Critical Essays Profiles of Leadership in Invisible Man


Are leaders made, or are they born? Considering the various types of black leaders portrayed in Invisible Man, this conundrum that has puzzled scholars throughout the ages raises questions regarding the unique qualities that define black leadership, as opposed to those that define leadership in general.

Invisible Man portrays numerous profiles of black leaders and leadership styles. While some are based on historical figures (such as Booker T. Washington, Louis Armstrong, and Marcus Garvey), others are based on character types such as the powerful black Southern preacher (Rev. Homer A. Barbee) and the black educator (Dr. Bledsoe). In his speech at West Point, describing the writing process for Invisible Man, Ellison states that he was "concerned with the nature of leadership," and by the lack of effective black leaders in America. Examples of various leadership roles explored throughout the novel that illustrate some of the issues involved in developing effective black leaders follow. In each case, the individuals who assume these leadership roles are limited by society, which consistently reminds them not to "go too fast." Also, the narrator assumes several of these roles as he undergoes his gradual transformation from "ranter to writer."

The Athlete/Entertainer. The athlete/entertainer provides hope for the community by capturing the people's imagination and demonstrating through his own success that, despite the seemingly dismal state of affairs, a better world is possible. This type of leader was exemplified in real life by Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Paul Robeson. In the novel, Tod Clifton (the prizefighter) throws carefully calculated jabs and punches at Ras in Chapter 9, and Tatlock and Supercargo, attempting to use their physical strength to deal with their environment, characterize the athlete/entertainer.

The Educator. Raised on the philosophy that education is the key to success and opportunity, the educator is best exemplified by figures such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. While Washington believed in practical education for the masses, Du Bois believed that education should be reserved for an elite "Talented Tenth" of the black population, who should dedicate themselves to learning the higher arts, such as literature, poetry, and philosophy. He believed that the members of this elite group of educated men and women must then assume the responsibility for educating their brothers and sisters. In the novel, the educator is represented primarily by Dr. Bledsoe who represents a distortion of both models, as he is primarily interested in maintaining his position of prominence at the college, rather than in educating his students to be productive members of society.

The Orator. Convinced that the art of public speaking and the ability to express oneself clearly and eloquently is the key to leadership, the orator is exemplified by figures such as Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey. Ras the Exhorter, Homer A. Barbee, and the narrator represent this type of leader in Invisible Man.

The Intellectual/Philosopher. Relying on wit and intellect to deal with life's realities, the intellectual/philosopher type, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, is represented in the novel by the cart-man, the bartenders (Big Halley and Barrelhouse), and the vet. In keeping with the novel's sense of inverted reality, these characters exemplify the narrator's comment in the Prologue concerning the junkman as a man of vision.

The Preacher. This type of leader relies on his religious beliefs and spiritual strength. Although he sometimes loses sight of reality, he tries to provide his people with a vision of a better world where they will no longer have to bear the pain and suffering of this world. Historical examples of the preacher include Father Divine, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rev. Jesse Jackson. In the novel, Rev. Homer A. Barbee and the Rev. B.P Rinehart, "Spiritual Technologist," exemplify the preacher leadership.

The Separatist/Black Nationalist. The Black Nationalist believes that integration is not a solution to racism and segregation. Consequently, the only way black people will ever gain respect and equality is to build their own nation. The Black Nationalist stands in violent opposition to the staunch integrationist — represented by Brother Wrestrum — who believes that affiliating himself with a primarily white organization will provide him with a sense of identity, dignity, and security. The most prominent black Nationalist was Marcus Garvey, although groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers subscribe to a similar philosophy. In the novel, Ras the Exhorter represents the Black Nationalist philosophy.

The Ancestor. Reminding his people of the courage of their enslaved forebears, the ancestor instills his community with a sense of pride in their cultural and racial heritage. Examples in the novel include the grandfather, the vet, Brother Tarp, and Sister and Brother Provo.

The Token. Also referred to as a "sellout," the token black leader gains his power through the support and approval of whites. Although he appears to be one of the most powerful leaders, as evidenced by his trappings of success (Dr. Bledsoe's two Cadillacs and the narrator's new suit), he is one of the most contemptible and least effective leaders because his leadership depends primarily on his ability to cater to the whims of those who are truly in power.

The Artist/Writer. According to Ellison, the artist/writer is responsible for holding out a vision for society of a better world that is possible only if his audience insists on holding onto their dreams. In the novel, the narrator finally achieves this role when he retires to his underground hideout and, leaving behind the chaos and violence of the external world, finds peace and tranquility in his inner reality. The novel focuses primarily on male leaders, but Ellison also alludes to the power of women, as evidenced by his portrayal of the outspoken West Indian woman at the eviction of Brother and Sister Provo, Sister Provo's determination to return to her house to pray, and Mary Rambo's courage and generosity. In various ways, these women portray the image of the supportive, loving mother who makes it possible for her sons to survive and pursue their dreams of leadership, an image underscored by the narrator's definition of mother: "The one who screams when you suffer."