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Ralph Ellison introduction of the character of Dr. Bledsoe in his novel to some extent portrays his fascination with the appeasement philosophy of Booker T. Washington. Being a very influential leader of the blacks during his time, Booker T. Washington advocated for the philosophy of racial solidarity, self help and accommodation. His urge unto the black people of his time was to submit to discrimination for that given time while on the other hand they were to concentrate on the elevation of their race. This was to be achieved through working themselves hard and gaining material prosperity as they awaited the whites to recognize their hard work and accept them and then later accommodate them into their citizenship. This was under the conviction that, the economic success of the black was the only means for the black people to achieve racial equality. Booker T. Washington believed that though education in crafting skills, horticultural skills and the practice of positive virtues like patient thrift and enterprise this dream was achievable. The main idea was that practicing this virtue would win the black population a lot of respect from the whites and they would be made into accepting black Americans or African American for that case as citizens who would later be integrated into the mainstream of the white society.
Dr. Bledsoe’s submission towards the expectation of the white regime reflects much of the Philosophy of Washington’s appeasement through tolerance and submission to the expectations of the white institution. This is much in opposition to W.E.B. Du Bois Policy of agitation for political and civil right activism. But keenly exploring Dr. Bledsoe’s character leaves us with no doubt that at some point Ralph Ellison also rejects this philosophy (William 09). Dr. Bledsoe who we had earlier identified as the president of the college that the narrator (the invisible man), is presented as a very ambitious, treacherous and selfish character (Ellison 99). Being a black man he seems not to sympathize with his fellow black Americans but rather wears on a mask of servility towards the white community. Working under the influence of his desire to retain his power and status in the white institution, he prefers to part with his black self which in this case seems like a survival tactic that is unique only to him.
One might be inclined to misunderstand Dr. Bledsoe’s character looking at the way in which he treats his fellow black men. It might seem as if he is not fighting on the same course with his fellow black men against the oppressions of the white man which makes him a slightly different character. He is a man who speaks to the white men as if he holds them with a lot of respect. Even the Invincible man gives us a piece of this conviction when he says that; Dr. Bledsoe was a perfect example of what he aspired to be (Ellison 95). Bledsoe was quite influential when it came to his relation with wealthy men country wide, he was a man who was consulted when it came to matters concerning race; the whites considered him as a leader of his fellow black men. He was respected for being in possession of not one but two Cadillac, earned a quite a good package (Ellison25). This was the kind of perception that Ellison first portrays to the reader but not until they engage in conversation with the invisible man that we realize, and so do other characters that he is not what we had expected him to be. This is after the invincible mans with Mr. Norton.
Bledsoe tells the invincible man that he should have made an excuse or told Mr. Norton a lie saying that white men have a habit of giving orders (William 07). This reveals that Bledsoe is not as honest as he makes people think which could also be considered as a kind of hypocrisy but this is Bledsoe’s unique ways of survival. Bledsoe continues to give the invincible man some bits about power or authority telling him that ‘power is not meant for show off but it is supposed to be self assuring, starting and stopping as well as, confident. It is meant to be self justifying and warming (Ellison, 1995). He says that when one gains power he knows it. This mannerism of speaking exposes his real corrupt character. It clearly demonstrates that he has no interests for the welfare of the black American community at heart but rather his obsession is first to gain power. This is why he later sends the invisible man packing out of the school since he has the power to.
The whole of the above paragraph echoes what Washington’s philosophy tries to teach. Mr. Bledsoe though not very comfortable with the whites still endears himself to them and works hard to please them with the hope that they are going to recognize his hard work and then accept him as one of them such that he will enjoy their citizenship (Ellison 10). In his submission to the white mans oppression he is ready to sacrifice his race and its people by denouncing his blackness to first of all get the power and economic progression that will elevate him from his current status as a black man and make him acceptable in the mainstream of the white society.
Instead of protecting and preserving the Founder of the institute legacy, Bledsoe perverts and distorts the dream of the Founder which was to lift from his people the veil of ignorance. Bledsoe can be viewed as a person whose efforts are aimed at perpetuating white supremacy rather than striving to enlighten his student through presenting them with an education which can enable them to make significant contributions in the society and play the role of educated mature people in the ideal world. By Bledsoe pondering the Founders carving that is lifting the veil the narrator is led to suspect that Bledsoe intends to lower the veil and keep the students in the dark (Ellison 4). The narrator who perceives education as the only tool for achieving dignity and self pride is surprised to hear Bledsoe tell him that he should leave the white folk to worry about dignity and pride while he stays in the dark and use this to his advantage. This means that he should learn to identify where he is and amass power, contacts, and influence with those who are in power.
