Identity is a Gleaming Calfskin Briefcase

An African-American male holds a briefcase.

Image courtesy of Masterfile

 In his youth, the protagonist of Invisible Man acquires a briefcase after his forced participation in the Battle Royal, a brutal fight between young black males, and this briefcase ends up becoming the single consistency in his life as a symbol of childish naivety and overall identity.

This image is of an African-American male holding a briefcase. The man wears a suit, and appears to be preparing to go to  a meeting or somewhere else of importance. (The fact that it was fairly difficult to find a photograph of a non-white male holding a briefcase seems to be worth mentioning.)

The white man who gives the protagonist the calfskin briefcase claims that one day the briefcase will contain materials that will shape the destiny of his people (Ellison, 32). Materials placed into this briefcase throughout the novel include:

  • a scholarship to the state college for black people
  • a high school diploma
  • anonymous letter warning about the Brotherhood
  • the broken pieces of Mary’s bank
  • Clifton’s Sambo doll

The briefcase becomes representative of the protagonist’s identity, which is in flux throughout the novel. This “gleaming calfskin briefcase,” given to him by a white male who participated in his being forced to fight other black males, is a constant item in the narrator’s life (Ellison, 32).

From the first chapter to the very last chapter, the protagonist possesses this briefcase. He places items that he is proud of (diploma, scholarship), that confuse him (the anonymous letter), and that he is embarrassed of and angered by (Mary’s broken bank, Sambo doll) into the briefcase; essentially, the protagonist is holding these very different parts of his identity within the briefcase. His briefcase literally becomes his identity.

The fact that the briefcase represents his identity explains why it is mentioned so often in the novel. The protagonist is terrified when he thinks that he has lost his briefcase after he is hurt during the riot – “I seized [the briefcase] with sudden panic, as though something infinitely precious had been lost to me” (Ellison, 537). He also risks his life to go back and get the briefcase when he forgets it upstairs and runs back up the apartment (which has just been lit on fire) to rescue it (Ellison, 548). The protagonist uses the briefcase as a weapon (Ellison, 560) and uses its contents to light his way when he burns them at the end of the novel (Ellison, 567). This burning is significant in itself – the first item to go is the narrator’s high school diploma. Once a source of pride and a piece of identity, the document instead becomes a source of light that prevents the protagonist from sinking fully into darkness.

Above ground, two cops had asked, “What’s in that brief case?” The narrator had responded, “You” (Ellison, 565). This is an interesting response, considering that, if anyone, the briefcase contains the protagonist.

With each piece from the briefcase that he burns, however, the protagonist burns a piece of himself, leaving himself without an identity and truly invisible.

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Masterfile. Digital image.