“I am a man.” On February 12, 1968, over two hundred Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, bore this revolutionary message written on signs and embodied in their protest against the work conditions that had led to the death of two fellow workers. The strike drew the support of Martin Luther King Jr., who would give the last days of his life to this cause. “You are here,” King proclaimed to those on strike, “to demand that Memphis will see the poor.” One of the sanitation workers described the motive and message years later: “We felt we would have to let the city know that because we were sanitation workers, we were human beings.”
Christianity is no stranger to the importance of “I am” statements. God’s self-disclosure declared him to be I am (Ex. 3:14). Through seven “I am” statements, John’s gospel explains who Jesus is, the eternal Word made flesh. There is, then, both theological origin and depth to the “I am a man” declaration of those workers. The declaration is a demand to be recognized and seen as fully human and made in God’s image.
The image of God is like a doctrinal diamond, refracting multiple truths about humanity. Yet much standard Protestant theological reflection does not account for the doctrinal elephant in the room: What does it mean to live as an image bearer when other image bearers try to limit your existence?
Read through a theological lens, the classics of Black literature, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, can point us toward a rich and profound answer. Ellison’s attention to the embodied experience of invisibility pushes us into a deeper recognition that the imago Dei is a visceral doctrine concerned with blood and bones, dignity and freedom, bodies and sight.
Widely lauded as one of the finest 20th-century novels, Invisible Man is an expansive, landmark text, tracing the painful absurdity of Black life in the Jim Crow South and the thinly veiled racism of the urbane North. Ellison’s novel is comedic and tragic, gritty and surreal, mythic and symbolic, layered and accessible. At its center is Ellison’s nameless protagonist and his quest to find dignity in an American society devout in its denial of his humanity.
The novel opens with the protagonist, Invisible, mulling over his life’s journey with an arresting, metaphorical “I am” declaration: “I am an invisible man.” Readers quickly find that Invisible is not seen as a full human complete with autonomy and dignity. He is viewed only as a living pawn to be acted upon or moved in service to any agenda but his own.
What is the source of Invisible’s invisibility? As we quickly learn, it results not from any defect of his own but from the moral faults of those who behold him: “My invisibility … occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” This sort of diagnosis draws us toward the notion of sin—a malfunction of the spirit, a malady that burrows deeper than rational, surface externals.
The novel’s early battle royal scene is an appalling example of invisibility and its visceral, bodily consequences. As the high school valedictorian of his Southern school, Invisible is invited to deliver a speech on Black humility to an audience of the town’s most important white leaders. Upon arrival, Invisible is not called to the podium but forced by the white organizers to partake in the entertainment that precedes his speech.
What follows is a traumatizing, degrading debacle: Ten Black students are led into a smoky ballroom under the drunken gaze of “the most important men of the town … bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants” and placed before a “magnificent blonde [woman]—stark naked” before being blindfolded, set in a makeshift boxing ring, and commanded to blindly beat each other battle royal style while the white townsmen hoot, holler, and hurl racial epithets. Bruised and beaten, Invisible is thankful to close the night with his speech, swallowing his own blood and saliva to expound on the need for Blacks to be humble and socially responsible. He’s rewarded with a briefcase and a scholarship to a Negro college.
The battle royal, in the novel’s view, is society in miniature: Representatives of every slice of society gaze upon Invisible as a means to an end, a human prop for fetishized entertainment and a muzzled voice for proclaiming that the absence of equality is due to the absence of Black responsibility. Even his rhetoric is confined to the talking points of a segregated society. The crowd hardly listens to a word of his speech “until, no doubt distracted by having to gulp down my own blood,” he blurts out the phrase “social equality.” Upon which “the laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness,” and “sounds of displeasure filled the room.”
In this moment, blood functions in pivotal ways that illumine the dignity and physicality of the imago Dei. Blood, of course, is charged with theological significance. In Scripture, blood makes expiation for sin (Lev. 17:11) and “the life of every creature is its blood” (Lev. 17:14). Life, both temporal and eternal, is a matter of blood.
