Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is filled with symbols and representations of the history of African-Americans. One of the most important and prevalent of these symbols is Ellison's representation of Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute. Throughout the book Ellison provides his personal views and experiences with these subjects through the college that TIM attends, the college Founder, and Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college.
Ellison uses these characters and other images and scenes related to Washington to show his disagreement with his backward ideals and to convey his theory that, "In order to deal with this problem [of emancipated blacks] the North"¦built Booker T. Washington into a national spokesman of Negroes with Tuskegee Institute as his seat of power"¦" (O'Meally 23). Booker T. Washington was one of the most influential black leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who advocated black accommodation to the white population of America, along with an emphasis on industrial education and personal hygiene for the African-American.
He advised black Americans to give up dreams of political power, civil rights, and the higher education of their youth and instead focus gaining low-level jobs, working hard, and achieving acceptance in the eyes of the white man. In Washington's most famous speech, the "Atlanta Compromise," he states that, "In all things purely social we can be as separate as the five fingers, and yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress" (Singleton 159).
Ellison refers to this theory with his description of his grandparents lives in Invisible Man, "they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand, And they believed it. They exulted in it. They stayed in their place, worked hard and brought up my father to do the same," (Ellison, Invisible 15). This passage hints at TIM's disapproval of his grandparents' total belief of Washington's teachings.
His thoughts coincide with W. E. B. Du Bois's belief that Washington's program, "practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races" (Du Bois ). One of Booker T. 's greatest accomplishments was founding the Tuskegee Institute, an all-black college designed to train its students mostly in small-scale farming and artisan skills. Washington was always suspicious of "programs for Afro-Americans which were exclusively academic" and instead wanted Tuskegee students to learn about "actual things instead of mere books alone" (O' Meally 13).
Ralph Ellison was impacted greatly by Washington and his ideologies while attending the Tuskegee Institute, which can be seen throughout much of Invisible Man. This impact starts with TIM as a young boy with his grandfather carving Washington-like beliefs into his mind, "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight"¦I want you to overcome "em with yeses, undermine "em with grins, agree "em to death and destruction, let "em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open" (Ellison, Invisible 16). These words shape TIM's mind to even think of himself as a "potential Booker T.
Washington" (Ellison, Invisible 17). Washington's influence on the young man's thoughts can also be seen as early on as the battle royal, when TIM recites a Booker T. Washington speech almost word for word, "We of the younger generations extol the wisdom of that great leader and educator… and like him I say, and in his words"¦"cast down your bucket where you are'"cast it down in making friends in every manly was of the people of all races by whom we are surrounded"¦" (Ellison, Invisible 30). This scene shows how influential Booker T.
was on the young TIM before he could think for himself and realized that not all his beliefs were beneficial to the African-American race. Also in that scene you can see some of TIM's true thoughts starting to shine through the Washington influence when he slips up on his words and uses the phrase, "social equality" instead of the acceptable phrase, "social responsibility" which causes the white audience to "shout hostile phrases" until he corrects himself and reverts back to the beliefs of Booker T. " Social responsibility, sir" (Ellison, Invisible 31).
This once again illustrates how Washington's ideals are basically forced on TIM, this time by the white people who want him accept these beliefs and never rise up, "We mean to do right by you, but you've got to know your place at all times" (Ellison, Invisible 31). Washington's beliefs also went along with this request by the white man as seen by his quote, "The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of the question of social equality is the extremist folly" (Kostelanetz 7). Other evidence of his impact on Ellison is shown through the preaching of Reverend Homer A.
Barbee's speech on the Founder's life which is very reminiscent of the Founder's Day speeches which were delivered every spring at the Tuskegee Institute, ( 12). Barbee's words extol the virtues of the Founder and make him seem heroic, "This barren land after Emancipation"¦And into this land came a humble prophet"¦yet somehow shedding light upon it where'er he passed through" (Ellsion, Invisible 92). The speech has a great impact on TIM at first, but then he realizes that the speaker is blind, "both in the physical sense and in his awareness of political realities," (Kostelanetz 12).
This signifies that TIM is starting to think on his own and seeing the faults in Washington's beliefs instead of just blindly following them. Two of the major characters in Invisible Man, the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe, both relate greatly to Washington and his beliefs.
The college Founder is an almost direct representation of Washington, and is also "an amalgamation of mythology and inventive hyperbole built in part of fragments from Washington's own life and legend"( ).
As soon as TIM arrives at his new college and comes across a statue of the college Founder lifting a veil from a slave's face, "And I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place," (Ellison, Invisible 36). This statue is an exact representation of the one of Washington erected after at Tuskegee after his death, and shows how Ellison is unsure if his policies are really helping the black community or just pushing them back further. He is also like Washington in the way he passes on the college to the new president, Dr. Bledsoe.
Bledsoe can be seen as a mix between Washington's successor, Robert Russa Moton, and even Washington himself ( ). He lives his life based on Booker T. 's principle of submission and pleasing the white man on the outside, "the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here? "(Ellison, Invisible 137). This piece of advice, along with most of the rest of the Washington-like ideas that TIM learns while attending the college, is proof of why the entire college can be seen as "an institutionalization of the deathbed advice of IM's grandfather" (McSweeney 65).
He also still uses his power for his own benefit, advising TIM to "learn where you are and get yourself power"¦then stay in the dark and use it," (Ellison, Invisible 145). Bledsoe's beliefs are very similar to the practices of Washington. While he publicly advocated the idea of Negroes leading a hard-working honest life within the segregated South, privately Washington spoke out against many controversial black issues, including the grandfather clause (Kostelanetz 6). In Invisible Man, Bledsoe also has all the power and the same sort of respect of Booker T.
, but not quite all his "greatness and glory,"(Starke 370), "To us he was more than just a president of a college"¦he was our coal-black daddy of whom we were afraid," (Ellison, Invisible 114). Criticism of Booker T. Washington continues to show up throughout the book in places such as when TIM goes to work at Liberty Paints. The slogan of this factory, "If it's Optic White it's the Right White," parallels and reminds TIM of the old southern saying of ""If you're white, you're right,'" (Ellison, Invisible 213). This is also similar to the Washington belief in agreeing with and pleasing the white man, showing some of Washington's influence.
Another part of Liberty Paints which relates to Booker T. is the fact that in order to intensify the white in their optic white paint you need to mix in ten drops of a pure black liquid. These drops can be seen as "American Negroes who emulate white values and aspirations, thereby endorsing and strengthening the white-American way," or in other words "those who follow the precepts of Booker T. Washington" (McSweeney 74). TIM also relates the paint to "the brightly trimmed and freshly decorated campus buildings" once again correlating Liberty Paints with his college's ideals of Booker T. Washington (Ellison, Invisible 196).
Finally, Lucius Brockway, who works in the basement of Liberty paints basically creating the pain, exemplifies the Washington principles of Negroes staying in their place, appeasing the white men, and not bothering with equality. Throughout TIM's entire journey the ideals and philosophies of Booker T. Washington accompany him. From the beginning, when these beliefs are practically forced onto him by his elders, to when these beliefs are reinforced by Bledsoe at the college, and in a way they are still with him in the end when TIM has found his place in society and is using his power without anyone noticing.
While sometimes TIM accepts the ideals of Washington and they seem to be the only way for an African-American to succeed the overall message coincides with Ellison's belief that Booker T. was not a great leader and didn't really contribute to the advancement of the Negroes, "with the nature of leadership, and thus with the nature of the hero"¦[and] with the question of just why our Negro leadership was never able to enforce its will. Just what was there about American Society that kept Negroes from throwing up effective leaders? " (Ellison, "On Initiation" 170).