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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
If you are the adventuresome type, you will have a field day with Chapter 10. It's one of the liveliest, most imaginative chapters in the novel. Because it is symbolic, it will challenge you from beginning to end to use your mind while you are reading.
The narrator arrives at the plant on Long Island and sees a huge electric sign announcing KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS. As he enters one of the buildings and walks down a "pure white hall," you are alerted to the fact that the plant is going to be a symbol for white America. The company's trademark is "a screaming eagle," and they specialize in white paint, pure white paint, which they sell to the government. Apparently the Liberty Paint Company uses a number of "colored college boys" so that they don't have to pay union wages. But the black workers are well hidden.
The narrator is sent by Mr. MacDuffy to work for a Mr. Kimbro, the terrible Mr. Kimbro (who is called "Colonel"- perhaps suggesting the tyranny of the colonels of the Old South over blacks) in the paint-testing department. Kimbro's job is to inspect the paint before it is loaded, and he shows the narrator how to assist him. The paint looks brown on the surface, before it is mixed, but after it is stirred, the brown disappears and the paint turns white. But Kimbro is not satisfied. The paint isn't white enough, and so he directs the narrator to put ten drops of black coloring into each bucket to make it a purer white-"Optic White," which is the company's specialty. It doesn't make much sense to the narrator to use black coloring to make paint white, but Kimbro says, "You just do what you're told and don't try to think about it."
Kimbro has to go to a production conference, and the narrator runs out of
coloring. So he goes to the tank room to get more but finds that there
are two tanks that look exactly alike. He picks the tank that smells most
like the coloring, refills his bucket, and completes the job. When Kimbro
comes back, he is furious. The narrator, by thinking for himself, has
picked the wrong tank and used concentrated remover instead. Kimbro has
him put the proper coloring into the cans with the remover and seems satisfied
that the problem has been solved, even though the narrator thinks the
paint looks a little gray.
How do you interpret the symbolism of this little story? If the black coloring stands for black people, then how are black people used to make white America work? "Optic White" means white in appearance, or to the eye, as in optical illusion. The white paint is not really white, as America is not really white, but it requires blacks behind the scenes in cooperation with whites to make the white world work. What kinds of blacks does white America need to have in order to keep up this facade? Perhaps Mr. Kimbro's treatment of the narrator suggests the answer.
In the section on "Style" Ellison was quoted as saying that the style of the novel was at first realistic, but that it became expressionistic after the narrator moved North. Chapters 10 and 11 are perhaps the best examples of Ellison's expressionism (review the Style section for a definition). Chapters 10 and 11 are hard to believe literally. If you read them as realistic pictures of life in a paint factory, you will be disappointed. What Ellison is doing here is trying to depict expressionistically what white America is doing to blacks for its own selfish ends. The real action of these chapters is inner, not outer.
In the second half of Chapter 10, the scene shifts to the basement of Building No. 2. Kimbro has sent the narrator here, because he doesn't want anyone who thinks for himself working for him. Thinking creates trouble! The narrator's boss in the basement is an old black man named Lucius Brockway. Brockway makes the guts of the paint down in this deep basement. Again, note the symbolism. Deep underground a black man makes the guts of the white paint that keeps this white factory going. Not only does he make it, he is the one who coined the slogan, "If It's Optic White, It's the Right White." The narrator realizes that this is just another way of saying, "If you're white, you're right."
If you are enjoying the fun of Ellison's complex symbolism, you have probably figured out that Lucius Brockway is like the ten drops of black coloring the narrator had to pour in the bucket to make Optic White look white. Without the black man in the basement doing the dirty work, the whites would be lost. No one knows how to make the paint except Lucius. If he retired, the place would collapse. And he likes it. He is the perfect Uncle Tom. He sacrifices himself (he keeps out of sight) to keep the whites white.
The narrator and Lucius get along well until the narrator stumbles across a union meeting on his way to get his lunch out of his locker. The union people think he is a fink, a hired strike breaker, because he works for Lucius, whom they hate. Then, when the narrator returns, Lucius calls him a louse for attending the union meeting. The Invisible Man can't win.
The narrator may be naive, but he is a fighter. Just as he argued with Bledsoe and young Mr. Emerson, he holds his own with Lucius Brockway, and because he is younger and physically stronger, he can force Brockway to back down. Brockway finally admits that he doesn't like the union because it is critical of the white bosses. The union threatens the relationship between white power and black Uncle Toms. But just as the narrator thinks that peace has been restored, Brockway notices that the pressure gauge his new assistant is supposed to have been watching has gone way up. The narrator has literally "blown it" again. There is a huge explosion, and the narrator is knocked unconscious into a "blast of black emptiness that was somehow a bath of whiteness." The symbolism of the chapter is complete. The black man is immersed in a world of white.