In Invisible Man (1952), Ralph Ellison presents an unnamed narrator who cannot be seen. General readers and critics of the novel have understood this narrator to have been rendered invisible by the impositions of a highly racist society. (1) While this understanding is certainly valid, it ignores an intriguing possibility embedded in the novel's closing chapters, as the narrator contemplates what it might mean to "plunge out" of history. Although Ellison's narrator initially has invisibility imposed upon him, as he tells his story, he comes to embrace that invisibility and claim it as a site of power.
Because Ellison reconceives the marginalized position of invisibility as powerful, he raises questions about which cultural forces make invisibility a viable, even desirable, choice. The nature of dominance in American culture necessitates an interdisciplinary perspective to answer these questions, one that takes into account the intersection of sexuality, gender, and racial constructions in the novel. An intersectional approach is also important because Ellison situates his discussion of visibility within the matrix of racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity by structuring the novel around the narrator's encounters with white women and around sexualized encounters with white men. Furthermore, because Ellison establishes his interrogation of power within the concept of (in)visibility, a full analysis of intersections in the novel must consider the politics of sight both in the text and in the culture that produced it. The "invisibility as disempowerment" argument overlooks the fact that matrices of power are rooted in the visibility of bodies rather than in the erasure of agency that "invisibility" implies. Ellison's novel appears at a key moment in the racial history of the US, as a crossover music industry fused with the emergence of television. This fusion created a context in which visibility was possible for black bodies only when they performed the role of "other" for white culture. Even more often, "seeing race" acted merely as a conduit for white culture's appropriation and commodification of black cultural forms. This moment, most frequently symbolized by Elvis Presley and Amos 'n' Andy, illustrates how psychosocial and economic forces inflect the visual signifier we call race. Ellison advocates invisibility as a powerful cultural space, a space from which the interrelated matrices of dominance and, in fact, the concept of the body are deconstructed.
In the novel, invisibility allows Ellison to create a black male subjectivity that is fully outside of visually constructed white, hetero-male hegemony. I identify Ellison's narrator's invisibility as a personification of what Judith Butler, building on Julia Kristeva, calls the "abject": the realm of bodies that remain unproduced by discourse in order to provide an outside against which dominant bodies (bodies that are male, straight, and white) can be defined. This psychosexual perspective is most effective within the context of a historically grounded consideration of the racial discourses of "crossover" economics that preceded the novel's publication. Within the context of these discourses, which rely on a visual commodification of blackness, the possibility of abjection--of invisibility--as a site of power becomes clear. This analysis allows us to reconsider Invisible Man as the narrative of one man's process of embracing that abject alternative. This process is prompted by and enacted through scenes that emphasize sexual experiences with white women as well as scenes that highlight the narrator's resistance to the commodification of black bodies, including the Battle Royal, the narrator's first speech for the Brotherhood, the murder and funeral of Tod Clifton, and the botched sexual encounter with a woman who has called him not black enough (303). These scenes highlight key factors in the relationships among visual power and discourses of dominance-patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism, and whiteness--because each one features the juxtaposition of black men and white women as visual objects of America's racial and sexual fantasies. (2) Through these highly visualized, highly sexualized moments, the narrator moves from a position of powerless visibility, "as part of the entertainment" (17), as he describes his subjectivity at the Battle Royal, to a position of empowered abjection on the "lower frequencies" (581) of the cultural imaginary.
Intersectionality has been a crucial scholarly intervention rooted in feminism and gender studies, race theory, and visual culture studies, in part because of the interdisciplinary nature of these fields. Ellison's text has been a major node in this intervention, because it so often plays with the intersection of power and the implications of being seen and not seen within these structures. (3) In many of these analyses of intersection, Ellison's treatment of gender and sexuality in the novel has been found problematic. While I do not want to ignore the problematic nature of Ellison's formulations, an exclusive focus on this nature erases the possibility that invisibility holds for a subversion of gendered and sexualized, as well as racialized, norms in a context where extreme visibility makes the creation of these norms impossible. Furthermore, reevaluating invisibility actually extends some of the directions suggested by the most salient critiques of the novel. For example, Michele Wallace's essay on a racialized, feminist aesthetics in modernity and postmodernity relies on a reading of Invisible Man, even though its primary object of critique is visual art. Wallace's reading of invisibility's role in the maintenance of white hegemony is a complex account of racism's double bind:
On the one hand, there is no black difference. On the other hand, the difference is so vast as to be unspeakable and indescribable. Invisibility, as a visual metaphor, is then employed as a way of presenting a variety of responses to racism and cultural apartheid; there is the problem of translating a musical/ oral Afro-American tradition into a written history and literature; there is the problem of Eurocentrism; and there is the problem of not being seen. (210)
Although my argument may seem like a departure from Wallace's analysis, because it seeks to uncover the political, psychological, and social value of invisibility, it is really an extension of her critique. Ultimately, Wallace's concern is that there has not been enough theorization of "the power of the image" (206), especially given the scholarly attention that has been paid to music and sound in African American literature and culture. By positing invisibility as a critique of a disciplinary visibility that emerged in the mass media culture of the 1950s, this article answers Wallace's call for more attention to the politics of vision. Wallace also evaluates Ellison's erasure of black women from his text and concludes that Ellison's elision of race and gender as interchangeable categories of oppression is one of the most problematic features of modernism. She argues, "In Invisible Man, 'women' are generally 'white,' and while the text is not especially sympathetic or kind to white women, it seems entirely engaged by the assumption that from a white male progressive point of view, or from the perspective of Euro-American modernism (I am not suggesting that these are necessarily synonymous), the problem of the female (white) 'other' and the problem of the black (male) 'other' are easily interchangeable" (210). The argument I advance here could be accused of falling into the same trap of interchangeability. However, Ellison's tone, which shifts constantly between sympathy and disgust in his portrayals of white women, suggests that his investigation of black male and white female oppression is more complicated than mere interchangeability. Furthermore, the fact that he consistently situates the narrator's sexual encounters with white women in the context of a homoeroticized white male gaze suggests that his narrator's embrace of invisibility constitutes an understanding and exposure of these matrices of power rather than a compliance with those structures.