To even utter words that hold Black people responsible for the problem of white racism—the message that appeases the white crowd—Invisible must swallow his own blood, the very substance of life within him. To champion social responsibility as the path to human dignity is to deny one’s God-given humanity as an image bearer. Dignity is not earned; it is given by the very hand and heart of God. This is the reality Invisible must swallow and deny in order to proclaim responsibility as the way out of invisibility.
At the same moment, his blood cries out like Abel’s, though not from the ground but from within his own body. Invisible, “distracted by having to gulp down” his own blood, calls unintentionally for social equality. It is blood, the source of life and salvation, that causes a divine slip of the tongue: Image bearers are made for dignity and freedom.
Visibility and dignity are at the crux of much of African American history. When early Black church leaders like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones simply wanted to pray in the front of their church undisturbed, they sought to be seen in body and soul. When Sojourner Truth raised her voice to speak for the rights of Black women, declaring, “Ain’t I a woman?” she effectively issued a rhetorical demand to be seen.
Invisible’s realization of his invisibility is a traumatic awakening that builds like a cursed crescendo. For most of the novel, we watch as he lives with pharisaical adherence to the laws of respectability politics and ideals of personal responsibility, only to be boomeranged back and forth between false hope and dehumanizing embarrassment, finding himself used and discarded by each figurehead and institution he encounters.
Living invisible—as one whose dignity is given by God but denied by humanity—produces profound internal tension. Invisible’s existence is marked by a “painful, contradictory voice … within me,” a pulsating “guilt and puzzlement” as he feels the pull of revenge toward an unjust society and his “obsession with my identity” in the form of questions like “Who was I, how had I come to be?”
The story line of the novel advances as Invisible experiences the whiplash of his invisibility and responds with new strategies—from personal responsibility to career prospects to political activism—for asserting his personhood. In particular, education, via the scholarship to a Negro college won at the battle royal, becomes Invisible’s messianic hope. But he soon suffers a crisis after chauffeuring the school’s white trustee, Mr. Norton, on a voyeuristic ride to observe the troubling lives of nearby rural Black folks, leaving the trustee deeply traumatized.
The Negro college president, Dr. Bledsoe, castigates Invisible for not knowing that he should have kept him on the campus. After rebuking Invisible (“instead of uplifting the race, you’ve torn it down”), Dr. Bledsoe expels him from the college and sends him into exile: He is to journey to New York City to work and earn tuition for the following year.
Dr. Bledsoe sends Invisible away with seven sealed letters addressed to “several friends of the school” who are meant to assist Invisible upon his arrival. Encouraged that the letters “were addressed to some of the most important men in the whole country,” Invisible enters his northern exile with a burgeoning sense of dignity, though this confidence is tempered, for the letters are seen by no one:
I caught myself wishing for someone to show the letters to, someone who could give me a proper reflection of my importance. Finally, I went to the mirror and gave myself an admiring smile as I spread the letters upon the dresser like a hand of high trump cards.
Understood theologically, Invisible’s desire for “a proper reflection of my importance” is the longing to be seen by others in such a manner that confirms the image of God in him and ratifies his inherent dignity. Unable to find this in a Jim Crow world, Invisible labors to give himself what he has not received from others. But with no one to properly see and affirm his dignity, Invisible’s turn toward the mirror falls flat, a demonstration that the image of God in us is most seen and celebrated in community, not in isolation.
The scene is tragic, for the letters in which he hopes are but a flimsy substitute for what he is himself: one made in God’s image. There is dignity in our merits, work, and education. But not the sort of foundational dignity that can bear the weight of defining us in a world often out to degrade us or to deify us. To know deep in one’s bones that one is made and loved by God is to be filled with reservoirs of resolve to image God in freedom and righteousness, no matter the world’s gaze.
Invisible arrives at his epiphany as a grassroots activist in Harlem for a multiethnic movement called “the Brotherhood.” At this stage in the story, he is a dynamic speaker under the marching orders of Brother Jack, a white man, and the movement’s mission to shape “a better world for all people.”
