One of the most disturbing aspects of the blonde woman in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is her lifelessness. At the scene to entertain the white men, she is not fully real; she is a heavily made up and naked “doll” who exists to serve the pleasures of the white men, and Ellison gives her no other dimension beyond fear. At the same time, however, this very much goes to the racism at the core of the novel. If the blonde does not exist as a human being, neither do the narrator and the other black boys horribly exploited to play into white male needs and fantasies. She is white and should be more safe from such abuse, but racists will extend their hatred and abuse to any they perceive as unimportant and, essentially, less than human. Ultimately, and as the following explores, the naked blonde in Ellison’s Invisible Man is a symbol reinforcing the victimization at the heart of racism, how it dehumanizes others completely and brutally, and how racism itself is only a form of a larger ignorance and cruelty.
To begin with, the symbolic force of the blonde relies to a large extent on the circumstances of the event itself. In a bitter irony, the hotel gathering is to showcase the narrator’s speech, and the humility of it has earned him the respect of the white power structure of the town. First, however, he is told that he will participate in the “Battle Royal.” Sadly, the narrator’s concern is only that the boxing will lessen the dignity of his speech, and this emphasizes the meaning of the blonde as the “high point” of the entertainment. The boy believes that he is there to gain some attention and respect, and because he has presented himself as the white wish to see him, but he has no idea of how deep their hatred and racism run. His thinking and feelings then emphasize, through contrast, reasonable expectations and the nightmare of brutal racism and objectification, which the blonde fully represents.
Contrast is further reinforced by the nature of the gathering and the ugliness of their agenda. These are the most prominent men in town: “They were all there – bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants” (Ellison 18). These men are the American dream, but they are a vile and corrupt form of it. This is central to what Ellison needs to convey because these men, ready to exploit the blonde and the boys, have absolute authority. Racist, they define this world as racist. When the event gets underway, what is then presented is that the blonde is virtually identical to the black boys, in terms of victimization. It is true that she seems to have complied in being present and dancing nude; she smiles at the beginning and dances with the confidence of a woman with experience in pleasing men. This, however, is as misguided as the narrator’s belief that he is there to deliver a speech and gain respect, so the parallel between the abuse of the white woman and the black boys is very much emphasized. As the men watching begin to lose control, or more savagely express their grossly uncaring desires, there is the real potential of rape.
The narrator is conflicted at first; he desires her but he scorns her as well, and because she is a white woman with sexual power over him. When the men with power begin to lose control, however, there is a powerful and important connection between the two: “Above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys” (Ellison 20). In this moment before the blonde is saved from the likely attack, the boy recognizes, not a white enemy, but another victim of the ugly power of the racists arranging the evening. As noted, Ellison gives the woman no character beyond her physicality and her sudden terror, but this only reinforces her symbolic quality. Through her, the narrator understands that racism is more expansive and cruel than he had known. More importantly, he realizes that the racism directed at himself and the other boys is an expression of a larger ignorance and hatred.
Another important aspect of racism, however, exists in the bodies of the black boys themselves. They are as much victims of the white male authority as the naked blonde, and because they are serving a racist agenda. For those men watching, there is the sexual and social excitement of witnessing an ultimate taboo: the white woman with black men. This goes to the deepest fears such men have regarding their own sexuality and their fears of black dominance. It also objectifies the boys as only sexual dangers. With the woman, they may violate the white authority through sex, and because they are seen as naturally predatory (Carrington 102). This being the case, the racism in the novel has multiple dimensions. It is based at least partly on irrational and racist fears of black male power; it incorporates white women to further objectify that power and, through watching and controlling the action, reduce the threat; and it all still centers on the white hatred of the black male as the ultimate threat. This is why the abuse to the boys is so relentless. White and important, these white men nonetheless feel the need to break the spirit of the boys through verbal and physical mockery and abuse. It is in fact likely that the main ambition was to sexually excite the boys so that their humiliation at being denied the white woman would be all the more debasing.
It is interesting that, in Invisible Man, Ellison makes his most powerful statement about racism through revealing the abuse of a white woman. Likely a prostitute, the blonde is nonetheless beautiful and sees herself as being in control of the men. She is mistaken, and she is as much a victim of the hatred behind racism as the black boys brought in to be a part of the scene of humiliation. Essentially, the naked blonde in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a symbol that emphasizes the victimization at the heart of racism, how it dehumanizes completely and brutally, and how that racism itself is only a form of a larger ignorance and cruelty.
- Carrington, Ben. Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2012. Print.