Claudia Tate's discussion of the gender/race intersection in Invisible Man neglects the possibility of invisibility as a position of power. However, she complicates Ellison's use of women as something other than mere stereotype. My reading converges with Tate's in that I also see Ellison's female characters as central figures in the narrator's path to awareness of cultural oppression. Tate goes so far as to describe the women in Ellison's text as akin to "underground station masters of the American slave era" (254). Tate suggests that the narrator's failure or success during what he repeatedly calls his "hibernation" will hinge on his ability to accurately read his encounters with white women as the space through which to deconstruct power's operations. If he understands his encounters with white women, then he can access the strength that lies in "manipulating one's powerlessness and in not allowing oneself always to be seen" (Tate 256). I read the narrator's encounters with white women as part of a process of embracing invisibility and abjection. Though Tate predicts that the narrator will not move through his period of hibernation with the requisite knowledge of oppression to challenge power, in part because he has no "mother to give him birth ... to the aboveground region" (65), I believe that the use of the novel to explore the complicated psychosocial dynamics of abjection gives readers this requisite knowledge.
The process of the narrator's abjection in Invisible Man begins in one of its most memorable and horrifying scenes, the Battle Royal. According to Butler's revision of the Kristevan concept of abjection, the existence of the body is discursive (Bodies 3). (4) I read Ellison's sexual and racial norms in the context of Butler's assertion that these norms are "the norms by which the 'one' becomes viable at all, that which qualifies a body for life within the domain of cultural intelligibility" (2). For Butler, the very matter of bodies--their physical existence--becomes an effect of the dynamics of power. Bodies cannot be thought to have matter (or to matter) outside of the regulatory norms and practices that produce them. Regulatory norms make certain discursive identifications possible, but disavow others. Therefore, the process of bodily materialization produces, and even requires the production of, a realm of nonnormative, nonidentifying and thus nonidentifiable bodies--a realm of the abject. In this sense, the abject realm is a space of disempowerment, a space to which one is consigned by discourses of power. Ellison's narrator's invisibility is typically understood using this disempowered definition of abjection. Simultaneously, however, the subject of culture would not be known and consequently could not emerge without the domain of the abject, of those subject positions disavowed within the concept of norms. In this sense--as its constitutive other--the realm of the abject also represents a threat to the norm. As Butler articulates, "This disavowed abjection will threaten to expose the self-grounding presumptions of the sexed subject, grounded as that subject is in a repudiation whose consequences it cannot fully control." The abject realm acts as a "threat and disruption"; it is not only the pathologized outside, "perpetual failure," but also a "critical resource" in the struggle to renegotiate cultural norms (Bodies 3). Ellison mines this critical resource by probing the social possibilities offered by abjection.
The Battle Royal establishes the relationship between white power, male power, and (hetero)sexual power, the "self-grounding presumptions" of dominant subjectivity, as central to the narrator's embrace of abjection. Furthermore, it equates these structures of power with the visibility of disempowered bodies. In this scene, the narrator is invited to a gathering of the town's "leading white citizens" (17) to perform the speech that he previously delivered at his high school graduation. When he arrives, he discovers he must first fight with his classmates before a drunk and jeering white male audience. From the start he is anxious about the battle: "I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington" (18). The narrator's concerns about "dignity" and "potential" are significant because they announce the search for a culturally sanctioned identity that will dominate the novel until rejected in favor of invisibility. These concerns also situate that search within the context of white domination and the white audience's demands for particular, but contradictory, racial performances from the narrator--fighting and dignity. By rereading Butler's notion of performativity, Michael Rogin argues that in the context of race, role-playing is an issue of force rather than of choice, and thus it upholds the binaries that it has been claimed to deconstruct in the context of gender. For Butler, gender performance, especially drag, allows for the exposure of gender norms. She argues, "If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender" (Gender Trouble 175). (5) In contrast, black performativity, suggests Rogin, "scripts identities. It defines group members by the roles they are forced to play" (33). In the instance of performativity, then, white privilege trumps gender privilege. (6) Ellison's novel features many instances in which white women attempt to gain power by accessing white privilege and black men attempt to gain power by accessing male privilege, and in these scenes both black men and white women usually fail to gain access to subjectivity. (7)
In this early passage, the narrator looks to find identity within the roles assigned to him by the white audience. His primary concern is how they will perceive his dual role as a participant and a speaker. At this point, the only way in which he is able to conceive of his identity is from their perspective. The use of the word visualize, a highly charged word throughout the novel, highlights this conception. Whites can only "see" the narrator when he performs the roles expected of black men, as in this case when he can only give his speech after he has been dehumanized by the battle. Similarly, he can only visualize himself within the context of a black role that has already been officially recognized, specifically that of Booker T. Washington. The use of the word pre-invisible in the same sentence as visualized cannot be dismissed, however. It reminds readers of the narrator's eventual rejection of all available cultural identities through his embrace of the abject. Ellison thereby reveals identity as a cultural construct by using invisibility to undermine the "visualized" identity of "Booker T. Washington."
The battle connects these issues of visuality to the intersection of white power and male power, and makes this intersection central to the narrator's abjection in the novel. The narrator and the other boys, who are a spectacle of desire for the white male audience, are confronted with a woman, "a magnificent blonde--stark naked" (19). Fighting a combination of fear, guilt, and attraction, the narrator looks at the woman and describes her: "The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon's butt" (19). In this description, the woman is both objectified and commodified by the narrator, as she is by the white male audience. The narrator uses the definite article rather than the expected possessive pronoun to describe the woman's physical features--"the hair," "the eyes"--thus robbing her of her subjectivity. This objectification becomes a commodification through his comparison of the woman to a kewpie doll. Once a treasured toy fashioned to resemble a child-like cupid, the kewpie doll had become, by the time Invisible Man was published, a trinket that could be won in carnival games. This association foreshadows one of the tropes of the novel, the awarding of white women to the narrator. It is a move that looks like an acknowledgment of subjectivity, but simply acts as a palliative, illusion, or conciliation. By comparing the woman to one of these dolls, the narrator buys into the white male perspective of the woman and views her as cheap entertainment. In this way, he attempts to align himself with the perspective of white masculinity by defining himself as man against the woman-as-other at the precise moment that he is being robbed of that subject position by being made to fight before he can give his speech.
