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American Studies – Migrations of Identity in African American Literature Essay Sample

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American Studies – Migrations of Identity in African American Literature Essay Sample

Sound, symbolism and connotations of names used for the titles of the novels, “Invisible Man” and “Song of Solomon”, characters and places, provides the reader with clues pertaining to the authors’ chosen themes. Names may be directly, symbolically related to function as in Ralph Ellison’s, “Invisible Man” by means of sound and connotation or deliberately misleading through inversion, as portrayed by Toni Morrison’s use of Biblical inversions in “Song of Solomon”. The incorporation of names that hold strong connotations in both the novels complicates the tapestry of explicit symbols and themes, as well as enriching mood and frame of reference. Both authors’ incorporation of naming as a stylistic device is done alongside recurring structures, contrasts and other literary devices that help develop theme and mood.

Ralph Ellison’s title, “Invisible Man” and nameless protagonist, to which it refers, are used as a foreshadowing device of what it means to be invisible. Meaning is ascertained through the protagonist’s character, experiences and emotions related to his “invisibility” and his perception of what it means to be invisible and without a fixed identity. The narrator points out that the fault lies in the beholder and is “A matter of the construction of the inner eyes, those eyes through which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” (Ellison: 7). In the narrator’s description of what makes a man invisible, he indirectly refers to certain characters such as Reverend Barbee and Brother Jack, who are portrayed in the novel in connection with blindness, real or imagined, and how this will be a commentary on their inner eye more than a physical illustration. Personality and disposition related to naming of characters, plays an important role in both novels. The “invisible man” comes into contact with other characters and places, where naming is of significance, such as The Golden Day, Brockway, Rinehart and Jim Trueblood.

Jim Trueblood’s name is of significance within the broader theme of the novel by means of which it implies that he is “true to his blood” and existence. In the scene in which the narrator meets Trueblood with Mr Norton, it becomes evident that Trueblood’s incest has become set up by the white community as a stereotype to represent a false reality of how blacks should be seen, the message portrayed that one disgrace to a community brings the entire race down. The naming of the Liberty Paints Plant where the narrator works for a while further extends the theme of racial prejudice evident in the Trueblood scene. The Liberty Paints Plant serves as a complex metaphor and microcosm for American society with regard to race. Like America, it defines itself with notions of liberty and freedom but incorporates a deeply ingrained racism in its most central operations, using “liberty” as a fa�ade for freedom in the factory.

By the portrayal of a factory that produces paint and exemplifies “liberty” in its naming, Ellison is able to make his implied statements about colour literal. Thus, when the factory authorities boast of the superiority of their white paint, their statements appear as parodies of arguments about white supremacy. With the plant’s claim that its trademark, “Optic White” can cover up any tint or stain, Ellison makes a pointed observation about American society’s intentions to cover up black identity with white culture, to ignore difference, and to treat darker-skinned individuals as “stains” upon white “purity”. Ironically, Optic White is made through a process that involves the mixture of a number of dark-coloured chemicals, one of which appears “dead black”.

Yet the dark colours disappear into the swirling mixture, and the paint emerges a gleaming white, showing no trace of its true components. The batch of paint that the narrator had to dope was originally too weak to be sold. To remedy this, he had to add more dope of a deep, black colour. When stirred into the paint, the dope made it a glossy white colour. This is a symbol of the reliance of whites on blacks, and the fact that whites need blacks to achieve success. The labour relations within the plant manifest a similar pattern: black workers perform all the crucial labour, but white people sell the paint and make the highest wages, never acknowledging their darker-skinned counterparts. This also seems to mirror a dynamic evident within America as a whole.

The Reverend Barbee initially sets up the reader, due to stereotypical connotations associated with what it means to be a reverend or a man of God in Western civilization. However, naming counteracts the assumption associated with what it means to be a reverend, upon analysis of Barbee’s first name, Homer. Homer Barbee is blind like the Greek writer and his physical blindness results in symbolic emphasis of pretence and a story, which he can orally illustrate for others, but cannot see himself. In dramatic irony, the reader realises that this character is hiding behind his glasses whilst creating an illusion for the audience in the novel to see into and believe.

