Stagger Lee and the Invisible Man

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Stagger Lee and Ellison’s Invisible Man

Thoughts prompted by two readings: Robert Kinerk

In Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man the central character tries to come to grips with his identity as a black American. His journey to that understanding takes him through different faiths. One is the faith that he’ll be treated with dignity if he simply plays by the rules in the segregated south. That faith is shattered in the book’s first brutal chapter. Then he places his faith in the black intellectual community and believes if he achieves status there he’ll win the dignity he seeks. That faith is shattered by the hypocrisy and duplicity of the intellectual leader he admires most. Finally he put his faith in the universal brotherhood the Communist Party promises. The party’s cynicism shatters that faith.

He loses the illusion of faith entirely when he encounters a type of black hero he’s ignored before – the alluded-to but never seen Rinehart, who can be a pimp, a numbers runner, a gangster, a lover, or a preacher, and who is all those things to different people. Rinehart represents the fecundity and diversity of Negro life that the white world can never pigeonhole or categorize, the vitality that overflows definition. It’s the outlaw life of juke joints and gin parlors and the numbers game and gambling and prostitution, but it is also the life of black religion and the piety that goes along with that. How wild that life can be is demonstrated when the Harlem ghetto where the narrator lives erupts in mindless riots.

Significantly, the nameless narrator of Invisible Man is mistaken for the legendary Rinehart after he puts on a broad-brimmed hipster hat – a hat probably much like the Stetson that precipitated the tragedy in Stagger Lee.

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