The truth is the light and the light is the truth


You develop a certain ingenuity. I'll solve the problem.

Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.

That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean. It allows me to feel my vital aliveness. I also fight them for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself. In my hole in the basement there are exactly 1,369 lights. I’ve wired the entire ceiling, every inch of it. And not with fluorescent bulbs, but with the older, more-expensive-to-operate kind, the filament type. An act of sabotage, you know. I’ve already begun to wire the wall. A junk man I know, a man of vision, has supplied me with wire and sockets. Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth. When I finish all four walls, then I’ll start on the floor. Just how that will go, I don’t know. Yet when you have lived invisible as long as I have you develop a certain ingenuity. I’ll solve the problem.

by Ralph Ellison (March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994)
from Invisible Man (1952)
image – salady

Personal History

I first learned about Invisible Man in ninth grade English class. We were each required to do two book reports consisting of an oral presentation, a question and answer period, and a signed statement that we’d read the book from cover to cover. A classmate attempted to bluff his way through a book report on Ellison’s Invisible Man. He’d seen the classic movie version of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, and thought he’d lucked into an easy shortcut – see a movie based on a book, tell the story in class, skip reading entirely. The cocky little pretender might have been able to pull it off if he claimed to have read H.G. Wells instead of Ralph Ellison. I suspect he used the card catalog and chose “Invisible Man” instead of “Invisible Man, The,” because “Invisible Man” comes first in the alphabet. He didn’t catch his mistake because he hadn’t gone further than copying bibliography information from the book’s copyright page.

Our teacher grilled the Smart Alec right out of him, with the tense and building fury of a disrespected true believer. His punishment was an extra book report, starting with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and a seat by the teacher’s desk, for the duration. When he finally did his Ellison book report, his bravado was gone – the book was over his head in more ways than one. This kid wasn’t a big reader or an abstract thinker, and I doubt he’d done much pondering of social causes.

I sat at near the back, watching him cringe through Invisible Man, looking like he wanted to vanish from the face of the earth. I thought about the contrast between the culturally integrated and yet oil-and-water racial mix of San Antonio, and the all-White small town I’d come from in Western Washington. Back home, ignoring race was the preferred method, and it almost worked because there were only a couple non-White families in town. I say “almost,” because I doubt that ignoring other races did anybody any good. Those who ignore remain ignorant, and the ignored feel invisible.

In the mid 70’s there was an attitude that the Civil Rights movement had succeeded and was behind us, yet there was a chasm between early awareness and what was still accepted by the majority. Pain over the racial slur “sambo” figures heavily in part of Invisible Man, published in 1952. Yet, in 1973 the IHOP/Denny’s style “Sambos” restaurant chain was still popular. “Sambos” got its name from Little Black Sambo, a children’s story set in India, not connected to the racial slur, and that was enough for most Americans until the late 70’s. Think of that. We accepted a restaurant chain named “Sambos” straight through the Civil Rights movement.

Everything starts somewhere.

Personal Vision

When Invisible Man was published the last eye witnesses to American slavery were grandfathers and great grandfathers, dying of old age. In their youth, reformers like Booker T. Washington believed an educated and self-sufficient Black populace would eventually gain the acceptance and respect of Whites. Washington’s early Tuskegee-style schools had a strong focus on vocational curriculum, plus academics and independent living skills that had been discouraged in slavery. Three generations later the Civil Rights movement was building, and some of America’s youth argued that waiting to be accepted was a slave’s tactic, not enough for an empowered free citizen – what a generation gap that must have been!

The narrator of Ellis’s Invisible Man is not physically invisible. His experience is of being a Back man who is culturally invisible to the White majority. He wanders. He wonders who he is, works hard, has a miserable life – though not an unrewarding life. He is the symbolic embodiment of his time.

There are more questions than answers in Invisible Man, and no tidy solutions. By the end of the book you’ll know one thing: the process of telling your story is part of discovering who you are.

There are no straight lines. All perspectives are personal.

The Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that’s what the anti-protest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read

by Ralph Ellison
from his interview, The Art of Fiction No. 8
The Paris Review, Issue 8, Spring 1955

Favorite Invisible Man Quotes

  • I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived.
  • Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked.
  • What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?
  • When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.
  • The world is just as concrete, ornery, vile, and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me.
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2 Responses to “The truth is the light and the light is the truth”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Now that is quite a story and a lesson to indeed to your homework! I wonder, are book reports required in classrooms today? Myself, I loved them and still have a few from the 3rd and 4th grades, where I went through my first falling in love with the written word phase and produced what were, in my mind, spectacular pieces of work. I look back on those every now and then and am humbled. Do you think that kid from high school now looks back on that and if he has grown in ways he was not yet ready to back then? Talk about a humbling experience.

    And the quote, “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” Hits home, still crawling out of that world of expecations. Life line journeys!

  2. E. A. Able Says:

    Thank you.

    I’ll bet the kid from high school never forgot that English teachers might just be paying attention! I just hope he wasn’t too traumatized.

    Do you remember making dioramas and posters for book reports? I still remember a few of mine. Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi got decorated with Cheerios and guarded from our dog. There was a diorama about Lipizzaner horses that elevated me to the top ranks of little girls who are always drawing horses. I dreaded each and every one, especially when I had to do a speech, but fell in love with what I had created after finishing. I think you’re right that book reports helped me fall in love with books, because they forced me to go deeper and mature my thoughts.

    I thought about not publishing this post, because it’s an awful lot about me and not much about the author. Late last night I knocked off a couple paragraphs, cleaned up some punctuation and let it go. Today I’m glad I put it out there. These posts can be proof of a journey – a little like those childhood dioramas.