Because the narrator simultaneously attempts to inhabit and is prevented from inhabiting an identity equal to that of the white men, his feelings toward the white woman are conflicted. Although he confirms his attraction to the woman by looking at her (even though he is reluctant to do so), he reveals in his description of her a kind of repulsion: her eye color is "smeared" and it reminds him of a "baboon's butt." This sense of conflict stems from the position that white femininity has historically played in black male consciousness. Due to the societal taboo and legal mandate against miscegenation in the US, as well as the practice of lynching, white womanhood represented a combination of desire, terror, and identification for black men. It has been argued that white male concern about miscegenation stemmed from fears about the mythical "purity" of the white race. Lewis R. Gordon suggests that cultural taboos and legal bans against sexual relations between black men and white women were linked to the fear that white women can give birth to both black and white babies, which makes control of their sexuality central to white male power. Prohibitions against sexual relations between black men and white women stand in stark contrast to figurations of black women's bodies because white men have historically been free to engage with black women sexually. This freedom derives in part, Gordon argues, from the matrilineal tradition of the plantation in which black women can give birth only to black children. (8) The fluidity of a white woman's biological reproduction in the cultural imagination turns her body into a space where blackness can hide, "like the secret blackness of milk," as Gordon describes it (126), or the ten drops of black paint that Liberty Paints requires to produce the "Optic White" paint in Invisible Man. Gordon's argument runs counter to traditional assessments about the idealization of white femininity in American culture, because he believes idealization is really fear and disgust in disguise? He suggests that the white man "glorifies the white woman because he distrusts her; he entombs her in an edifice of serious value so as to hide, even from herself, her propensity to make choices" (126). (10)
This idea that white women's bodies are entwined with sexual and racial purity is evoked by the narrator later in the Battle Royal scene when he describes a "small American flag tattooed upon [the blonde's] belly" immediately above where "her thighs formed a capital V" (Ellison 19). Here, Americanness is explicitly connected with white female sexuality. Because it is inscribed upon the woman's body, the tattoo suggests that the white woman is forced into this symbolic role by the twin narratives of patriarchy and heterosexuality. In the context of Butler's conception of the abject as that which is not matter--since the bodies in this realm are ancillary to power, they are ancillary to discourse, and therefore not fully material--white women can be seen as occupying the abject position because they are a part of the abstract, symbolic realm and do not have access to concrete and material subjectivity. Because the white woman is held up as the ideal image of beauty and desire, the narrator and his classmates are aroused by her. They also objectify her in an attempt to gain the same subject position as the members of the white male audience. Despite their efforts, they remain a part of their abject realm as a result of their own objectification by the white male gaze, an objectification that is made violently emphatic by the events of the Battle Royal.
Because the narrator and the woman are both playing roles forced upon them, the narrator begins to identify with the woman. He tells the reader that she is wearing an "abstract mask." The image of the mask will come to be associated with role-playing, or racial performativity, throughout the novel; most frequently, black men perform stereotypes of blackness for whites. By imagining this mask on the white woman, the narrator attempts to distance himself from the identification he begins to feel with her. However, the mask also represents his growing awareness that they occupy a similar position in white male power structures.
Against the assertion that white male concern over purity motivates anxiety about white female and black male sexuality, Trudier Harris counters that the prohibition against miscegenation stemmed from the myth of sexual prowess enforced upon black men by white men, a myth that has its roots in white male sexual competition with and desire for black men. "Consequently," Harris asserts, "his objections to miscegenation were designed to control the behavior of black males and white females without interfering with his own sexual preferences" (20). This idea that the miscegenation taboo is tied up in a complex web of competition, desire, and control becomes apparent in this scene as the audience begins to yell at the boys. "Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not," the narrator relates (Ellison 19-20). Some men want the boys to look in order to confirm their belief in the animalistic sexuality of black men and their uncontrollable desire for white women and to justify their own desire to see these boys fight--if the boys transgress against a white woman, it is appropriate to enjoy their subsequent suffering. Others admonish them from looking, because simply to look at a white woman is a transgression for a black man. The terror imposed on black men through white womanhood is implied in this control of the gaze of sexual desire. In the period between Reconstruction and 1952, when Invisible Man was published, the threat of vigilante justice in the form of lynching was a constant presence in the lives of black men, particularly in the South. The accusation of sexual contact with a white woman was a primary cause for lynching. This pervasive threat had by no means abated by the early 1950s. In fact, three years after the publication of Invisible Man, arguably the most notorious lynching of a black man occurred when Emmett Till, a teenager from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi, was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. This terror underlies both the narrator's conflicted desire and the white men's need to compel the boys to look. |f the policing of black male and white female desire through overt terror maintains white male domination, this system is threatened when black men and white women either look on each other without desire or refuse to look on each other at all.
Many of the white men pay more attention to the boys than to the woman. Echoing the boys' impossible position with the white woman, the white men are compelled to look upon the boys even as they are repulsed by them. This irresistibility implies that their desire to see these boys fight with one another is sexualized. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that homoerotic male desire is masked by the exchange of female bodies between men. The presence of the woman in this scene could be intended to obscure white male sexual gazing at black male bodies, or even to provide an excuse for the white men to look at the boys. If the woman is present, the men's gaze can be coded as a policing of black male desire, allowing the white men to disavow their own desire for the boys.
Because both the black men and white woman are implicated in white male control of sexuality, the narrator's identification shifts throughout the scene. His initial attempt to identify with the audience has shifted by the time the woman is chased out of the arena by the violent actions of the white men. The narrator says, "I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys" (20). He thus confirms that his site of identification has shifted from those who possess power and control the situation to the object of their control. This movement marks the beginning of the process of the narrator's choice of abjection.
