Of universal appeal in its reflection of the human condition, Invisible Man is deeply rooted in the social problems faced by blacks in the United States. After World War II race relations began to shift dramatically: the military was desegregated, the color barriers in sports broke down, and, in 1954, the Supreme Court made its historic ruling against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. More than thirty-five years after its publication, Invisible Man remains a timely book because of its ongoing contributions to breaking down prejudice. Subtler than most works dealing with racial oppression, the book employs symbolism and deliberate distortions to make its points, and successfully avoids being labeled a political harangue or a simple allegory. Ellison refrains from turning any of his characters into one-dimensional paradigms of good or evil, and readers of all races can identify with the main character’s humiliations, disappointments, and anger.
One of Ellison’s primary concerns is the extent to which black culture has been absorbed and ignored by an American culture it helped form. Two episodes at the paint factory where the narrator works are emblematic of this relationship. First, the narrator must mix black dope into white paint; the dope disappears without darkening the white paint, but the paint will not dry properly without the additive. Second, the narrator discovers that an old black man who works deep in the bowels of the factory intuitively understands how the boilers operate and makes the paint’s production possible. Ellison weaves similar light and dark imagery through the book.
In an interview with John Hersey, Ellison explains, “What makes for a great deal of black fury is the refusal of many Americans to understand that somebody paid for the nation’s peace and prosperity in terms of blood and frustrated dreams.” He adds that underprivileged citizens of all races have become “invisible” as they are absorbed into mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture. Invisible Man treats the plight of all “invisible” citizens with sensitivity but challenges the society that continues to deny them full individuality.