Literature Class Moment

April 29th, 2010 § 71

By Laura Grafham

“This is one of those literature class moments,” gestures Dr. Doug Thorpe, before pressing play on the boom box waiting with jazz music from the 1910s and ’20s.

The notes dig out deep meanings hidden in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. The classroom, 40 students full, listened, catching sideways glances out the window at the gray afternoon.

For example, does the “I am…” at the beginning of the prologue draw upon the Judeo-Christian Yahweh? Perhaps. But more than that, the voice is confident about his identity. Are we?

“I am an invisible man,” Ellison’s character states, leaving us, the questioning students, left to find out where this invisibility stems from.

He surrounds himself with lights — 1,369 to be exact — wired up from floor to ceiling, surrounding himself by light bulbs underneath the ground in a hole-home he created for himself. He explains to the reader, “without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death.”

Family, friends and strangers often ask me what I plan to do with my English major. This happens with me all the time. My uncle last Thanksgiving asked me this very question, and when I told him I had many plans, he asked if one of those plans included asking “would you like fries with that?” Very funny.

Without giving form to the formlessness, as Ellison’s character tries to do, we’d become lost. I’d become lost. Words perform the same task that the light bulbs do by shedding understanding into dark corners of the world.

I can never fully understand where other people are coming from. It’s frustrating. Words, books, are a feeble but necessary attempt to bridge this enormous gap that can never be fully closed. As long as I can find a really excellent Mandarin or Hindi translator to work with me, all I want to do is add my voice to the literary melting pot.

My roommate, a global development studies major, is plagued with feeling like she can never do anything of great enough consequence that will help people, with inadequacy toward “what needs to be done”. There need to be people like her out there.

The Protestant upbringing in me, the Baptist guilt, tells me much of the same thing, whispers in my ear that I’m being frivolous. You’re reading books? You’re writing? the voices whisper.

Yes, I am. What of it?

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