Following this initial experience of identification with white womanhood through recognition of their shared place in the abject realm, the narrator has two sexual encounters with white women that confirm and intensify his sense of himself as the abject. The first of these encounters happens in the context of one of the narrator's speeches for the Brotherhood, a political organization that pays the narrator to deliver speeches and organize community action, and, in the process, assigns him a commodified identity (309). (11) The speeches represent moments of visibility for the narrator, and they are supposed to be moments of growing subjectivity. However, his sexual encounters suggest continued objectification. During his speech, the narrator is approached by "the kind of woman who glows as though consciously acting a symbolic role of life and feminine fertility" (409, emphasis added). The word consciously is significant here because, unlike the woman at the Battle Royal, this woman is conscious of playing a role in society. Although she is still in an abstracted and abjected position--her role is symbolic--she has claimed some agency by becoming conscious of her position within white male society. One possible reason for this woman's ability to be conscious of her role is that she has found in the narrator an abject other against whom she can define herself. Throughout the scene, the woman relentlessly uses the narrator's blackness and her own access to white privilege to separate herself from him. In seducing him, she tells the narrator that his speeches scare her because they are "primitive." The adjective obviously affects him. He says, "I felt some of the air escape from the room, leaving it unnaturally quiet. 'You don't mean primitive?' I said. 'Yes primitive'" (413). Like the white men at the Battle Royal, the woman ascribes the stereotype of unrestrained, primitive sexuality to the narrator, robbing him of his subjectivity. This is made clear by his reaction to the word. He tries to rob the word of its power by suggesting that she doesn't really mean it. With her answer and emphasis on the word, its power over the narrator is reasserted, attracting attention both within the scene and visually on the page. Shortly after this moment, the narrator confirms his loss of subjectivity and agency as he thinks, "If I were really free ... I'd get the hell out of here" (414).
Given the woman's sense of white superiority, it is significant that she initiates the encounter with the narrator. She tells him that her husband, a powerful member of the Brotherhood, is in Chicago on business. Although the narrator is attracted to her, he echoes his conflicted desire for the blonde at the Battle Royal when he says, "I wanted both to smash her and to stay with her" (415). Again fighting fear, guilt, and desire, the narrator sleeps with the woman, but they are discovered by her husband: "I heard the sound and looked up to see the man looking straight at me from where he stood in the dim light of the hall, looking in with neither interest nor surprise. His face expressionless, his eyes staring" (417). The man appears to ignore the affair, and the narrator flees from the room, wondering what has just transpired. He is unsure if the man is really there at all, or if the man is so cosmopolitan the he simply does not care what his wife does.
However, the man actually may not see a black man in his wife's bed, even though he looks right at him. As in the Battle Royal, both the woman and the black man exist outside of the dominant power structures. Because they exist in an abject realm, the affair is invisible to the white man. This invisibility takes on added significance in light of what Gayle Rubin identifies as the "traffic in women," where women function as commodities and objects of economic exchange among men. Both the woman and the narrator attempt to appropriate this system of exchange in order to become full subjects. The "conscious" woman attempts to enter this system by exchanging her own body, thereby taking control of her own trafficking. The narrator, although less conscious, could attain a male subjectivity equal to that of white men by completing this exchange of the white woman. However, both the woman and the narrator are denied a place in this system because the white man refuses to see their transgression. In this way, their act lacks significance because they remain fully entrenched in the realm of abjection.
When considered in the context of Sedgwick's analysis of exchange as homosocial ritual, it may seem strange that the woman's husband does not see the narrator, particularly when the presence of the woman at the Battle Royal prompted the white men to look intently at the boys. However, the woman's role as initiator of this encounter disempowers her husband's gaze. In the Battle Royal, the white men assert control of both the white woman's and the boys' sexual desire. In this case, neither the woman nor the black man is visible because neither is playing the role assigned by white men in either psychosocial or economic discourse. The black man is not in relentless pursuit of white womanhood; instead, he is the passive recipient of female sexual desire. The woman is not the victim of black male aggression because she is the aggressor. Because the narrator's and the woman's roles in this scene do not conform to the symbolic positions they have been ascribed by white men, they cannot be material within dominant power structures. In this scene, the narrator's and the woman's subversion of white male power is ineffective, neither one achieving the goal of materialization. The narrator's retelling of this story about invisibility from a consciously invisible position, however, deconstructs white power and male power so that readers can recognize the intersection of these power structures. Furthermore, invisibility becomes a viable and even desirable choice for the narrator. Because the narrator's embrace of invisibility is portrayed as a process, he enters this scene with a desire for visibility. However, his visibility leads to his being disempowered through the woman's objectification of him and his primitivism. At the end of the scene, he is denied visibility as punishment for not conforming to proper codes of psychosexual performance and economic exchange. Visibility thus begins to lose its appeal for the narrator.
The narrator's embrace of invisibility comes through his second sexual encounter with a white woman. This embrace is foreshadowed by his encounter with the commodification of the black male body for mass consumption. Earlier in the novel, the narrator introduces the reader to Tod Clifton, a "very black and very handsome" man who "possessed the chiseled, black-marble features found on statues in northern museums and alive in southern towns" (363). Clifton is portrayed by the narrator and other characters as the ideal of black masculinity, particularly in the context of his work with the Brotherhood. Both black and white men and women gasp when he enters a room (363), and Ras, the novel's Black Nationalist character, calls him "the real black mahn" (372). Toward the end of the novel, Clifton goes missing. In the eyes of the brotherhood, he has "disappeared" (421, emphasis mine). The narrator is both puzzled and troubled by his friend's disappearance, but he becomes outwardly angry when he finds Clifton selling overtly caricatured and racist Sambo dolls on the street. The Sambo dolls Clifton sells are paper puppets, which he makes dance for a white audience while singing, "He's Sambo, the dancing doll, the twentieth-century miracle ... he'll kill your depression /And your dispossession, he lives upon the sunshine of your lordly smile" (432). The large audience of white onlookers laughs and applauds as the doll moves in "loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask like face" (431). The doll's movements and "mask like" face connect this scene with the kewpie-doll woman at the Battle Royal.
More importantly, they situate the doll's performance in the blackface minstrel tradition. A popular form of entertainment from the mid-ineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (the era when lynchings of black men by white mobs were most frequent), minstrel shows featured white performers with their faces painted black who sang and danced in mocking imitation of black styles. Rogin argues that this style of entertainment allowed recent European immigrants, particularly Jewish and Irish, to become white: "Insisting on racial division ... [minstrelsy] passed immigrants into Americans by differentiating them from the black Americans through whom they spoke.... Facing nativist pressure that would assign them to the dark side of the racial divide, immigrants Americanized themselves by crossing and recrossing the racial line" (56). This process of identification through differentiation adds historical weight and specificity to Butler's theory of abjection.
