How is it possible that a mundane item like food can have such profound significance? How could symbols related to food be incorporated into a book that deals with personal identity, invisibility and other topics? Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison that not only integrates food symbols into its plot, but gives them significant meanings. One symbol is the narrator embracing his southern heritage. Another food item represents the poverty that many African-Americans experienced at the time. Beverages are used to illustrate other people’s opinions of blacks. The narrator eats yams to symbolize his Southern heritage. Food is a symbol of many things in this novel. As an example, the narrator is overcome by homesickness when he bites in to the yam. (264) He turns away from the food so as not to lose control. This emotional display proves the opposite of what he has been portraying. He had subconsciously forgotten the good things about the south due to the negatives, such a racial bias. As a result, the narrator acknowledges that his history is evident when he refers to his yams by saying “They’re what I am, I yam.” (266). The narrator is no longer a racist, and his character has changed. Though the plump, juicy yams only appear a few times, their significance to the narrator’s development is vital.
Cabbage is used to convey the same message of poverty in the entire novel. The narrator for instance describes cabbages as “a sad reminder of his leaner childhood years” (296). The cabbage not only brings back memories of his childhood, but also of the deprivation he experienced. It gives us a window into the narrator’s past, and also his current life. Both are characterized by poverty. Clifton was also impoverished, as the “stench from decaying vegetables” at his funeral portrayed (460). The smell of decaying food and the fetid scent in this predominantly African-American area portrays the appalling state of the community. Harlem residents are not benefiting from the Brotherhood’s efforts to promote equality. The black community is poor because of racism, whether it was blatantly or covertly practiced. Cabbage symbolizes this.
The Brotherhood’s racism is hidden in their drinks, especially the translucent liquids. Emma pours an inch-and-a-half of liquid to each Brother. This causes the narrator’s head to drop to conceal the tears from his eyes. The lowering the head of the Narrator depicts an inferior image, as people normally lower their heads while in front of their superiors. The narrator should be warned of the hidden racism in the Brotherhood by this strong drink. The narrator was also stunned at the meeting when he saw the transparent shadow cast by the glass as the light shined through. The glass eye symbolizes the blindness that Brother Jack has. Jack claims to be color-blind in regards to race. In reality, however, he’s blind because he doesn’t see the narrator. These two drinks clearly represent the racial bias of The Brotherhood.
Over the course of his life, this narrator witnessed many examples racism and poverty. The food is often used to represent both racism and poverty. The author uses the cabbage symbol to show privation in various situations. In this novel, clear liquids are often used to denote racism. The narrator accepts his southern past by yams. He normally dislikes anything even remotely associated with the South, but in his desire to eat yams he has redeemed himself. By using food as a way to express these ideas, the author helps the reader better understand the situation.