The first seven chapters of Invisible Man take place in unidentified locations in the South, and the remainder of the novel takes place in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. By following his narrator through experiences in both the South and North, Ellison provides a suggestive panorama of Black life in the United States. The South has historical links to plantation slavery, and the legacy of racism and violence against Black people remains potent in the novel’s early chapters. For example, the opening chapter features white men forcing the narrator and other Black boys to endure a traumatic battle royal. And in Chapter 2, when driving Mr. Norton through the area surrounding the college, the narrator faces his own internalized shame about the lives led by poor Southern Black people like Jim Trueblood. Contrasting with the South, the North has historical links to the ideal of freedom for Black people. Yet even in Harlem the narrator constantly comes up against racism and feels at odds with his environment. For instance, racism fuels the ideological battle between the Brotherhood and Ras the Exhorter, and eventually between the narrator and the Brotherhood. Despite taking different forms, racism remains alive everywhere.
Though the narrator offers no specific dates, the events of the novel likely occur in the 1930s. Ellison’s choice to set most of the novel in Harlem during this decade has special importance, given that it comes in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance refers to a major intellectual and artistic movement in the 1920s that witnessed a blossoming African-American culture. In addition to the production of significant works of literature, music, and visual art, the Harlem Renaissance also gave birth to a positive sense of black identity known as the New Negro. Whereas the “Old Negro” remained hampered by the historical trauma of slavery, the “New Negro” had a renewed sense of self, purpose, and pride. However, in contrast to the optimism of 1920s Harlem, Ellison offers a troubling vision of a poor, working-class Harlem that suffers at the mercy of warring ideological factions. On the one hand, there’s the Brotherhood, guided by the strict principles of Marxist-Leninism. On the other hand, there’s Ras the Exhorter and his band of Black nationalists, who see all white influence as nefarious to Black life. Ellison’s vision of Harlem in the 1930s offers a stark depiction of the neighborhood’s decline.