From one of the sermons that Barbee, a reverend in the Tuskegee institute, Bledsoe was once a believer of the Founders dream being idealistic owing to his young age but after encountering some painful experiences in a white society that was full of racism his belief became distorted such that he no longer saw the dream. Barbee hints to the reader that Bledsoe failed to reconcile with things as they were and the way they are supposed to be (William 207). He found out that coping with the reality of his life that was so brutal was quite a difficult task. He developed a survival mechanism which he viewed as learning to ‘play the game’ (Ellison 95). This was at the expense of betraying his race and ‘killing his soul.’ Playing the game means looking out for himself and him alone.
Dr. Bledsoe has no intention of improving his race in any way though we claim that his character adheres to that of Washington. This is because he himself has the conviction that black people are inferior. This makes him treat the other black men as inferiors even in the presence of white men. He does not do anything to help the situation of the black race since it only makes the whites view the black Americans as inferior. For instance calling the narrator a nigger demonstrates conceptualization of the word that is used to describe black people. He intends this to be an insult which only shows that he has internalized the fact that black will never be as good as white and will always be a disgrace. While he does this he tends to ignore that he belongs to the race hence he is in complete denial of himself. Bledsoe fails to understand that adopting individuality does not eliminate the fact that he still has the blood of a black man running in his veins. While he looks out for himself he does not directly help the narrator though he looks up to him as an idol thinking he could impersonate him but all in all he influences him positively. The narrator learns that there is no harm in stepping on anyone to get to what you want.
This is why Bledsoe gets the idea that disillusioning the narrator by telling confronting him with some truth about his role in the social context would be much better than leaving him to find it out on himself. The narrator eventually turns a deaf ear on Bledsoe and since Bledsoe feels that he has lost his control over him, he schemes a dubious plan to kick the narrator out of school before he raise trouble for him. This is because he does not want to compromise his position since he has already set a good record by endearing himself to the whites and messing up would mean being treated like the other black people.
Ellison presents the character of Bledsoe as a voice of Washington by propagating his philosophy in Bledsoe’s character. We could also probably say that due to Ellison’s fascination with the ideas of Washington, the character of Bledsoe could also function as his own voice propagating the same ideas that Booker T. Washington was trying to preach. We note that unlike other Black American Writers, Ellison’s novel is in no particular way a protest against white domination as exemplified in the way Bledsoe chooses to go about this issue of racial segregation and discrimination (William 78). Ellison builds the character of Bledsoe in such a way that he makes him embrace an attitude that is submissive retaining a tolerant pose on segregation directed to him as well as thriving in work ethics that are nevertheless protestant. Bledsoe though not much impressed by the racism and segregation learns to play the game of working hard to impress the whites even if it means denying his black self hoping to get proper recognition. This draws a lot of criticism towards Ellison which makes some of the other black American writers refer to him as a conservatism since he reflects Washington’s philosophy through Bledsoe’s character.
Though the above might be the case, if we analyze the character of other characters in the novel, Ellison seems to be drifting away from the very same philosophy of Washington that he seems to propagate in Bledsoe’s character. For instance if we look at the way he develops the character of the narrator (the invisible man). He makes him follow all the tenets that the philosophy of Washington had laid out for black Americans but in the end of it all the narrator ends up a complete catastrophe (William 20). This might be looked at as Ellison’s illustration that Washington’s philosophy might not always be effective since the narrator ending demonstrates that the philosophy might be psychologically injurious. Though this man Ellison sets out to poignantly demonstrate the imprudence and militancy might be.
Dr. Bledsoe may be slightly differently from other characters, in fact his cruelty, betrays, and hypocrisy best describes him which he unleashes in equal measure, for instance, when he is told by Mr. Norton that the invisible man should not be punished for any of the unforeseen event for he “was not responsible (Ellison 124)”, he goes against his word further in the book and actually punishes him by suspending him for the semester, another demonstration of hypocrisy can be found where he confides to the invisible man that “we take these white folks where we want them to go, we show them what we want them to see, (Ellison 24), these two and other examples in the book shows clearly his deceitful nature which is most definitely what he has used to earn himself fame, position, and power. Even the invisible man is taken aback on learning that such a powerful and respectable man can lie, soon he realized that this is the Dr. Bledsoe way of confronting the cruel system that disrespect his community while condemning its members to a life of servitude (Gregson 211).
