Family in Invisible Man

By Seth Litwack, Matt Bernstein, and Nick Favia

Inivisble Man

The role that family has had on African Americans, especially those involved in a life of slavery, is reflected in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The relationships between family members and their affect on those family members become evident through the narrator throughout the novel. During slavery, as stated above, masters of slaves had sold and separated families, regardless of their connections. This caused parents to have extremely limited time to care for their children and show little interest in their invis.jpgupbringing. As a result of this separation and disinterest, the children have little recollection of their families or life with their mother or father. It is this same relationship that is seen throughout the novel with the narrator.

There are little references to his most imediate family in the story, his mother and father. Additionally, when they are mentioned, little can be recalled about them (with the exception of the constant haunting of his grandfather's dying words). The narrator rarely ever writes his parents and hardly ever has second thoughts about returning home. One possible reason for this is because Ellison would like to portray the narrator as having no real roots, like many African Americans of the time. During slavery many African American families were split up. After slavery many African Americans families were in disarray and parents could not keep control of their children. Other relatives often took the role of being parents for the slave children. [1] Accordingly, blacks after slavery and during Ellison’s time often did not have true connections with their family, but rather with their communities. This is also shown in Invisible Man. Throughout the novel, the narrator falls into relationships with people who act as "surrogate" parents or "surrogate" family members, resulting from the narrator's need to be a part of a family to fill the void of his immediate family. This is shown through his relationships with Mary, Tarp, and his participation in the Brotherhood. The relationships between slaves and family members are reflected throughout the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

The Narrator's Grandfather

-"Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight...I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open" (Ellison 16) [3]

-"To Whom It May Concern...Keep this nigger-boy running" (33)

-"And now to drive me wild I felt suddenly that my grandfather was hovering over me, grinning triumphantly out of the dark....It was either that or admit that my grandfather had made sense" (147).

-"But that night I dreamed of my grandfather and awoke depressed" (170).

-"Framed there in the gray, early morning light of the door, my grandfather seemed to look through his eyes," (384).

Throughout the novel, the narrator’s grandfather haunts IM in both dreams and memories. Although the narrator has few references to his family during the story, his connection to his grandfather is significant to the overall meaning and themes of the story. The narrator’s grandfather always did what “white” society wanted of him and was not independent. At one point he would like IM to do the same and become submissive to whites. IM ‘s grandfather haunts him throughout the story in dreams with topics “white” society. We repeatedly see this haunting affect of his grandfather on the narrator throughout the novel. For example, when IM tried to please Mr. Norton by taking him to the places he had wanted to see he was expelled from college. However, the narrator receives a disturbing letter that said that should not get ahead of himself in his work because if he gets too influential the white men will cut him down. After reading the letter he believes one of his brothers is his dead grandfather. The image of his grandfather reminds him that he should not forget his past and that he should not trust the white men.

The narrator seems to learn lessons about life and white society from his grandfather. For instance, in one dream the narrator, his grandfather warns him that white society will keep him “running.” This idea is the basis for the entire story because IM is kept “running” by white men who do not wish to see him succeed. Even Dr. Bledsoe, an African American leader, would like IM to never achieve his goals. IM grandfather also speaks his betrayal to the black race, in the beginning of the story, due to his submissiveness to white society and culture. While IM does not truly comprehend his grandfather’s statements in the beginning, through experience he begins to understand his grandfather much more.

The Narrator's Homesickness

-"Cabbage was always a depressing reminder of the learner years of my childhood and I suffered silently when she served it..." (296).

-"Lot of folks takes 'em home....I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I'd ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickeness that I turned away to keep my control," (264).

-"And now I remembered that if I had returned home instead of coming north my father would have given me my grandfather's old-fashioned Hamilton, with its long, burr-headed winding stem. Well, so my brother would get it and I'd never wanted it anyway. What were they doing now, I brooded, suddenly sick for home," (390).

external image Img14.bmpThroughout Invisible Man, we see that the Invisible Man is often homesick. When he leaves the univeristy to live in Harlem, he leaves his entire family behind. At this point of the book he is alone with no support from his family. He also does not have many memories of his family, which contributes to his lack of identity. This was the case for many members of slave familys after the Civil War. The Invisible Man's constant lack of support and acceptance is what makes him think of his family and become homesick. His homesickness is often caused by something that reminds him of home. For example, when he eats the cabbage, it reminds him of his youth when he was home in an accepting environment with family. Also, when he eats the yams on the street, it reminds him of the food that he ate back home which spurred more thoughts of his family and made him more homesick.