Even more interesting is that Ellison would choose to invoke one type of "racial cross-dressing" (Lott 9) during a historical period when another form, less overt but no less appropriative, was beginning to emerge in both subcultural and mainstream white society. Called "white Negroism" after a 1957 Norman Mailer essay that explicitly articulates white male imitation of blackness, 1950s racial cross-dressing has been associated with everyone from the Beats to Elvis Presley. Nelson George links the rise of white Negroism with what he calls the "death of rhythm and blues," the repackaging of black music and styles into rock and roll for white consumption. Calling this movement a "rape of black ideas and styles" (61), George situates it within the sudden visibility of African Americans as potential consumers: "Negroes became objects of attention, and in the eyes of manufacturers, a market worth exploiting" (40). George's focus on visibility suggests that it is no accident that white Negroism emerges with the advent of television, a visual medium often credited for Presley's success, because he could be white in the most public venues possible, namely televised performances, but could sing black. (12) The narrator foreshadows this appropriation when he says of the blues, "Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid, inadequate words?" (443). As this passage indicates, instead of producing an empowered black consumer, this exploitation allowed blackness to be appropriated by whites, primarily by white teenagers. By aiming packaged blackness at an adolescent audience, dominant white society was able to drain both white countercultural movements and black subjectivity of their revolutionary potential. Significantly for Invisible Man, blackness opened up as a site available for appropriation precisely because blackness had finally been seen by white culture. When visibility operates within matrices of dominance and control, it limits, rather than provides, agency. As a result, the embrace of abjection becomes even more meaningful. (13)
In light of the commodification of black culture in the 1950s and the narrator's encounter with the Sambo dolls, his speech at the funeral of the idealized black male Tod Clifton can be read as the anti-commodification of black male bodies. Enraged by the sight of the racialized Sambo dolls, the narrator spits on one of them while Clifton makes it dance. His action causes a stir in the crowd of onlookers and draws the attention of a nearby police officer, who confronts Clifton, then shoots and kills him. The narrator goes back to the Brotherhood's Harlem headquarters and struggles to invest his friend's death with meaning but is unable to do so: "The incident was political.... But that's too broad a definition. Its economic meaning? That the life of a man is worth the sale of a two bit paper doll.... But that didn't kill the idea that my anger helped to speed him on to death" (447). He begins to organize a funeral for Clifton that he hopes will stir the black community of Harlem to action. "What we want is not tears, but anger," he declares (449). However, when the occasion of the funeral arrives, he finds himself unable to invest Clifton's body with the symbolic meaning for which the crowd looks. While the proceedings have all the trappings of a political rally, with mourners carrying signs that read, "Brother Tod Clifton, Our hope shot down" (450), the narrator cannot think of anything to say to them. Instead he just starts speaking, and slowly, his "speech" begins to collapse in upon itself. He repeats the same basic phrase several times: "His name was Clifton and he was young and he was a leader and when he fell there was a hole in the heel of his sock.... So he died. ... His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him.... His name was Tod Clifton, he believed in Brotherhood, he aroused our hopes and he died" (456-59). By refusing to invest Clifton's body with meaning, he prevents it from being abstracted into political capital for the white-dominated Brotherhood. In so doing, he resists commodification both within the novel and within the broader context of culture.
The narrator's refusal to invest Clifton's body and death with meaning also insistently situates them in the abject realm. It is significant, when considering Kristeva, that the narrator confronts both subjective and cultural meaning through an experience with a corpse. In Butler's definition of abjection, the scene has even greater significance. When bodies and selves are assigned particular meanings, especially meanings associated with identity like the concept of the speaking "I," they begin to undergo the process of materialization and thereby enter the system of discursive norms. For Butler, "The formation of the 'I' [is] a citing [of established identity categories] that establishes an originary complicity with power" (Bodies 15). Much as Ellison's narrator chooses not to identify himself by not naming himself, he refuses to identify Clifton here by refusing to make his death symbolic. He therefore refuses others' attempts to commodify his death. The narrator's desire to maintain Clifton's position in the abject realm, in both Kristeva's and Butler's definitions of the term, foreshadows his own embrace of invisibility in the concluding events of the novel.
After Clifton's death, the narrator's final embrace of invisibility begins with the realization that some people are "outside of the groove of history" (443). This phrasing, which materializes history, makes the abject subject position explicit. From this position, which is specifically abject by being "outside," the groove of history itself is revealed and the operations of power structures inherent in that groove become visible. Although the narrator originally conceived of black people as falling out of this groove (434), he realizes that they actually "plunge" out (447), implying that they choose to go outside rather than being forced into it. The deconstructive possibilities of this outside position are also explicitly articulated as Ellison's narrator expressly watches the boundaries of reality slipping. When discussing the multiple personalities of another character, Rinehart, the narrator begins to see possibilities in this unstable subject position. Although these multiple personalities frighten him, he notes their utility as a "political instrument." In this moment, which occurs after Clifton's death, political utility and deconstruction are linked as the narrator realizes that "they had already opened up a new section of reality for me" (499). The boundaries of reality and the "groove of history," as well as the politics of visuality, are also explicitly linked here--and in language that is strikingly similar to Kristeva's description of the experience of the corpse as "the breaking down of a world that has erased its borders" (4)--when the narrator says, "Outside the Brotherhood, we were outside of history; but inside of it they didn't see us" (499).
The narrator initially fears this new, deconstructive reality: "I wanted to back away from it.... I wanted the props put back beneath the world" (500). (14) However, during his final sexual encounter with a white woman, he makes his own decision to plunge outside of history and to choose invisibility. In a reversal of his previous position, the narrator initiates this second sexual encounter with a white woman. At first, he decides to follow the advice about white people his grandfather gave him shortly before the Battle Royal: "Overcome 'era with yeses, undermine 'era with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction" (16). In a sense, this advice is about high visibility as the path to subjectivity, because the grandfather suggests that excessive performance, in accordance with psychosocial norms and economic commodification, is the only way to achieve agency within culture. In other words, we might describe the grandfather's advice--which frames, along with the Battle Royal, the entire narrative--as minstrel-like.
