In a 1953 interview with the
, Ellison asserts,“It [identity] is
American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are. It is still a young society, and this is an integral part of its development.”
Here Ellison appears keenly aware of the impacts exploitation and oppression have on self-actualization. Although Ellison affirms identity formation is a universal experience,
primarily explores the limitations that racism places on the individual’s creation of self. Ellison explains that it is necessary for the nameless protagonist to discard the social-identities that have been thrust upon him in order to achieve his self-identity.
After all, it’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality. Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others. But all say essentially the same thing: “Keep this nigger boy running.” Before he could have some voice in his own destiny, he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then. Once he recognizes the hole of darkness into which these papers put him, he has to burn them. That’s the plan and the intention; whether I achieved this is something else.
Ellison delineates the limitations society places on the individual’s ability to create a vision of himself. To trade these labels or social identities for a self-identity the protagonist must recognize their origin and destroy them.