Toni Morrison’s title, “Song of Solomon”, is further complicated by its external Biblical frame of reference to the book in the Old Testament and use of several Biblical parallels and Biblical inversions found throughout the novel. Many of the ideas, images and atmospherics from the Old Testament book are translated into Morrison’s novel in the form of symbolism and parallels. The Biblical Song of Solomon is a dialogue of love poems written in alternating male and female voices. The speakers are concerned about power and are threatened by a king, just as the black characters in the novel are threatened by slavery and its legacy. They write in a sensuous, symbolic language echoed in Morrison’s novel, and the bird-imagery of the Biblical song, the lovers’ eyes frequently being compared to doves, is used as a recurring theme throughout the novel especially through the flight motif and the symbolism of the white peacock. The male lover works in fields and vineyards, just as Macon and Pilate worked in fields, and Pilate now runs a wine-house.

The lovers describe themselves as “black, but comely” for “the sun has looked upon” them, and the book is deeply concerned with the legacies of generations, “my mother’s children were angry with me…” just as Pilate and Macon are angry with one another. Another significant Biblical parallel exists between First Corinthians Dead and the Biblical book of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s letter concerns faction differences between different groups in the Corinthian Christian Church, and its overriding theme is that love and edification are the paths to unity. This is an important theme in “Song of Solomon” and in the character, First Corinthians Dead’s life in particular. Corinthians’ prestigious education, rendering a separation between her and the rest of the black community in her town, stands in parallel to one of the sections in Paul’s letter, which deals with a group of “proto-gnostics who believed that their special wisdom and knowledge made them superior to the other Christians.” (www.sparknotes.com). First Corinthians’ relationship with Porter in the novel enables her to stand up to her family, overcome her shame, and coax him into moral reform by leaving the Seven Days. Love and edification, as contrasted with the limitations and hatred of characters such as Guitar, are clearly manifested by the author as the path leading to salvation and unity.

Pilate’s name and character functions as the central Biblical inversion within the novel. Pilate is responsible for the salvation of the “Christ figure” or protagonist, Milkman, in contrast to the Biblical Pilate, who was responsible for Jesus Christ being crucified. Not only does Pilate’s character offer an antithesis related to the expected Biblical connotation of the name Pilate, but similarly, her personality and experience of femininity, as she is constructed within the novel, stands in contrast to Ruth Dead and Western civilization’s expected representation and performance of womanhood and femininity. Pilate refutes societal expectations of her as a woman at the expense of alienation, however, rendering her an advantageous experience of freedom, which affects those who come into contact with her, such as Milkman, Reba, Hagar, and the threatening effect she has on Ruth and Macon Dead, due to a lack of understanding. Pilate’s name is also connected by sound to the image of a “pilot”, relating her existence to the flight motif and the control she possesses of her own “flight”. Pilate’s remembrance of the “Sugarman song” she sings, becomes means by which the flight motif can take place and be relayed to Milkman, who discovers ecstasy and liberation through the discovery of his connection to his grandfather who could fly, according to oral traditions.

Ruth Dead stands in contrast to Pilate in her differing perception of societal roles with regard to femininity. Ruth plays out society’s expectations of her as a woman. She functions as a Biblical inversion to the Bible character that vowed to stay by her mother in law’s side. “Where’st though go, I shall go.” In contrast, Ruth Dead has a bond with her father, Dr Fostor. The surname “Fostor”, holds further ironic implications by the connotations it manifests through sound. Ruth was “fostered” and felt cared for by her father, in contrast to the “deadening of her spirit” she has experienced as a result of her marital relationship with Macon Dead.

Although both novels discussed, incorporate naming as an important stylistic device, it is important to note the differences the authors have used in employing names in order to contribute to their individual themes. Ralph Ellison has used naming as a contributory strategy according to which the narrator is able to question whether a “fixed identity” exists, or whether his experiences and situations which he feels shape him, delineate a perpetual state change as explored by the theme of invisibility. In contrast, Toni Morrison migrates her protagonist, Milkman, towards an understanding of himself, and his identity, through the discovery of his African ancestry and the portrayal of the central flight motif linked to this liberating discovery.


Ellison, R. Invisible Man. England: Penguin Books,1965.

Morrison, T. Song of Solomon. Great Britain: Chatto and Windus, 1978.


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