Race Relations in Black and White: Visual Impairment as a Racialized and Gendered Metaphor in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”

Josep M. Armengol

Abstract


While scholarship has increasingly acknowledged Ralph Ellison’s indebtedness to Herman Melville, whose novella “Benito Cereno” (1855) was used as an epigraph to Invisible Man (1952), fewer scholars have discussed their common literary foci on blindness as a racial and gendered visual metaphor. Borrowing from the latest scholarship on whiteness and/as racial dominance, this article revisits “Benito Cereno” to show how Captain Delano’s lack of belief in the possibility of a slave insurrection throughout the novella is itself an effect of racism, stemming mostly from the taken-for-granted-ness of white superiority, which Melville shows as distorting the whites’ perceptions of blacks. In so doing, I will also explore Ellison’s reworking of Melville’s racial imagery in Invisible Man, which seems to extend the blindness metaphor to both black and white characters, re-presenting cross-racial blindness as reciprocal rather than unidirectional. As part of this argument, the article posits the inseparability of gender and race, suggesting that Ellison’s depiction of white racism may be traced back to the (antebellum) definition of American manhood as free and nonenslaved, which Melville’s novella both illustrates and undermines. I thus conclude that Ellison’s and Melville’s works skilfully anatomize, and critique, the discourses on whiteness and/as masculinity of their respective historical moments, highlighting their interdependence, but also their internal contradictions, which the black characters end up using to their own advantage.


Keywords: Herman Melville; Ralph Ellison; “Benito Cereno”; Invisible Man; literary influence; black-white relations


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