As the narrator chooses to follow this advice, he simultaneously acts on his desire for Emma, the wife of the Brotherhood's leader, who had earlier inquired whether the narrator should be "a little blacker" in order to represent the Brotherhood in Harlem (303). He says of his desire for Emma, "I had felt strong restrictions and resented Emma's boldness and her opinion that I should have been blacker.... Well, there were no restrictions left.... She was fair game and perhaps she'd find me black enough after all" (512). In this moment of discovery of the power of invisibility, the narrator acts with a consciousness of his conflicted desire as well as of the constructed nature of the role required of him by whites. Even here, however, his consciousness leads him to seek identity in playing the roles assigned to him by the dominant white culture. He recognizes the effect his off-limits blackness has on the white women around him and seeks to use these women's desire to gain subjectivity. As the woman who found the narrator primitive tried to gain agency by using her white privilege, the narrator here tries to use male privilege for the same end. Furthermore, the anger and implied violence of his declaration that "perhaps she'd find [him] black enough after all" causes it to read like a threat. The narrator is thus conforming to the stereotype of the black male predator, a fantasy prevalent in minstrel shows and the narrative that often accompanied lynching. When he arrives at the party during which he plans to pursue Emma, however, he loses his nerve and leaves with another woman, Sybil. From the moment he feels the need to go with a "second choice" (515), the scenario begins to deviate from the narrator's plan. When he and Sybil arrive at his apartment, he says, "I bungled it from the beginning" (516). One of the first signs that his plan is not working is that he identifies Sybil by her name, unlike the blonde at the Battle Royal and the woman of the previous sexual encounter. By giving Sybil a name, the narrator reveals his sympathy for her. Like the previous woman, Sybil wishes the narrator to conform to her fantasy of blackness, but because he has begun to attain a level of consciousness, he is unable to perform in the way he had for the other woman: "I was confounded and amused and it became quite a contest, with me trying to keep the two of us in touch with reality and with her casting me in fantasies in which I was Brother Taboo-with-whom-all-things-are-possible" (517).
Sybil then asks the narrator to rape her, which ruptures both his plans for seduction and his newfound understanding of reality. At first, he seems to play along, pouring himself another drink and saying, "I rapes real good when I'm drunk" (521). This is the only time in the novel that the narrator speaks in dialect. By echoing the dialect of his grandfather's advice, the narrator succinctly reflects on that advice, implying that he will continue to give whites what they expect from him. But this compliance awakens an anger within the narrator, one that he initially takes out on Sybil when he scrawls, "Sybil, you were raped / By / Santa Claus / Surprise" across her stomach (522), in the exact same place where the American flag appeared earlier on the other woman's body. However, his identification with her prevents him from going through with the act as a new sense of reality begins to take shape. He says, "She lay anonymous beneath my eyes until I saw her.... I thought, Poor Sybil" (523). The narrator had attempted to assume a position of dominance by rendering a woman anonymous, or invisible, to him, as he had been to white men. But his growing awareness makes it impossible for him to maintain this position--he sees her, and feels sympathy. Sybil passes out before they have sex, and the narrator proceeds to clean off the lipstick and tries to dress her. When she awakens, he continues to play along with her, but as the encounter progresses, Sybil becomes more and more intoxicated and disconnected from the scene. The term of endearment that she had been using for the narrator, "beautiful," becomes "boo'ful," hinting at the possibility of a racial slur. The narrator senses this shift when he wonders, "Was she calling me beautiful or boogie-ful, beautiful or sublime" (529). The distinction between beautiful and sublime is important. While beautiful signifies "brightness, smoothness and smallness," sublime suggests "the infinite, solitude, emptiness, darkness and terror" (Cuddon 875). Sybil's desire to believe she has been raped coincides with his realization that, to her, he is just another black brute. This realization awakens a new sense of reality in the narrator and he declares, "I'm invisible"
(526), a phrase he repeats three more times before sending Sybil home in a taxi.
The narrator's evocation of invisibility at this moment enables him to move beyond his grandfather's advice and eschew the attainment of agency through role-playing. He thus consciously removes himself from normalizing forces and fully assumes the role of the abject, plunging out of constructions of race and gender. The incidents that make this embrace of invisibility possible--a sexual encounter and a race riot--make this point explicit. While invisibility may seem like a position of powerlessness, the narrator recognizes the need to reclaim invisibility as agency after witnessing the appropriative results of visibility in the psychosocial and economic spheres. The requirement of sexual-racial performativity at the Battle Royal, in his speeches for the Brotherhood, in his reaction to Tod Clifton's death, and in his sexual encounters with white women ultimately renders visibility the truly disempowered space. Invisibility, on the other hand, is a site from which the matrices of dominance can be deconstructed and revealed to those subjects who are most oppressed by them.
Invisibility may seem like a hollow form of agency, and the narrator's embrace of it is not absolute. Moreover, he assures readers that it is only a transitory state: "Please, a definition:," he insists, "A hibernation is a covert preparation for more overt action" (13). However, the relationship between invisibility and abjection is more politically useful than the other forms of invisibility presented in the novel. The narrator's grandfather, Jim Trueblood, and Rinehart each mine invisibility for agency. The narrator differentiates his use of invisibility from theirs by discussing all three of these characters as he contemplates ending his hibernation. His grandfather and Rinehart are mentioned explicitly, and Trueblood is referenced implicitly through the reappearance of Mr. Norton. As trickster figures, these characters utilize the invisibility imposed on them by the structures of white and male sexual power, twisting this power to their own ends. However, although their attempts may be subversive, they do not expose or undermine these structures in the deconstructive ways that invisibility as abjection allows the narrator to do.
