‘What did I do to be so black and blue?’ – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Read an extract from Ralph Ellison's 20th century classic Invisible Man, a novel that explores the state of African American life at the cusp of the Civil Rights movement: a life of both conspicuousness and dehumanising invisibility.

And at that point a voice of trombone timbre screamed at me, ‘Gitout of here, you fool! Is you ready to commit treason?’

And I tore myself away, hearing the old singer of spirituals moaning, ‘Go curse your God, boy, and die.’

I stopped and questioned her, asked her what was wrong.

‘I dearly loved my master, son,’ she said.

‘You should have hated him,’ I said.

‘He gave me several sons,’ she said, ‘and because I loved my sons I learned to love their father though I hated him too.’

‘I too have become acquainted with ambivalence,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m here.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Nothing, a word that doesn’t explain it. Why do you moan?’

‘I moan this way ’cause he’s dead,’ she said.

‘Then tell me, who is that laughing upstairs?’

‘Them’s my sons. They glad.’

‘Yes, I can understand that too,’ I said.

‘I laughs too, but I moans too. He promised to set us free but he never could bring hisself to do it. Still I loved him . . .’ ‘Loved him? You mean . . . ?’

‘Oh yes, but I loved something else even more.’ ‘What more?’


‘Freedom,’ I said. ‘Maybe freedom lies in hating.’

‘Naw, son, it’s in loving. I loved him and give him the poison and he withered away like a frost‐bit apple. Them boys woulda tore him to pieces with they homemade knives.’

‘A mistake was made somewhere,’ I said, ‘I’m confused.’ And I wished to say other things, but the laughter upstairs became too loud and moan‐like for me and I tried to break out of it, but I couldn’t. Just as I was leaving I felt an urgent desire to ask her what freedom was and went back. She sat with her head in her hands, moaning softly; her leather‐brown face was filled with sadness.

‘Old woman, what is this freedom you love so well?’ I asked around a corner of my mind.

She looked surprised, then thoughtful, then baffled. ‘I done forgot, son. It’s all mixed up. First I think it’s one thing, then I think it’s another. It gits my head to spinning. I guess now it ain’t nothing but knowing how to say what I got up in my head. But it’s a hard job, son. Too much is done happen to me in too short a time. Hit’s like I have a fever. Ever’ time I starts to walk my head gits to swirling and I falls down. Or if it ain’t that, it’s the boys; they gits to laughing and wants to kill up the white folks. They’s bitter, that’s what they is . . .’

‘But what about freedom?’

‘Leave me ’lone, boy; my head aches!’

I left her, feeling dizzy myself. I didn’t get far.

Suddenly one of the sons, a big fellow six feet tall, appeared out of nowhere and struck me with his fist.

‘What’s the matter, man?’ I cried.

‘You made Ma cry!’

‘But how?’ I said, dodging a blow.

‘Askin’ her them questions, that’s how. Git outa here and stay, and next time you got questions like that, ask yourself!’

He held me in a grip like cold stone, his fingers fastening upon my windpipe until I thought I would suffocate before he finally allowed me to go. I stumbled about dazed, the music beating hysterically in my ears. It was dark. My head cleared and I wandered down a dark narrow passage, thinking I heard his footsteps hurrying behind me. I was sore, and into my being had come a profound craving for tranquility, for peace and quiet, a state I felt I could never achieve. For one thing, the trumpet was blaring and the rhythm was too hectic. A tom‐tom beating like heart‐thuds began drowning out the trumpet, filling my ears. I longed for water and I heard it rushing through the cold mains my fingers touched as I felt my way, but I couldn’t stop to search because of the footsteps behind me.

‘Hey, Ras,’ I called. ‘Is it you, Destroyer? Rinehart?’

No answer, only the rhythmic footsteps behind me. Once I tried crossing the road, but a speeding machine struck me, scraping the skin from my leg as it roared past.

Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,

What did I do
To be so black
And blue?

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