Here, too, Ellison’s protagonist is confronted with the ugly truth of his invisibility. In the eyes of this movement, he is less a person than a commodity. After Invisible leads an unauthorized protest, Brother Jack berates him, at which point Ellison shows us the root cause of invisibility from Invisible’s view:
Suddenly something seemed to erupt out of [Jack’s] face. You’re seeing things, I thought, hearing it strike sharply against the table and roll as his arm shot out and snatched an object the size of a large marble and dropped it, plop! into his glass. … And there on the bottom lay an eye. A glass eye.
Ellison’s protagonist thinks he’s been seen in his humanity—after all, he’s been a leader, speaker, and influencer in the movement—but the symbolism of the glass eye demonstrates otherwise. Those who possess a glass eye have, in the novel’s terms, a “polished and humane facade” of moral sight that hides a “harsh red rawness.”
Soon, Invisible experiences a deeper revelation: “I looked around a corner of my mind and saw Jack, Norton, and Emerson merge into one single white figure. … Now I recognized my invisibility.” Each branch of society embodied by these figures—and society as a whole—possesses a glass eye, a defect that renders Black life invisible.
Invisible’s conversion moment—his awakening—is visceral and visionary. He sees things on two planes: the physical—an eye erupting from an angry white face—and the spiritual—his mind prompting a transformative vision. Both revelations affirm that the invisibility of Black people is not the result of a fault in our being or doing. The fault of invisibility resides in the gaze of persons and institutions that blend into “one single white figure.”
Though we are not sinless, we are not at fault for the invisibility imposed upon us. Like all persons, we bear God’s image. Like all humanity, we share an existence and a nature that is at once broken and beautiful. Like all people, we possess in our very selves a humanity that is worthy of affirmation, that demands an embodied freedom, and that needs Christ’s redeeming grace.
No matter how we understand ourselves, we must reckon with how others see us—and they must reckon with how we see them. Theologically, this means the test of our commitment to the imago Dei is not what we believe about the doctrine of the image of God but how we view, treat, and relate to our fellow image bearers—particularly those most prone to be rendered invisible. Our doctrine is not tested by its rational precision but by its lived application.
While attuned to the particulars of the Black experience, Invisible Man also ponders whether the dynamics of invisibility are part of the universal truth of human experience. This manifests in the novel’s structure and bookends. It opens with the declaration “I am an invisible man” and ends with a question: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
The first word of the novel, then, is like a preached word, an indicative truth: I am an invisible man. And the last word, like the conclusion of a well-crafted sermon, drives the audience toward self-reflection: Does this narrative, in any way, speak for you? In this manner, the novel’s framing—epilogue and prologue, opening salvo and final word—invites us to consider our shared human association, how we see each other and live together.
Anytime we see and relate to others as a means to an end, engaging them purely on the level of personal gain, our seeing is theologically skewed. When we view children as a drain and nuisance, coworkers as footstools to our advancement, significant others as receptacles for our frustrations and dispensers of our happiness, we walk in the tragic tradition of fallen humanity, seeing God’s visible image bearers not through the true lens of their dignity but selectively, as commodities. We render them invisible.
What, then, is the way forward? If our sight is off, causing us to sin against God and his image bearers, our eyes—that is, our moral and social imagination—must be removed, replaced, redeemed. If our eyes cause us to sin, we must tear them out, Christ declared (Matt. 5:29; 18:9).
Our sight needs redemption, which requires both repentance and a Redeemer who draws us back to the purpose for which we were made. Christ—the image of God—must be the center of our vision, as the image of true humanity and the redeemer of broken humanity. He is the one who seeks the invisible, comforts the outcast, and dissolves the hostilities between those who have seen each other through the lens of hatred, exploitation, and invisibility. It is Christ, the image of the invisible God, who mends and heals broken image bearers—body, soul, eyes, and all—so that we might grow to behold one another rightly as we image our Creator under the Spirit’s powerful, loving sway.
Claude Atcho is pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Charlottesville. Adapted from Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just by Claude Atcho (Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2022). Used by permission.
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