What do these colors and settings mean in the Western Society?



Black: Black can be observed in a variety of connotations. Although it can have a positive symbolism, black is usually seen as negative in the Western culture. Some examples include, the Black Market, Black Magic and blackmail. It is often associated with death as well as night and threatening situations. A possible reason for this is that night is viewed as negative and dangerous by humans. Black is also associated with evil and destruction, as well as mourning and the unknown. However, black can also be observed from a positive light, being associated with prestige, sophistication, and formality, such as limousines and black-tie events. [B]

White: White represents a great deal of feelings and emotions, just about all of them being positive. It is most commonly related to life and purity and is thought of as a sacred color. It is for this reason that angels are often depicted wearing white and have a bright, white color radiating from them. White can also represent innocence. This, combined with purity, is the reason for brides wearing white wedding dresses. Doctors, nurses, and other health professions also wear white. In early western films the good guy wore a white hat while the bad guy wore a black one. [C],[B]

Gray: While white and black are on opposite ends of the spectrum, both symbollically and visually, gray is in the middle in both aspects. Depending on whether it is a lighter or darker shade, it can have the same symbolism as either white or black. It can be used as a color in mourning or formality. A dark, charcoal gray can take on some of the same mysteriousness of black. The color gray is also created by mixing both black and white together. Therefore, gray does not exist as it's own separate color or shade. [A],[B]

Darkness: Darkness is typically associated with negative implications. Ideas that transpire from this word deal with depression, fear, and destruction. In many religions, darkness represents evil or a lack of righteousness. The Bible illustrates how darkness was used as the second to last plague causing distress. Darkness is linked with creating a hiding place. The sense of hiding from something brings out fear and isolation from something or someone. [D]

Lightness: In most cases, light refers to goodness and righteousness. Light is commonly associated with an one's intellect and is often involved with an individual coming to a realization. Cartoons are a good example of our culture's belief in this association. When a character has a good idea a lightbulb pops up above their head. It also represents comfort. Usually a person feels relaxed and safe in a light setting. [D]


Black, White, Gray in Invisible Man


Throughout the Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison clearly makes direct references to the significance of the colors black, white, and gray. The underlying themes of this novel constantly allude to racism and racial tension, and by giving distinct examples about each color, these examples enhance the experience of the reader to understand the ultimate purpose of the novel. The symbolism of each color in the novel represents Ellison's personal interpretations of society's view of each race's role during this time period. Not only are the specific colors evident in The Invisible Man, but dark and light follow these same trends as well. Darkness is synonomous with the color black, and light juxtaposes the color white.

Although Ellison sometimes goes along with common views that Western Society holds to these colors, it is more important to note when Ellison breaks these rules. Normally the symbolism associated with the color black has a negative connotation while white has is more positive. This parallels society's views in this novel of black and white races. However, there are numerous instances in which he contradicts typical symbolism and society's views and illustrates that black is not necessarily negative, establishing his own opinion.

Ellison often discusses the colors at the same time. Whenever he writes about black he also writes about white simultaneoulsy. The two colors contrast, but are always together. Even though they are in the same scenes they are rarely mixed. Ellison may be expressing his point of view in these examples. He thinks that black and white have to be together for anything to function, but it does not work if they try to assimilate and become united.


Examples in the Novel:



"If It's Optic White, It's the Right White" (217) external image 65_90079e.jpg
When the Invisible Man begins a job at the Optic White Paint Factory, he is instructed on how to create the purest white paint to be made for the government and used for the national monument and other prestigious buildings. Mr. Kimbro, his boss at the factory, explains that in order to create the finest shade of white, the Invisible Man must take the white paint from the vaults and mix it with ten drops of a black substance. After he adds the black liquid, he must mix it vigorously until the mixture becomes completely white throughout.

This scene is extremely significant because the company raves about their perfect white paint. They claim that it is the best paint around and a topseller because of its perfection. This coincides with the views of Western Society pertaining to the color white. The color is seen as pure, bright, and as a whole it gives off a positive tone. This is a very ironic situation because the company constantly boasts about the exceptional white paint they produce. However, the most essential ingredient for this paint is in fact, the ten black drops. This coincides with society's view of each race's purpose. White people are more glorified and thought of as being more essential to society's functioning just like to an outsider the paint is strictly white. This is apparent when the Invisible Man recalls a childhood jingle, "if you're white, you're right" (218). Upon delving further, blacks are just as important as white people to society's functioning. The jobs they do are not as credited or rewarding as the jobs that white people usually obtain. An example of this is that the Invisible Man works to make the paint while his boss, a white man, receives a much greater income and is more recognized as part of the company.

Another conclusion that can be drawn from this is Ellison's opinion on how the two races interact with each other. When the Invisible Man forgets to add the black drops, the paint turns gray and "it is not as white and glossy as before" (203). The color gray in this context is seen in a negative light. Because gray is a mix of black and white, this supports the idea that Ellison does not think the two should be mixed.

"But still their meanings were lost in the vast whiteness in which I myself was lost" (238).
"I tried again plunging into the blackness of my mind" (239).

The Invisible Man is just coming out of surgery and the doctors are asking him questions about his name, family, etc., but cannot remember anything. He is overwhelmed by the white ceiling in the room and loses himself in his surroundings. Once again, Ellison reverses the symbolism usually played by each color. White disorients the narrator and makes him confused, usually black, or darkness, does this to people. The scene continues and the Invisible Man becomes really nervous and worried when he can't remember his name. He tries to plunge "into the blackness" of his mind. He is trying to seek comfort and console himself at this point. Typically an author wouldn't use black in this situation because it doesn't symbolize soothing and reassurance, but once again in this section of the novel Ellison reverses the roles of the colors.

