Monday, September 1, 2014

Humility in Chapter 1 of "Invisible Man"

"Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I gave up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the Lion's mouth. I want you to overcome them with yeses, undermine em with grins, agree em to death and destruction, let em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open" (16)

This quote - the dying words of the narrator's grandfather - sets up most of the first chapter very well. I suspect it will set up the rest of the book very well, but I cannot make a definite judgement on that since I haven't read most of the book at this point.

The best single word that both encapsulates the grandfather's dying speech and the first chapter in general (as well as a single word can encapsulate such things) is humility.

Humility presents itself in two very different ways in chapter 1. There is a first type of humility that is ingrained in one's existence. It becomes as much of a person as primal desires are, it is a defining characteristic of one's existence. This is the type of humility that the "town's leading white citizens" (at the community gathering) want in the black populace.

The second humility is one of illusion. It is a tool, an attack that -like a tick or leach- is able to gain strength through remaining undetected. This is the humility that the narrator's grandfather described. He (the grandfather) was in full, conscious control of his humility - and that is what separates his humility (of the second type) from the narrator's father who, by having no conscious control or understanding of his humility, has ingrained it into his existence (the first type).

The narrator in chapter 1 is stuck in a sort of limbo between these two polar opposites.

(1) "On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this - how could I, remembering my grandfather? - I only believed that it worked.)" (17)

(2) "Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance?" (25)

(3) "Then on a sudden impulse I struck him lightly and as we clinched, I whispered, 'Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.'
'I'll break your behind,' he whispered hoarsely.
'For them?'
'For me, sonofabitch!"

These are three quotes that show that the narrator has a pretty good understanding of what his grandfather was saying. The narrator is sort of 'sucking up' to the white towns leaders, and the humility that he talks so passionately about in his speech is certainly not ingrained in him (for we see him in all three quotes using it as a tool - to curry favor or attempt to avoid pain). In the third quote the other fighter does not have this understanding. By letting humility become a part of him, he partly destroys his own identity, accepts his second class status, and refuses to use illusions ( in this case faking unconsciousness) to trick the white town folk (who just want to see two blacks beat the hell out of each other).

But as soon as the narrator get's his briefcase and scholarship to the black college, he feels that he has triumphed over the townsfolk. And while the objective act of giving someone a nice briefcase and a scholarship is certainly a kind act - knowing these rich white town leaders, it is fairly safe to assume that this was an act to push the narrator towards "leading his people in the proper paths" (32) and to "Keep this nigger-boy running" (33).


  1. When discussing the grandfather scene, I remember encountering this contextual question: If you behave meekly, does it matter if you actually feel inferior or if you are just acting? To quote your blog post, “He (the grandfather) was in full, conscious control of his humility”, which I guess in other words, describes the latter. But by definition, humility would describe the former, and not the narrator’s grandfather, who, at his dying breath, finally confesses to an lifelong legacy of deceit. Are these the same? It is interesting to note the sense of pride that comes with this admission, as if he believes that his covert crusade of docility has been an effective act of defiance even though no one could ever tell the difference. "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

    1. That's a good question. One could even argue that if you're not going to change you behavior in any way, it would almost be better to genuinely believe that your world is just somehow and operate honestly than to stew in bitterness.
      I certainly don't think that pretending to be humble a very effective form of defiance. It's not going to change anything. Perhaps it is an effective way of getting through a word where the odds are stacked heavily against you (although, if this is the case, so is genuinely having humility), but it's not starting any revolutions.
      His grandfather recognized what was wrong but failed to do anything about it. I think the narrator took his grandfather's philosophy one step further- he actually decided to withdraw from the society that refused to see who he really was- but this is still a very passive, individual protest that isn't going to change anything for any one else (although he is writing the book, which is a more public protest). Then again, what will change anything? An individual can't change a society single-handedly.
      Well, this comment ended up depressing and unproductive. But maybe that's the point. These characters (in Native Son too) can't be productive. They're completely stuck.

    2. To us, it may seem no different, and certainly the narrator has not learned to master the "illusion" version of humility. But writing from the future here -- Bledsoe shows that this illusion can be used as a weapon. I don't believe that Bledsoe's tactics are as effective as he thinks they are (see my earlier blog post about this), but he and the grandfather certainly have a point. Within their limitations, they've done very well. The only problem is that, when they operate within their confinements, they cannot fight them.

      The narrator seems to be learning -- he has become the anti-Bledsoe, and is new job is the epitome of the activism that Bledsoe would never attempt. And yet, isn't he still the same boy that accepted the scholarship happily and ran off to college, forgetting his worries? His envelope with his Brotherhood name inside is comparable to his scholarship briefcase. The narrator thinks that he has learned insidious humility, but he's still being kept running.

  2. Humility is a virtue in the sense that we view excessive pride as a vice--humility means not putting yourself above others, or looking down on others. But this becomes a perverse form of virtue when we're talking about a social context of oppression, where the oppressed is being asked to act with "humility"--it overlaps with more crass imperatives like "stay in your place" or "don't be uppity." Any expression of pride or self-possession, in such a context, comes off as a challenge to the status quo, and we need to read "humility" in this context. The narrator isn't being *humble* in chapter 1; pride isn't even part of the picture. Humility in this context veers closer to *humiliation*--to accepting and even internalizing the power structure that would put and keep him down.

    So the grandfather's advice seems to suggest creating an *illusion* of humility for strategic purposes: act how they want you to act, but don't believe in their image of you.