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Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man brilliantly brings together the themes of identity and responsibility; in the process he tackles some of the hardest questions about racism in the United States through the long-honored tradition of skepticism and unflinching rationality. Ellison moves his protagonist narrator from the illusion that he can make it as an individual by dedicated hard work to the realization that he must consider the plight of his entire ethnic group as an oppressed people. This realization brings his own liberation.
Ellison's narrator, a Southern black, at first accepts all the assumptions of Booker T. Washington, but with a strong suspicion that in following Washington's policy of ameliorating racism, he is being untrue to his identity. When the narrator gives his address to the drunken and racist white town leaders, he often quotes Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Address verbatim. He has clearly taken up a formula, with which his own ideas do not fully coincide, on the assumption that it will win him success in a white man's world. When he mistakenly says "social equality" instead of "social responsibility," his own ideas are leaking out, instead of those of Washington. This slip of the tongue becomes immensely important to the ideas of the novel, because it is only in the exercise of social responsibility that social equality can be attained. It is also important because it epitomizes the struggle the narrator will constantly face.
The problem arises from the fact that a person cannot act with social responsibility without a clear idea of her or his social identity. The narrator's sense of identity is continually bombarded by messages from the world around him that tell him he is invisible and has no integrity from which to act responsibly. Identity is formed both from an affiliation with one's social groups and from one's difference from other social groups.
The narrator's invisible status arises mainly from the latter, for he sees himself as inferior to the whites. For him white men hold all the power in the narrator's world and are, therefore, his opposite. If they are good, he must be bad. If they are responsible, he must be irresponsible. Since they are powerful, he is weak. Since they are true men, he is less than a man. For the bulk of the novel, the narrator tries to negotiate a space for himself in this impossible black/white identity situation.
The narrator gradually comes to realize that he must find a way to identify positively with all social groups, especially his own group of blacks, if he is to act responsibly. At one point, he sees women being evicted from their apartment, identifies with them, and acts to help them. This act of responsibility towards his own people sews the first seeds of his liberation. Before he can totally leave his past behind, however, he first must get rid of the Washingtonian notion that a member of an oppressed group can leave that group behind, merely look out for oneself, and have any kind of success.
Through the course of the novel, the narrator learns he must be connected. As a result, he writes the novel to share his experiences and lessons with others, hoping they will identify with and benefit from what he has learned.