"On one side I saw a white nun in black telling her beads and standing before the door across the aisle there was another dressed completely in white the exact duplicate of the other except that she was black and her black feet bare...Neither of the two nuns was looking at the other but at their crucifixes..." (441).
This scene takes place right after Clifton's death and the Invisible Man sees these two nuns on the train. It is a clear example where Ellison uses the colors black and white within the same sentence. These two women are not looking at eachother, but the crucifixes that they both hold show the idea that there is more to someone than the color of their skin. It shows that they are looking at eachother's beliefs, rather than focusing on the difference of their skin color. Even though though one is dressed in black and one is dressed in white they are still both nuns. Here, Ellison is attempting to prove that color does not play a signifciant role but one's values are the one thing that truely matters, in this case religion. This parallels with the end of the novel where the Invisible Man believes that color is not a vital part of who one is. For example, while in his hole he states, "Must I strive toward colorness?" (577) By colorness, the Invisible Man means to turn into a "whiter" person. However, that is not what he stands for. He stands for being himself regardless of the color he is.

"Two black pigeons rising above a skull-white barn to tumble and rise trough still, blue air" (452).
This is an interesting image where black pigeons are literally rising over a white barn, a picture that can be scrutinized to find a deeper meaning. Throughout the novel whites act as though they are superior to blacks, economically, socially, etc. However, in this scene these black birds are rising above a barn. They are free while the white object is anchored down. The connotation for each of these objects should also be noted. The pigeons are flying in a park. Ellison describes this peaceful environment with phrases such as the "still, blue air," and there is a "pure, sweet" horn playing. Also, the color of the barn is described as "skull-white." Usually skulls are associated with evil and it is odd to see something white being used in association with something evil.

"Led by Ras the Exhorter become Ras the Destroyer upon a great black horse" (556).
Although Ras is bad in the novel the analysis of this quote is meant to focus upon the great black horse. In this instance the horse is displayed as magestic and "great," rather than written about with a pessimistic view. However, Ellison does not completely abandon Western Culture's perception of the color black because the horse is still involved with death and destruction, a common example black is used to symbolize.
A great black horse
A great black horse


"Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray" (577).

This quote is stated at the very end of the novel when the Invisible Man realizes that he needs to stand up for himself and stop being invisible in his hole. He believes it is "funny" that whites are becoming "blacker" every day and blacks are attempting to become more white. However, they both ultimately end up turning into a grayish color. By becoming "gray" they are not accomplishing anything other than not being true to themselves. By emphasizing the color these people are becoming, Ellison illustrates their corruption. He conveys a message that if the men and women turn to a gray color, they will be creating something they do not want to become. This quote enhances the fact that gray is the result of one transforming into the opposite color and is viewed as harmful to society.


Light vs. Dark .. and the Reversed Roles



"By kicking me into the dark they'd made me see the possibility of achieving something greater and more important than I'd ever dreamed" (354).
This is one example where Ellison reverses the typical function of darkness and light. Usually, dark is disorienting and confusing, but in this situation when the narrator is left in the dark, he comes to a realization about "being more than a member of a race" (355). When he is in the dark, the Invisible Man is more inclined to figure out his identity and his purpose in life.

"And in that clear instant of consciousnes I opened my eyes to a blinding flash" (230).
The Invisible Man became conscious after a flashing light was shone in his eyes. This is significant in the novel because the light was described as a blinding light. In society, light is seen as superior. However in context the light caused the Invisible Man's vision to be blurred. Therefore, the light is used in negative connotation.


"The light was so strong that I could no longer see the audience, the bowl of human faces. It was as though a semi-transparent curtain had dropped between us, but through which they could see me--for they were applauding--without themselves being seen" (341)
Here, the Invisible Man was giving his first speech as a member of the Brotherhood. To add to his nervousness, he was blinded by the lights that shone upon him. In conventional settings, light is comforting but here it only makes his situation worse. After the light is cast upon him, he can no longer see the audience in which he's giving the speech too. Where light is normally seen as a positive aspect, here it is evidently seen as a negative one. The light disoriented the Invisible Man's vision which caused him not to see and that is the exact antithesis of what a light's purpose is.

"Then we entered the dark passage and when we reached the end the spots faded from my eyes and I began to see again" (347).
Once the Invisible Man gets off the stage and heads away from the blinding light he enters a dark passage. It is ironic that he gains his sight back in this scene because usually people feel threatened by the dark because of their lack of vision. However, in this case the narrator is able to calm down and regain his composure in the dark. The Invisible Man feels at ease upon entering the dark passage. Ellison potrays the Invisible Man's differing emotions from the common man.

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SOURCES:

[A] 2008 About, Inc.. 3 Mar 2008 <http://desktoppub.about.com/cs/colorselection/p/gray.htm>.

[D] 3 Mar 2008 <http://www.conncoll.edu/academics/departments/relstudies/290/iranian/influences/lightdark.html>.

[B] Decker, Judy. "Color Symbolism." Symbolism of Color: Using Color for Meaning. 3 Mar 2008 http://www.princetonol.com/groups/iad/lessons/middle/color2.htm.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, United States: Random House, Inc,., 1952.

[C] Symbolism - Colors. September 07, 2001 . Mike's Anime Open, 2000-2002. . 3 Mar 2008 <http://www.three-musketeers.net/mike/colors.html#white>.