Ellison's "Invisible Man"

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Industry is driven by the machines that produce the product. Without these machines, creating what is necessary for an industry to thrive and grow becomes increasingly difficult; more man power is needed, more time is consumed. For these machines to function properly, all the pieces; the cogs, the gears, the wheels, the levers and so on within them must be working well together. In the Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison applies this idea in a sociological fashion. Tucked away underneath the surface of the prosperous face of the country lie the machines, but the machines within the machines are the people who struggle to keep them moving every day. The people who are underground are the ones who drive these machines, who work themselves ragged to make sure all the gears stay in motion. While the white business man may own all these machines, it is the African-American worker that keeps them going. This worker is relied on and without him the process falls to pieces.

This notion is perhaps most profoundly addressed in chapter ten of the novel. Within this chapter, the narrator finds himself a job at a paint factory. This factory specializes in producing white paint which they have dubbed, “Optic White.” The narrator finds his task to be mixing a certain chemical into each batch of paint. On page 195 we find his supervisor, Kimbro, explaining the process. “ ‘The idea is to open each bucket and put in ten drops of this stuff’, he said. ‘Then you stir it ‘til it disappears ………..” The narrator is confused by these instructions. The graduate that he is told to take the chemical drops from contains a liquid that is “dead black.” Somehow this black substance makes the white paint a better quality. When the narrator tests out this first few batches, the white paint shines brightly and looks very white indeed. There is no indication that a blackness has been mixed in; whatever the substance’s job within the paint is has been done and has been done invisibly, underneath where people can’t see. This entire process alludes to how Ellison portrays the socio-economic situation of African-Americans during this time period. The end product is pure whiteness, un-tarnished and shining bright. Whoever buys this paint won’t ever know and seemingly doesn’t need to know what went into its creation, and that is the point. As long as the hard work and character of the African American is kept underground, everyone can remain blissfully unaware of the struggles facing these people and see only what they need.

The point is driven home even further when the narrator chooses the wrong chemical to mix into the paint. He runs out of his first batch and goes to fill his graduate up again, but picks the wrong chemical to fill it with. The test batches for the new paint that he creates have a flaw, some darkness shows through. On page 199 we read, “What on earth had happened? The paint was not as white and glossy as before; it had a gray tinge.” His supervisor grows furious when he finds the narrator’s mistake. Darkness is not supposed to show through, the batch is ruined. Without the right black, the white isn’t as white. Again, this alludes to the fact that the African-American members of society are not supposed to be seen “on the surface.” Their part to play in the country is an out-of-the-way one. Their labor is gladly welcomed, but the minute that people can see how something is being made, what it takes to create a functioning society, the problem rises. In a world where the right way is the white way, there is simply no room for acknowledgment of the machines within the machines.

The debacle of the failed mixing job leads the narrator to be transferred to new work in the factory. He is told to report to Lucius Brockway. The way to reach his supervisor is described by the narrator on page 202. “It was a deep basement. Three levels underground I pushed upon a heavy metal door marked ‘Danger’ and descended into a...
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