, Ellison took up the cornet at the age of 8 and years later, as a trumpeter, attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he studied music with his eye on becoming a symphony composer.

In 1936, Ellison went to New York over the summer with the intent of earning enough money to pay for his college expenses, but ended up relocating. He started to work as a researcher and writer for the New York Federal Writers Program, and was befriended by writers Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Alan Locke, who all mentored the fledgling scribe. During this period, Ellison began to publish some of his essays and short stories, and worked as managing editor for The Negro Quarterly.

Ellison later enlisted as a Merchant Marine cook during World War II. Married briefly before, in 1946 he wed Fanny McConnell, and the two would remain together for the rest of Ellison's life.

Writing 'Invisible Man'

Ellison started writing what would become The Invisible Man while at a friend's farm in Vermont. The existential novel, published in 1952, focused on an African-American civil rights worker from the South who, upon his move to New York, becomes increasingly alienated due to the racism he encounters. Upon its release, Invisible Man became a runaway hit, remaining on bestseller lists for weeks and winning the National Book Award the following year. With millions of copies eventually printed, the novel would be regarded as a groundbreaking meditation on race and marginalized communities in America, influencing future generations of writers and thinkers.

Ellison traveled throughout Europe in the mid-1950s, and lived in Rome for two years after becoming an American Academy fellow. He continued writing—publishing a collection of essays in 1964, Shadow and Act—and taught at colleges and universities, including Bard College and New York University. He published his second collection of essays, Going to the Territory, in 1986, yet was stalled over the decades from completing his second novel, which he envisioned as a great American saga.

Literary Legacy

Ellison died from pancreatic cancer in New York City on April 16, 1994. The novel that had been working on prior to his death was released posthumously in 1999 and titled Juneteenth, with final shaping done by his literary executor, John Callahan, at the behest of McConnell. Three Days Before the Shooting, released in 2010, offered a more comprehensive look at how the novel was shaped along with a look at Ellison's full manuscript.

Ellison's literary legacy continues to be highly pronounced. A massive collection of his essays was released in the fall of 1995 and Flying Home, a collection of short stories, was released in the fall of 1996. Years later, scholar Arnold Rampersad wrote a well-received, critical biography on Ellison that was published in 2007.

Invisible Man continues to be held up as one of the most highly regarded works in the American literary canon.

Timeline of the narrator's events in Invisible Man

Discussion Questions to Create Writing Prompts:

Culture in the 1930’s was defined by new racial tension in the North due to the migration of so many african american’s to big cities. How might the cultural conflict surrounding Ellison’s novel in the midst of segregation, Jim Crow, and the Great Depression have influenced the novel?

Black people in the 1930’s were culturally “visible”. For the first time they were the spotlight of many of the arts, literature, and anti-lynching bill in 1937, and political parties to gain votes since all were equal in ballot counts. Even with all of this, why was the narrator still characterized as invisible?

What institutions/events today allow a person with a name and a story to remain unknown just as long as the greater population is grouped for a cause?

What aspects of the end of the novel further the argument that the narrator has found himself? What further the point that he may have lost himself?

As a student, what does this novel teach about creating your own identity vs. conforming to the ways of the world as it wants us to be? In what ways does your life apply to the experiences of the narrator?

How have you been disappointed heavily in your life from something that was not as good as you thought it to be? How can you relate this back to Ellison and thinking about what this disappointment did to the narrator?

Quote from Ellison regarding Invisible Man society

Resources for Further Reading:


Fiction, photography, and the cultural construction of racial identity in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man by Joseph Millichap: South Atlantic Review. 76.4 (Fall 2011): p129.









Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.

Editors, Biography.com. "Ralph Ellison." Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 08 July 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.


1. The focal point of the "dear reader" section is to show this project is for both students and teachers attempting to teach this book. This will be followed more clearly with the discussion questions and historical context. The goal of the multi-genre project is to tackle a long and difficult text, but understand only pieces or plot sections can be discussed. For example...some lessons only include the reading of the battle royal scene or the riot ending

2. Invisible Man at the theater was a widely successful adaptation of invisible man. The two articles/reviews of the show not only bring clarity to the text but also give the opportunity for a class or student pursuing a written response to see a visual form of the text. The play brings out the use of lights, the underground, and the personal thoughts of the unnamed narrator

3. The expository piece is written to show the goal of the project. Also, to create early on the questions that should be swirling in a student's head as they read the text and think on possible writing prompts. The case for women, African Americans, invisibility, etc. are presented.

4. The historical context of the novel is coupled with a running stream of images showing what is happening in and around 1940's-50's Harlem. Key historical figures are shown as well as crucial events to the development of the text.

5. Literary criticism from Saul Bellow, one of the most renowned reviewers of Ellison's time, as well as a review from Joseph Millichap are shown. In this way students can see how the novel was perceived from critics and the popular majority. Teachers can use this genre to teach argumentative pieces and give some more cultural insight

6. I included a photography genre to show some images of how the novel could be visualized. The majority of the images actually come from the Gordon Parks Foundation that worked with Ellison to create a visualized piece of the major scenes of the text. So, this is a rare case of a genre inspired by the original author.

7. In two places in the genre project, I included an interactive timeline: one of the historical events around the novel's publication, and another of the timeline of the novel's actual events. These can be viewed side by side to see exactly what happens, when it happens, and how historical significance affects events in the novel.

8. I inserted a few discussion questions I thought up and researched regarding teacher prompt ideas and student "questions to think through". This genre can guide classroom discussion, target student reading and attention, as well as let students begin thinking through a genre of writing early on in the reading.

9. I included a film trailer/short segment adaptation as a genre to provide another visual element. Also, this could be an example for a possible student assignment to create a multi-media trailer for a scene from the novel.

10. The bibliography section both gives an example of how to cite writing sources and gives students a place to turn for further investigation.

11. The text in the shape of a man creating an image above provides an interesting take on the famous prologue of Ellison's novel. It may provide a memorable remembrance to the prologue.


Created with images by Tony Fischer Photography - "Invisible Man, Published 1952" • kay2170 - "musician jazz n"

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