There are a number of similarities that the two (invisible man and Dr. Bledsoe) share. A number of writers and political commentators have called these behaviors that Dr. Bledsoe exhibited as Washington appeasement, a good example of such writes being Cuneo (2008). According to Cuneo, Washington appeasement can be looked on as a deliberate attempt to appease the white folks especially those in positions of power with the belief that such ‘loyalty’ would be reciprocated with reward, pecuniary or otherwise, a good example being the Invisible Man’s scholarship. Of all those who have been portrayed by the author (Ellison) as practicing Washington appeasement, none does it better than Dr. Bledsoe when looked on the surface, however a closer look shows that the seemingly attitude that he has on white is actually a tactic that borrows a lot from Du Bois prescription of silent militancy (Gregson 80). This depiction of Dr. Bledsoe by Ellison reinforces Du Bois belief that Washington’s calls “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the negro race” (Du Bois 107). Others have commented that Dr. Bledsoe actions amount to betrayal of his people which in my opinion is true only up to a certain point. First by being so overly into appeasing white folks through his humility and subservience toward them, Dr. Bledsoe actions makes white people think of the black race as a inferior, at the same time they also enables him to fight a white domination silently without prejudicing himself or any other black person (Martin 269). The use of the derogatory remark like ‘nigger’ in addressing his own people is not only an insult to the black community but also an insult to himself.
Like I have pointed out the section of the book that portrays Dr. Bledsoe as a classical Washington adherent is better seen in the words; “we take these white folk where we want them to go, we show them what we want them to see (Ellison 247)”. However the section “we show them what we want them to see (Ellison 47)” in that quote is Dr. Bledsoe way of empowering the blacks which if it achieves anything towards that end is still not debatable. This section and the one that he makes to the effect that the best a black person can do to a white is to tell a lie makes his intention and strategy clear. However as much as he might be acting towards the community good he still has some elements of the prejudice against his own people, otherwise what can be said of the way he suspend the invisible man (a fellow black) from college with ‘recommendation letters’ that caution any other college against admitting him, this a clear demonstration of the prejudices within the family that are at most selfish (Martin 45). These and other actions are Dr. Bledsoe way of the maintaining his hold on his plum job together with the power that it accord him, this is what he mean when he say that “he’s right, the school and the what it stand for have to be protected (Ellison, 117)”. This kind of sentence contain content that the invisible man might have heard before, it is recorded that his grandfather had advised him with words like “welcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you”, this seem like a strategy that had been perfected at the time and which might have been effective before Du Bios came to ‘incite’ black folk into violence (Martin 69). The actions of Dr. Bledsoe show that he is conscious on the different that exist between the races more than anybody else in the book. This might be possibly due to his close proximity to the system that seems more interested in undermining the members of the black race. His strategy is also more accommodative as prescribed by the like Book T in a way and Du Bois in some ways too.
Despite being black, Dr. Bledsoe has achieved a major feat, that of being the principal of a major college. In this powerful position Dr. Bledsoe is in charge of great resources and a large community o f students and staff cutting across races, according to him this is definitely a feat that ought to be protected, otherwise with all those white who might want him out of that position primarily due to his color, nobody can doubt the kind of repercussion that can fallow his decision to be independent or uncaring to white seniors interest (Gracer 296). A demonstration of this mentality can be found in the invisible man perception of him, “he was the example of everything that I hoped for: influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillac, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy – complexioned wife (Ellison 47). This might appear like exactly what Booker T. Washington was propagating for in his book Up from Slavery when he called on blacks to adopt a protestant work ethics, a tolerance to the discrimination, and yes, a submissive attitude in the hope that one can impress the white folks into giving them proper recognition (Gracer 6). However, a closer look and analysis of Dr. Bledsoe reveals that he share with Du Bois when he propagated the “ sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” , the only deviation from Du Bois philosophy being the approach of empowering the black folks. While Du Bois calls on the blacks to demand for their political right militarily if that is what will take the white to accord blacks their political rights Dr. Bledsoe thing a softer approach toward that end will be effective than the military action that has the potential of hardening position, this thinking is better captured where he say that “power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self stopping, self warming and self justifying (Ellison, 19)”. This is his true character that he has been able to camouflage and in the process retain the trapping of power that he enjoy while at the same time helping the black cause in a smaller scale.
