Freedom Bound or Bound from Freedom?

Georgia Chain Gang, 1941

This picture of the Georgia Chain Gang captures the oppression of the black man by the white man as well as the history of racial oppression during the 1940s.

This picture features two sets of people.  We see a group of black men in the background and a white man in the foreground.  Notice that the men in the background are working while the white man in the foreground is watching the other men work.  The white man grasps our initial attention because he is in the foreground of the picture and his image is crisp.  The black men in the back ground, however, are more blurry and do not grasp the viewers attention as prominently as the white man.  The black men are bound by chains and are digging a hole, while one of the men looks up at the white man.  The white man is standing in a relaxed, yet in control, position and also has a gun in his belt.

The men in this picture are bound by chains; the chains serve in two ways: to bind them together as a group and to prevent them from being set free.  In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947), race and identity are two of the novel’s major themes.  The main character suffers to find his identity as a black man in a white world and feels caged in, unheard, and invisible to the rest of the world because of his skin color.  Upon joining the Brotherhood, the main character begins to gain a voice in the novel but is still held back at times because of his skin color.  Brother Wrestrum, a fellow black member of the Brotherhood, catches a glimpse of the main character’s chain which he keeps on his desk and their conversation evolves:

“Would you care to examine it, Brother? One of our members wore it nineteen years on the chain gang.”

“Hell, no! I mean, no, thank you. In fact, Brother, I don’t think we ought to have such things around!”

“You think so, and just why?”

“Because I don’t think we ought to dramatize our differences.”

“I’m not dramatizing anything, it’s my personal property that happens to be lying on my desk.”

“But people can see it!”

“That’s true, but I think it’s a good reminder of what our movement is fighting against.”

“No, suh! That’s the worse kind of thing for Brotherhood – because we want to make folks think of the things we have in common. That’s what makes for Brotherhood. We have to change this way we have of always talking about how different we are. In the brotherhood we are all brothers” (Ellison 392).


Ellison provides the reader with this contrast between races.   The black man wants to be heard by the people but he is bound by the symbols and reputations of his past; he must deny parts of himself in order to be seen as equal to his white counterparts of the Brotherhood.

The black men of the Brotherhood, although “heard” continue to live “invisibly” because they continue to live bound by their past.  No matter how the white men try to change them or how much they try to change for the white men, they are still invisible, still bound from freedom.


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