Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Leaving Norton's room, the narrator rushes to evening chapel. Despite Norton's assurance that he isn't to blame, the narrator is still filled with a sense of doom. He immediately picks Bledsoe out of the crowd and watches with wonder as Bledsoe converses with (and even touches!) the white trustees. He recalls sitting in the chapel for various events, including those featuring visits by speakers "eager to inform us of how fortunate we were." He recalls white speakers as messiahs come to save the black students, while he recalls black nationalist speakers—those preaching equality and empowerment—as dangerous beasts. At today's chapel service, the respected Reverend Barbee, a black preacher from Chicago, has come to sermonize on the Founder's legacy. Starting with the days after emancipation, Reverend Barbee delivers a long speech about education as the key to freedom. He describes the Founder's history, comparing him to mythic figures such as the biblical Moses. The audience is enraptured by the reverend's words, and even the narrator is moved to tears. On his deathbed, the Founder begged Bledsoe to "take on the burden. Lead them the rest of the way."

When the Founder died, Reverend Barbee says, a dark despair clouded over black people as they "felt the dark night of slavery settle once more upon them." They would have remained in this darkness without Dr. Bledsoe to enlighten them. Barbee carries on about Bledsoe's commitment, dedication, and triumphs as a leader, urging the young students to model themselves after his example. Overcome with emotion, Barbee stumbles off the stage, and his thick glasses fall off. The narrator looks into Barbee's eyes and realizes that he is blind. The narrator is deeply moved by the evening's speeches, so much so that he rushes out before the service has concluded.

Analysis

Recalling the image of the Founder's statue, the college purports to enlighten students through their education, symbolically "lifting the veil" of slavery. The narrator views black speakers who encourage equality and freedom as beasts. He is much happier to view the white trustees as messiahs—the key to his freedom—even if it means perpetuating white power. Once again readers see that trustees such as Norton are not interested in educating students to create social equality; they are interested in crafting their own legacies built on white supremacy.

This long chapter serves to create a myth around the Founder. He is described as a man of biblical proportions, whose rise from slavery to power not only embodies the American Dream but also is viewed as "magic." His story is spellbinding, particularly when retold through the powerful oration of a Southern preacher trained to rally a crowd's emotions. The Founder's beliefs are so pure and powerful that there is no doubt he had an entire race's best interests at heart. When he died, he transferred that legacy to Bledsoe, and the narrator and Reverend Barbee assume his ideals are the same: enriching the lives of black students. Barbee's sermon idolizes the Founder and Bledsoe simultaneously. Overwhelmed, the narrator stumbles from the chapel certain that there will be no mercy from a man with such moral conviction.

Barbee's blindness, however, suggests that he doesn't see the truth—he doesn't see the flaws in the Founder's ideologies or the flaws in Bledsoe's character.

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