Summary and Analysis
Arriving at Liberty Paints, the narrator is greeted by a large electric sign that reads "Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints." After a brief interview with the personnel manager, he is assigned to work for a Mr. Kimbro, referred to by his employees as "the colonel" and "slave driver." As an office boy escorts him to Kimbro's office, located in a building with a pure white hall, the narrator learns that the factory makes paint for the government and that he is one of six "colored college boys" hired to replace union workers out on strike.
This ominous overview of the narrator's work environment foreshadows the disastrous events of the rest of his day, which turns into a virtual nightmare as the narrator has conflicts with both Kimbro and his second supervisor, Lucius Brockway, a black man who maintains the factory's boilers in the basement. A long-time employee of Liberty Paints, Brockway helped create the company's slogan, "If It's Optic White, It's the Right White." The narrator's confrontation with Brockway escalates into a physical fight, during which the narrator knocks out the old man's false teeth. To retaliate, Brockway rigs the boilers to explode, sending the narrator to the factory hospital.
At the hospital, the narrator is subjected to a painful series of electric shocks, which leave him feeling strangely disconnected from his body and unable to express his anger and indignation. Finally, the doctors release him, declare him "cured," and take him three floors down to see the hospital director. The director tells the narrator that he is not "prepared for work under . . . industrial conditions," asks him to sign a release form absolving the company of any responsibility for his injuries, and assures him that he will be compensated later.
Disoriented and confused, the narrator finds his way back to the subway and returns to Harlem, where he is taken in by a kindly black woman named Mary Rambo, who nurtures him back to health.
Although the Liberty Paint Factory and factory hospital episodes may seem bizarre, they make sense from a historical perspective.
Ellison's depiction of the Liberty Paint Factory challenges some of our most cherished symbols of freedom, illustrating, once again, that the reality of black Americans in the United States is quite different from that of white Americans. One such symbol is the Statue of Liberty, which welcomes immigrants to America, promising freedom, equality, and justice. But arriving from Harlem, the narrator is met not by the Statue of Liberty, but by a paint factory with a similar name that manufactures optic white paint, thus turning America's metaphorical melting pot into a paint bucket. In like manner, Ellison turns the American bald eagle into the screaming eagle that serves as the logo for the paint factory with its white-is-right philosophy. The white paint symbolizes America's refusal to accept the diversity of its citizens and its attempt to whitewash or cover up the issue of racism.
Brockway is the proverbial old dog who refuses to learn new tricks. Having been with the company since its inception, he refuses to acknowledge that times have changed. Instead of welcoming the narrator and treating him as a possible protégé, he resents his presence, feeling threatened by him. And, suspecting the narrator attended a secret union meeting, Brockway attacks him — first verbally, then physically — without giving him a chance to explain what happened. Although angry at his false accusations, the narrator decides that Brockway is just a harmless old dog whose bark is worse than his bite (as indicated by Brockway's losing his false teeth). Unfortunately, the narrator learns — too late — that he underestimated the old man, who gets his revenge by rigging the explosion.
In many ways, the narrator's confrontation with Brockway echoes his final confrontation with Dr. Bledsoe, who also refuses to listen to him. Bledsoe and Brockway share numerous common characteristics: Both are gatekeepers, fiercely protective of their domain; both use their power to promote their own selfish interests; and both rely on past connections with powerful white men to safeguard their positions. As Brockway tells the narrator how he first got his job, his relationship to Old Man Sparland, the founder of Liberty Paints, becomes apparent, bearing similarity to Bledsoe's relationship to the Founder.
The factory hospital episode in Chapter 11 advances the theme of dual realities for blacks and whites. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, all public facilities in the U.S. were segregated, which meant that blacks could not receive medical care in white hospitals. The narrator's sense of fear and panic at finding himself at the factory hospital following the explosion at Liberty Paints is conceivable. Unlike white patients, who would expect to find kind, sympathetic doctors and nurses prepared to tend to their wounds and relieve their pain, black patients would understandably feel vulnerable at the thought of being at the mercy of white doctors and nurses.
As an educated black man, the narrator is not oblivious to the animosity of the white medical establishment toward blacks. He is undoubtedly aware of cases such as that of world-renowned surgeon, scientist, and educator Charles Richard Drew (1904-50). The pioneer of blood plasma preservation, Dr. Drew established the first successful blood plasma bank. In 1950, while on his way to a medical convention at Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Drew was fatally injured in a car accident. Denied treatment at a nearby white hospital, he was refused the blood transfusion that might have saved his life.
The narrator's horrific experience in the factory hospital alludes to the experiences of blacks subjected to the infamous Tuskegee Study (1932-72), in which a group of poor black men were used as guinea pigs by the U.S. Government to determine the effects of untreated syphilis on the human body. In 1973, after settling a class-action lawsuit, the government distributed approximately $10 million to more than 6,000 survivors and their families. In 1999, President Clinton publicly apologized to four survivors of the study, which historians have described as "one of the most shameful episodes in American history."
The events in Chapter 11 mirror the events in Chapter 1, as the narrator undergoes a second rite of passage. But whereas the battle royal represented the narrator's initiation into a chaotic world of violence and brutality, the factory hospital episode represents his rebirth into a new reality.
Like Chapter 1, Chapter 11 was also published independently as a short story, "Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar" (presumably because the narrator discovers that the hospital is built on top of a tavern). The story was part of the original manuscript of Invisible Man, but the text was drastically altered by Ellison's editor. In both Chapter 11 and the short story, Ellison draws some profound parallels between the hospital and the bar. Like the Golden Day in Chapter 3, the factory hospital has undergone numerous transformations. In the social hierarchy of black America, the bar, which serves as a refuge and sanctuary from the white world, is more important than the hospital, which is simply an extension of the violent and racist white world. The Golden Day plays a vital part in helping the vets maintain their sanity, a function that is not provided by the mental health profession.
During his confinement to the hospital, the narrator, like the vets, is cast into the role of inmate (vs. patient). Birth imagery interspersed with frequent references to tools and instruments underscores the image of man as machine and the narrator as a macabre creation of Dr. Frankenstein. For instance, the narrator (who has been repeatedly entranced by music and musical instruments) now envisions himself as an instrument (an accordion) being played by two men who are not musicians, but doctors.
The narrator's move from Men's House to Mary's house marks a major transition in his life. Having lived through the factory hospital nightmare, the narrator has been forced to surrender his illusions. He can no longer relate to the men at Men's House who, like the vets at the Golden Day, still cling desperately to their illusions, which enable them to ignore the brutal realities of their daily lives. (Men's House is modeled after the Harlem branch of New York's YMCA, where Ellison spent several months following his move to New York.)
play the dozens a form of verbal play in which the participants exchange witty, ribald taunts and insults, often specifically about each other's mother; used first, and chiefly, by African Americans.
Lenox Avenue The intersection of Lenox Avenue and 135th Street marks the heart of Harlem.
ofay slang term for "white person." One critic conjectures that "ofay" is pig Latin for "foe."