Dr. Bledsoe dishonesty and support towards the black cause is best demonstrated where he castigated the invisible man for not having lied to Mr. Norton, this is also where we come to know his true color especially when he says that “white folks are always giving order, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse”, from this statement it is evident that Dr. Bledsoe is dishonest with the way he seem to be assisting white folks. By using Dr. Bledsoe, Ellison attempt to warn ambitious blacks of the corrosive efforts to placate those that are responsible for their woes in the community (Cuneo 57). However, he still uses this character to show that you can be an adherent of Du bois and being more effective without necessarily using the militancy that he propagated. Looked clearly, Dr Bledsoe might as well pass for an underground militant of the cause of the black race in this story. Dr Bledsoe Washington obedience might not be exact prescription that was in Du bois mind when he penned the book; Soul Of The Black People, he also realizes that it is not the perfect prescription to black success, however it is his firm belief that by showing some bit of it he is likely to be more effective than those who go out of their way to fighting the system which according to him is a losing battle.
Dr. Bledsoe takes cognizance of the Du Bois’ two identities (being black and being an American) that blacks have to contend with when it comes to the way they are being viewed and judged by their white colleagues. In fact there is none in the entire book who has perfected the art of balancing the two identities like Dr. Bledsoe. A demonstration of this can be found in the way he is endearing himself to the white master while at the same talking bad about them to those that he share color with (Cuneo 8). This is the best demonstration of double consciousness that one can get in the entire book, the best part of this demonstration of his two-ness is the fact that not many can see or feel the two thought, two souls, two striving, and two conflicting ideas,, all representing this duality, being a negro and being an American. This is exactly what Du bois describes succinctly in his book. It is possible that Dr, Bledsoe has adopted such a survival tactic after an extended experience with the white folk, this is the reason why to many people who lack such an experience he is a traitor and person who appear not only to be sabotaging the black cause but also demeaning the black race by appeasing people who seem not to appreciate the black contribution to the general good of the American society (Cuneo 20). A good example of who lack the kind of experience on how to coexist with the white folk while at the same fighting the good fight of black redemption from the chain of the white dominion is the invisible man. By being unable to camouflage his opposition and displeasure to the black treatment in the hand of the domineering white folks the invincible man for the first time blows off his invisibility. It is also one of the major reasons why the invisible man is comparable more cognizance of his color or his outward appearance than Dr. Bledsoe. However, it is a matter of time before the invisible man overcome this confining obedience that Washington T. Washington advocated and embraces Du Bois’ the proper militancy that Di Bois called, this ‘rebirth’ occur after he is lobotomized and then given another identity at the Liberty Paints factory hospital (Ellison 94).
Just like Du Bois observed, the spontaneous or careless violence posses a kind of danger that should be avoided at all cost, this seems like a principle that Dr. Bledsoe has mastered as can be found in his approach of tackling the injustices that his fellow black people are being faced with. Just like Du Bois, he seems strongly convinced that this kind of violence has the potential of destroying instead of uplifting the black race in their struggle to be heard and respected. This destructive nature of spontaneous and careless use of violence is better demonstrated at the end of the book when a riot in Harlem ends up resulting in destruction, fragmentation, homelessness, and violence for a huge number of Harlem dwellers. This work of Ras the Destroyer, the leader of a black nationalistic movement opposed to the work of the white controlled brotherhood, can easily pass for what precisely Du Bois was advocating for however a closer look at this particular incident reveals that Du Bois was not for this kind of tactic that instead of making head ways in the struggle toward equality and dignity of the black race, kills and maims them. Du bois realized fully that this kind of approach was like a boomerang that was prejudicial to the black community, this is a realization that even invisible man make when he say “could this be the answer, could this be what the committee had planed, the answer to why they’d surrendered our influence to Ras? I could see it now; see it clearly and in growing magnitude….the committee had planned it” (Ellison 47),
Dr. Bledsoe might not have helped the invisible man the way one would expect from a member of the same community; however one thing is clear, that he influenced him in many ways than one. For instance, by being callous and cruel to the invisible man who initially ape his style but discard it after realizing its ineffectiveness and the lack of reciprocity from the white folk, he change to a militant that has been prescribed by the Du Bois but still discard that after realizing that spontaneous and uncaring violence like that one exhibited by the Ras the Destroyer is not only ineffective but also counter productive. The irony of this influence that Dr. Bledsoe has on the invisible man is that his intentions having being very different help him (the invisible man) realize very important things. Among them is the importance of an identity to somebody, importance of individualism to a person, and being good to people.