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Invisible Man is one of the most important books written about the reality of racism and the problem of black identity in the United States. It draws upon earlier literary work, especially that of W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington.
In 1901, Booker T. Washington wrote Up from Slavery in which he describes his rise from slavery to freedom and from ignorance to education. In this work he urges blacks to forego the political struggle for equality in favor of hard work. He asserts that with hard work, blacks can gain the trust and support of whites in power, who will in exchange give them political equality. He writes that blacks are not yet ready for the vote or for equality.
In 1903, W.E. B. Dubois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, largely to refute the validity of Washingtonian optimism and his legitimacy as a leader of blacks. In a vitally important chapter called "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," Dubois writes of a veil under which blacks are born. He writes that in the United States, blacks are given "no true self-consciousness." He adds that this country "only lets [blacks] see themselves through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his [or her] two-ness--an American, a Negro."
For Dubois, this double-consciousness both gives blacks a "second sight" and hinders their progress toward a simple access to identity. Blacks can never see themselves directly, but only through the eyes of contemptuous white men who are watching for them to fail or to behave foolishly.
Ralph Ellison extends the concepts of DuBois and Washington in his novel. He shows that Washington's optimism is not only futile, but also dangerous, for it leads blacks to serve the interests of their enemies and waste their energy that could be used to uplift their people. He also shows that blacks are more than recipients of double-consciousness; he describes them as invisible to white men who only see them as shadows of themselves or as caricatures and stereotypes.
Another race leader important to an understanding of the novel is Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), an advocate for the expatriation of blacks to Africa with the slogan "Africa for Africans." Ras the Exhorter is Ellison's advocate, a man similar in ideology and approach to Garvey.
The Communist Party (referred to in the novel as the Brotherhood) also plays a very large role in the novel. During the time in which the novel is set, the Communist Party had headquarters all over the United States and had launched a short- lived campaign to recruit blacks and to bring their concerns under the umbrella of class struggle. It eventually betrayed its pledges to blacks and Ellison's novel responds to that betrayal with great force.
A third group who appear peripherally in the novel are the black Muslims, who are repeatedly noticed by the narrator for their common manner of dress and behavior. Since they also offer a similar neglect of individuality, like the Muslims, Ellison dismisses their strategy as unsatisfactory as well.