In the introduction to his classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote that his task was “one of revealing the human universals within the plight of one who was both black and American.” The novel is rightly celebrated as an enduring document of the black experience – one still timely today, as black Americans reiterate Ellison’s demand to be “seen” and judged as individuals. But it is also a larger meditation on identity, citizenship, and the enduring American idea and ideal of E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”).

This seminar will meet online weekly on Thursdays. All course materials will be provided. Fellows will receive a $200 stipend contingent upon participation in the course and completion of a brief response paper and evaluation.

Image: Invisible Man 5, The Hunting Theatre Company 2012, (black and white)

Thomas Merrill on teaching Invisible Man


Thomas Merrill

Thomas Merrill is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. He is the author of Hume and the Politics of Enlightenment. He is also the co-editor of three edited volumes, including The Political Thought of the Civil War.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Ellison, Invisible Man, Prologue, Chs. 1–6


Recommended Listening:


Discussion Questions:

  1. In what sense is Invisible Man invisible? Why does he use the collision with the blond man to illustrate his invisibility?
  2. What do we learn about Invisible Man and life in the South from the Battle Royal scene (Ch. 1)?
  3. Does Invisible Man make a mistake in taking Mr. Norton to Trueblood’s house and the Golden Day? What are we supposed to learn from those episodes? (Bonus: What is the significance of Supercargo being knocked out in the Golden Day scene?)


  • Ellison, Invisible Man, 7–11
  • Ellison, “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks,” April 6, 1970


Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the significance of the letters Invisible Man brings with him to New York?
  2. What does Ellison mean to say about America with the episode at Liberty Paints? What will the white paint be used for? What are its ingredients?
  3. During the psychiatric examination, Invisible Man identifies himself with Buckeye the Rabbit for a moment before suppressing that thought. Who is Buckeye the Rabbit, and in what sense is this scene a turning point in the novel?


  • Ellison, Invisible Man, Chs. 12–16


Recommended Viewing:


Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is Invisible Man moved to give a public speech after the eviction? What do we learn about Invisible Man from this speech that we did not know before?
  2. In Ch. 14, Brother Jack promises Invisible Man that he will be “the new Booker T. Washington, but even greater than he.” What does this promise mean to Invisible Man? In general, what does Invisible Man (or Ellison) think of Booker T. Washington in this novel?
  3. After Invisible Man’s first speech as a member of the Brotherhood, the Brothers disagree among themselves about whether the speech was a mistake or not. What is the issue that divides them? Why does Invisible Man recall his grandfather and his college literature teacher at this moment?


  • Ellison, Invisible Man, 17–20


Discussion Questions:

  1. In Ch. 17, Ras the Exhorter and Tod Clifton argue violently. What are they arguing about and which side is Invisible Man on (at the time of this incident or later)?
  2. In Ch. 18, Brother Tarp gives Invisible Man a present, but Brother Wrestrum objects to Invisible Man showing that present off. What is the present, and why does Brother Wrestrum insist that Invisible Man put it away?
  3. How does Invisible Man’s speech at Tod Clifton’s funeral differ from his previous speeches? Is this speech a political speech?
  4. Why is Brother Jack missing an eye? Why does Invisible Man only learn about Jack’s eye after Tod Clifton’s death?


  • Ellison, Invisible Man, 23–25, Epilogue


Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is Rinehart, and what does he mean to Invisible Man? What does his name mean?
  2. Why does Invisible Man leave the Brotherhood? Why does he choose to live underground after the climactic riot?
  3. In the final pages of the book, Invisible Man recalls and reinterprets his grandfather’s deathbed advice. Why does he now say that his grandfather meant for him to “affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men”? How has the action of the novel prepared him for that insight?


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