The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 96-120
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Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man:
Invisibility, Race, and Homoeroticism from Frederick Douglass to E. Lynn Harris
In 1952, when Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man was published, lynchings were not uncommon; by some measures, the last "official" lynching, Emmett Till's, was in 1955. Miscegenation was a crime in thirty states, including the entire South. Sodomy was a crime in every state. Given this environment, the unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man has many reasons for wanting to stay underground, to remain invisible. Invisibility—for Ellison as well as for his precursors, Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen, and those who follow him, namely E. Lynn Harris—involves far more than racial identity; invisibility is repeatedly linked to "passing"1 and miscegenation as well as to homoeroticism and homosexuality. In her discussion of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Cheryl Clarke notes, "This tradition of covert, subtextual discourse on transgressive sexuality has persisted in black narratives of all kinds" (97). Thus, when we read these works, we should not be surprised to see homoerotic subtexts; repressed desires inevitably find ways to express themselves, especially in the novel, where the scope can allow unacknowledged desire to escape the eye of the author or can hide desires that might incriminate the author. This essay will examine how Ellison's Invisible Man utilizes the images of passing and invisibility as established by H. G. Wells and Douglass, and [End Page 96] how that image evolves with Johnson and Larsen into one that invariably involves the homoerotic; this essay will lastly show how Harris recognizes the multiplicity of the invisibility metaphor and brings it "out" in the 1990s.
There is an intriguing convergence of "passing," miscegenation, and homoeroticism within the metaphor of invisibility. The connection between the first two—passing and miscegenation—may be the most apparent. First of all, we need to understand the underlying anxieties in white culture concerning passing: is it that the person passing undermines the idea of racial difference, or is it that passing is both a sign of past miscegenation and a suggestion of present or future miscegenation? The majority of African Americans who pass have more than a few white ancestors; thus, the person who passes is the visible sign of past miscegenation. Furthermore, one must consider the possibility that the actual fear by white culture of passing is sexual, that if a "black" passes, then s/he may be more likely to have white partners, possibly without the partners' knowledge. Or, if one is light enough to pass, but is with a "visibly" African American partner, then that itself is symbolic miscegenation, since the white viewer cannot know for sure.
If the white fear of passing is sexual, then the connections between it, miscegenation, and homosexuality are more easily made. Within dominant American culture, from the time of Douglass to the present, there are few taboos so visibly invisible as miscegenation and homosexuality. In the same way that Michel Foucault describes the paradoxical nature of Victorian sexuality—"There was steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex" (18) at that same time that it was repressed, "condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence" (6)—miscegenation and homosexuality are discussed, legislated, and theorized while those who engage in such sexuality must do so hidden from the public sphere. The fear of both miscegenation and homosexuality seems to occur in the same individuals: if one looks at the sixteen states that had anti-sodomy laws before the 2003 United States Supreme Court decision that appears to ban such laws, all but four are states that continued legal slavery into the nineteenth century;2 if one looks at the states that refused to repeal their anti-miscegenation laws, only one of the states that permitted slavery, Maryland, repealed its anti-miscegenation law before the Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional in 1967. If the South represents the geographical space where race creates the greatest anxiety,3 then the underlying...