Only a handful of stories encapsulate what it feels like to be Black in America. Although many creators—Black and white alike—go into fiction with the best intentions, few capture the complexity of bearing an African complexion. On the rare occasion that a creator gets one element of the ordeal correct, they usually sacrifice other facets of the Black experience to keep their singular theme as salient as possible.
Oftentimes, Black creators will conjure stories that zero in on racism and how it affects their characters physically. These stories typically manifest as treatises on intergenerational poverty and institutionalized oppression and how they handicap the protagonist who is bound to an inescapably tragic fate. Despite being valid expressions of the tangible problems that plague Black Americans, stories of this ilk fail to generate proactive protagonists. Most Black protagonists are entirely reactionary due to the author's desire to cast their heroes as guiltless victims of a world they never made. And while that may be effective in communicating an allegory that aligns with the reader's moral sensibilities(i.e., racism is bad, dude), it usually forces the creator to commit one of the most fundamental literary sins: making a reactionary protagonist.
In this arena, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man succeeds where other pieces of Black American fiction fail. What makes Invisible Man so compelling is that the protagonist isn't a victim of racism in the traditional sense- in that there's some external force that's blocking him from his goals. The nameless protagonist in Invisible Man battles the perception of himself. The protagonist is aware of his identity as a Black man and spends the entire book either railing against or feigning to embody the stereotypes others perceive in him. What makes the book such a brilliant mediation on race in America stems from the reductive assumptions that both white and Black characters continually make about the protagonist. Every character has their cherished (and equally malformed) idea of authentic "Blackness" and how the protagonist should comport himself.
In addition to the sobering commentary on the mythical idea of "real Blackness," Invisible Man also walks the reader through the physical journey of the American negro, by way of the protagonist's exodus from the south to New York City. Along the way, the protagonist encounters a litany of characters that personify the varying social issues that Black Americans battle daily. Ellison's protagonist confronts well-intentioned liberal racists, self-hating Black Americans, and white women who view Black males as a sexual commodity and nothing more.
If you can only read one book for Black history month, I implore you to give Invisible Man a chance. If you're already familiar with the book, peruse through its pages once again to see how timeless Ellison's appraisal of America is.