The Narrator's Surrogate Families

-"With your eyes upon me I feel that I've found my true family!" (Page 346).

-"Something, perhaps, like a man passing on to his son his own father's watch, which the son accepted not because he wanted the old-fashioned timepiece for itself, but because of the overtones of unstated seriousness and solemnity of the paternal gesture which at once joined him with his ancestors, marked a high point of his present, and promised a concreteness to his nebulous and chaotic future," (Page 389).

-"Nor did I think of Mary as a "friend"; she was something more - a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face," (Page 258).

While the Invisible Man struggles to find acceptance in society, he must first find a form of family since he is so far from his own. He needs a family so that he has some sense of belonging and is not all alone in the world. Throughout the novel, Invisible Man, the Invisible Man encounters many people and groups of people that serve as his surrogate family. They are the people that support him and point him in the right direction while he is on his own in Harlem. While he struggles to find acceptance in society, he meets a mother figure, a father figure, and groups of people that make him feel welcome. Mary serves as a mother figure for the Invisible Man, as she takes him in off the streets and gives him a place to live. She cooks for him and takes care of him while he searches for his opportunity in the city. In doing this, she fills a lot of the roles that a mother would for her own child. The Invisible Man also comes across a father figure, Brother Tarp. He begins to think of Tarp as a father figure when Tarp gives him the chain link. He thinks of this as being the same type of act as a father passing on a watch or an old family relic to his son. The Invisible Man also gains acceptance from groups of people. For instance, he feels as if he is part of a big family when he joins the Brotherhood because everybody is refered to as "Brother" or "Sister." He also connects with his crowds during his speeches. The people in the crowd support him and praise him throughout his speeches and make him feel like he is welcome in their city. All of these people and crowds that the Invisible Man interacts with serve as his surrogate family, which supports him in the absence of his real family.

Family During Slavery

During times before the Civil War, United States' law did not recognize slave marriages and families.[1] Masters
African American Slave Family
of slaves often split up and sold families regardless of their connection. In fact, some estimates say that at least 10-20 percent of slave marriages were destroyed by the sale of a spouse.[1]

Although slaves were often torn apart from their families, they still had strong ties to their kin. In addition most slave children lived with their two parents.[1] Even when families were broken up, other relatives often took the role of being parents for the slave children. Nonetheless, slaves in the South often felt that they were part of a community of family that they felt respect and affection towards.[2]


Many slaves were not able to find spouses because many planters prohibited marriages across plantations.[2] Almost 20 percent of slaves remained single during their lifetime. Furthermore, most slaves married despite law that barred them from it. Husbands often abused their wives and felt little responsibility towards their family. Men often hunted after completing their tasks while women had to work their jobs as slaves and be a wife and mother. [1] They not only had to work in the field, but also cook and clean for the family when she finished her work. Slave women had to care for the children and also the men. Some women were taken by their master’s as slave mistresses and concubines, which severely threatened family life of slaves. [1] A congressman, James H. Hammond and Governor Francis Pickens both had sex with their slaves and Hammond even fathered several children by his slave. Almost 5 percent of former slaves reported that one of their parents were white. [1]

Children During Slavery

An ideal family for a slave child was having one mother and one father.[2] However, about a tenth of the slave children in the South grew up without both of the
Slave Children
ir parents.[1] Children were often taken from their parents at a young age and sent to live in a detached cabin. A slave parent’s authority over their children was extremely limited and parents often lost their children to certain sicknesses caused by the poor conditions. [3] Additionally, slave parents were extremely limited in their time to care for their children and often showed little interest in their children. Many times parents did not even have a say in the upbringing of their children, for slaveholders sometimes maid decisions about their children for them. [3] Many slave children were named after parents, grandparents, or other
relatives in rememberance.

Work Cited

[1] "African American Voices." Digital History. 02 March 2008. 2 Mar 2008 <>.

[2] Carol, Leanne . "Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Slave Family Life." Antebellum Slave Life. 2 Mar 2008 <>.

[3] Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995.

[4] "Southern Plantation Slave History: Family Life." BookRags. The Way People Live. 2 Mar 2008 <>.