The narrator's grandfather uses invisibility as an accommodationist tactic. He hopes on the one hand to disappear beneath a veil of yeses and grins so that he can live outside of the disciplinary gaze, and wishes on the other hand that his meek compliance will frustrate white power to the point of explosive destruction, causing it to "vomit" and "burst" (16). Trueblood becomes invisible ("his name was never mentioned above a whisper") as the result of committing incest. Prior to his crime, he was a figure of high visibility because he conformed to many of the stereotypes that pleased white visitors to the school. He "had been well liked as a hard worker ... and as one who told the old stories with a sense of humor and magic ... and sometimes when special white guests visited the school he was brought up ... to sing what the officials called 'their primitive spirituals.' ... [S]ince the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made" (46-47). After his crime, some whites, like the officials at the school, try to erase Trueblood's existence by coercing him through bribes and threats to leave the county. Other whites, however, become sympathetic to Trueblood for the first time in his life. Norton, who desired a sexual relationship with his own daughter, symbolizes this group. In his invisibility acquired through incest, Trueblood exposes the incestuousness that lies at the heart of whiteness as an ideology. The compulsion for purity and sameness within white supremacy is echoed in Norton's desire for his daughter, whom he calls "too pure for life" (42). As a trickster figure, Trueblood subverts white power by exposing its inherent desires, but he can only do so by playing into the hypersexualized stereotype of black men.
In relation to the narrator's abjection, Rinehart's use of invisibility is more complicated than the grandfather's or Trueblood's. The narrator's encounter with Rinehart (or as Rinehart, since the narrator is repeatedly mistaken for him) is the moment that prompts him to take his deconstructive plunge out of history. Within Rinehart's multiple personalities the narrator sees the most possibility, more than in his grandfather's advice, which he calls a "curse" (17), and more than in the encounter with Trueblood, during which he is ashamed. When the narrator wears Rinehart's sunglasses, the world looks dark, and he can see the "merging fluidity of forms ... through the lenses" (491). In this world, Rinehart is able to disappear by being everything to everyone, "Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend" (498). The narrator is attracted to this world of fluidity, but he cannot inhabit it as Rinehart does, because he cannot accept the limited range of subject positions available to him. When the narrator takes off Rinehart's glasses, he embraces the possibilities he glimpsed in Rinehart's world but eschews its limitations. Because the narrator takes off Rinehart's glasses, this scene is often read as his rejection of invisibility. However, invisibility as abjection is actually the alternative the narrator embraces, an alternative that allows him to push Rinehart's trickster use of this space further. Only after the narrator removes the glasses does reality begin to slip and the discursive boundaries of normative identity begin to peel away. The glasses "opened up a new section of reality" for the narrator (499). The primary difference between Rinehart and the narrator at this moment is that instead of choosing to inhabit many bodies, all of them acknowledged subject positions within the stereotypes assigned to blackness by white supremacy, the narrator chooses no body.
This choice is reiterated in the novel's conclusion. The narrator repeatedly emphasizes his disembodiment--he repeats the word invisible six times in ten pages--in direct opposition to the way he emphasized Rinehart's embodiment by cataloguing the trickster's various identities. When the narrator discusses Rinehart in the epilogue, he echoes the same language of possibility that he used when he was disguised as the impersonator. However, there is a clear distinction between the way Rinehart pursued the possibilities opened up by a deconstructive perception of reality and the way the narrator will pursue them. He says, "My world has become one of infinite possibilities ... step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos--ask Rinehart, he's the master of it--or imagination" (576). The narrator explicitly codes chaos as the space of possibility inhabited by Rinehart. The implication is that the narrator's embrace of invisibility is about the possibilities of imagination. Imagination is key to the novel's conclusion for two reasons. First, it marks the distinction I have been tracing here between a subversive and a deconstructionist use of invisibility. Second, imagination is also at the heart of Ellison's political vision in the novel, and it allows him to theorize a form of agency that is compatible with the sense of possibility that opens for the narrator as a result of invisibility as abjection.
Ellison articulates the political efficacy of imagination in the novel's introduction. In a bold passage about the power of language, Ellison claims, "While fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of 'as if,' therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change." Because imagination is not constrained by the boundaries of reality that frustrate traditional political action, it is a space that allows subjects to explore possibilities that reveal themselves only within fantasy. Ellison sees imagination as the space where "the actual combines with the ideal" to produce new, and previously unimaginable, forms of democracy and equality. In this passage, Ellison posits character as the core of this convergence. He says, "Here it would seem that the interests of art and democracy converge, the development of conscious, articulate citizens being an established goal of this democratic society, and the creation of conscious, articulate characters being indispensable to the creation of resonant compositional centers" (xx). This focus may be why the narrator reflects in the epilogue on the characters who shaped his invisibility. More importantly, it explains why agency and "the mind" (580) are important aspects of the narrator's fantasies of citizenship as he attempts to leave his hibernation.
At the conclusion of the novel, when the narrator announces his intention to end his hibernation and find a "socially responsible role" for himself (581), Ellison offers a challenging meditation on the kinds of citizenship best suited to effect the radical change his narrator has imagined. The narrator's ability to effect this change at the end of the novel is a matter of some debate. He declares several times that he will leave the claustrophobic hole in which he has retreated in order to escape oppression. It could be argued, then, that the narrator ultimately rejects his invisibility by coming out from the underground. However, the reader never actually witnesses his reemergence. At the novel's end, we are left to wonder if these repeated intentions will be fulfilled, late argues, for example, that the narrator will never be able to leave the basement. She reads the novel's conclusion not as a resolution, but as an open-ended question, a "riddle," as she calls it (265). Like Tate, I believe that the novel's ending (which, given its cyclical structure, is also the beginning), challenges readers with questions rather than providing easy answers. Beyond the question of whether the author will leave his hibernation, the key question of the novel's conclusion is the one Ellison confronts in his discussion of fiction and democracy: What does radical citizenship look like?
Although it may be argued that Ellison's narrator rejects invisibility, he never says that leaving the hole will allow him to become re-embodied. Rather, he maintains an ambiguous relationship to invisibility, even when his statements about hibernation are resolute. On the final page of the novel, for example, he states, "I'm shaking off the old skin and I'll leave it here in the hole. I'm coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nonetheless" (581). He is still uncertain that any form of visibility could be productive. That this ambiguous relationship is rooted in invisibility as abjection is suggested in the connection the narrator makes between death and rebirth:
The hibernation is over. I must shake off the old skin and come up for breath. There's a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground might be the smell either of death or of spring--I hope of spring. But don't let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me. And if nothing more, invisibility has taught my nose to classify the stenches of death. (580)
Like Kristeva, Ellison's narrator experiences abjection as the borderland between life and death. This borderland is also the liminal space between "I" and "other." By refusing to fluctuate between subject and object and by choosing to inhabit the space between these two discursive possibilities, Ellison's narrator reveals their interdependence and constructedness. Abjection allows him to experience the fiction of these positions and imagine possibilities beyond them. If the narrator does emerge from the underground at this moment, he is able to reapproach society in a useful way, rooted in imagination, only because he has experienced invisibility as abjection. His ambivalence about invisibility at this moment demonstrates that this experience has allowed him to see the underpinnings of society and reevaluate them, rather than simply conforming to them.
If the narrator emerges from the hole in new skin, Ellison has envisioned a form of radical agency as the narrator's "socially responsible role." In the epilogue, the narrator imagines what this new subjectivity might look like. In a lengthy passage on nonconformity, this new subjectivity initially appears familiar, with echoes of Emerson (whom Norton idolizes) heard in phrases such as the narrator's "let man keep his many parts, and you'll have no tyrant states." However, Ellison calls for a mode of agency that acknowledges rather than metaphorizes material suffering, difference, and embodiment: "America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let them remain.... Our fate is to become one, yet many.... Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray" (577). For Ellison, then, ideal citizenship is not abstraction and is not about becoming one of the "representative men." His narrator wants a form of agency that acknowledges embodiment and difference without objectification. He shakes off the old skin to seek this agency. He cannot be the subject he was, one disciplined by visibility. He either has to be seen on his own, reconfigured terms, or he will remain invisible even when he leaves the hole. He marks his intention to maintain invisibility, or at least remember and acknowledge the role that abjection played in this new form of agency, until he can find a new skin that allows him to engage in the practices of citizenship these spaces allowed him to imagine.
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University of Michigan, Dearborn
(1.) A look through the most recent Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison provides some examples. Paul Allen Anderson describes invisibility as follows: "The metaphor of racial invisibility spotlights the power and consequences of ... the racializing gaze.... Through the act of non-recognition toward the socially invisible--the refusal 'to see me' as a human equal--the white American imagined his own autonomy and superiority" (85). Anne Anlin Cheng opens her interrogation of just who (white or black) is invisible in Invisible Man by acknowledging the disempowering significance of "racial blindness" in the novel (121). Shelly Eversley interrogates the relationship between vision, gender, and race in Invisible Man, equating invisibility with disempowerment: "[E]pistemological blindness to full humanity stems from a logic that positions black people and women as subhuman, as out of sight" (176).
(2.) This is a triangulation through which the narrator's encounters with white women also represent sexualized encounters with white men and, related to this last point, a context of high visibility for the narrator. Daniel Y. Kim argues, based in part on Ralph Ellison's biographical writings, that this triangulation is implicitly homophobic.
(3.) See Michele Wallace, Claudia Tare, Lisa Maria Hogeland, Kimberly Lamm, Janet Overmyer, James Smethurst, Ann Folwell Stanford, Douglas Steward, and Carolyn W. Sylvander.
(4.) Julia Kristeva uses the concept of abjection to explore the discourses of subjectivity and consciousness along the living/dead binary. For Kristeva, the experience of the abject is a violent experience of the "border" (3-4) between life and death, which is also the border between "I" and "other." The abject describes those experiences that disgust and that horrify us precisely because, when we encounter something abject, we cannot assign it the status of subject or object. Refuse, excrement, vomit, unusual substances on food like the skin on top of milk--these constitute the abject for Kristeva. All of them possess an ambiguous relationship to both self and other in psychoanalytic terms; they also possess an ambiguous relationship to the realm of the living and the realm of the dead, and to the status of inside and outside of the body. The ambiguity of these substances makes them horrifying to us, and that horror is based on their deconstructive power. For Kristeva, the corpse produces the most lasting experience of abjection. "The corpse," she asserts, "the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, 'I' is expelled" (3-4). The corpse is a body without a soul, a body without a mind, a body without "being," and therefore, without an "I." Yet it is not quite an object either, because it still reminds us of a person. As an abject experience, the corpse disallows Kristeva the ability to claim the position of subject by erasing the borders between living and dead, self and other.
(5.) Judith Butler is clear that performativity is not always or inherently subversive. In both Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, Butler explains that repeated performance of gender roles within the dominant culture stabilizes the binaries of biological sex. For example, she notes, "[A]cts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause" (Gender Trouble 173). Drag is a specific instance of performativity as deconstruction and subversion. As she explains, "There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains 'integrity' prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only taking up the tools where they lie, where the very 'taking up' is enabled by the tool lying there" (Gender Trouble 185).
(6.) bell hooks emphasizes this hierarchy of privilege in her analysis of Paris is Burning as a film that celebrates and perpetuates whiteness even as it deconstructs gender.
(7.) Given the complex interplay of race, gender, and sexuality in the novel, there is a conspicuous lack of fully realized black female characters.
(8.) Hortense J. Spillers also delineates this distinction, as well as how constructions of race, especially under slavery, have been crucial to the formation of gender categories in the US.
(9.) See Richard Dyer's analysis of visual culture, light, and the representation of white women for an example of the idealization argument.
(10.) In Lewis R. Gordon's argument, white femininity takes on the status of Kristevan abjection. Gordon equates white women with "slime" (126), using Sartre's idea that slime represents fixed instability, especially when compared to water. As an unstable, repellent, and indefinable substance, Sartre's slime resembles Kristeva's bodily abject in the natural world.
(11.) In the context of the Battle Royal, it is significant that this new identity is given to the narrator by Brother Jack after he has called him "the new Booker T. Washington" (305).
(12.) Critics such as Rebecca Solnit see this description of crossover music as oversimplified. Solnit reads Elvis Presley's music as a product of hybridization and mutual influence. She argues that the disdain for white musicians such as Presley allows class divides to fester and allows middle-class and Northern whites to displace their own racism onto poor Southerners. Ultimately, she concludes, such attitudes prevent the coalition-building that is necessary to develop a progressive politics in the US.
(13.) Eric Lott situates white Negroism explicitly in the tradition of blackface, arguing that racial cross-dressing has been a way for white men to embody physically the black maleness they desire sexually.
(14.) Although the application of deconstruction to a modernist text may seem anachronistic, Spillers argues that race always has a deconstructive function in American culture. See, for example, her argument that slavery reduces bodies to "flesh" (67-68).