Invisible Man: Chapters 10-12

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 12550

What is it like to feel like you just don't belong anywhere? You just can't seem to win. Promises of freedom and a better way don't apply to you. Learn who unions really protected in the early 1900s!


Literary Studies

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What do you think is occurring in the picture below?
  • How do you think the White participants feel?
  • How do you think the Black participants feel?
  • Why do you think no women are included in the picture?

UMWA union meeting 1946

  • Did you guess the picture above was of a union meeting in the first half of the twentieth century?

Unions have had a long and complex history in the United States and worldwide.

Unions were formed by workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in reaction to the inhumane conditions in which they were often forced to work. For example, before unions fought for workers' rights and protections, children as young as five and six could work in factories and mines.

There were few safety precautions in plants, mines, and mills before unions, which often resulted in horrible injuries and many deaths among workers. Unions helped establish many safety rules and safer working conditions in manufacturing and industry today.

In Chapter 10, the narrator will encounter a union at his new job in the paint plant. Despite their push for economic equality, unions were not always supportive or welcoming to members from other races and ethnicities.

Read Labor Unions and the Negro: The Record of Discrimination to learn more about the history of unions' reception of black Americans. It was published in 1959, only a few years after Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man, and it describes the complex relationship between unions and Black Americans in the early twentieth century, including the period when the narrator encounters the union organization at his new job.

It is important to remember that in the 1950s, Southern Blacks were still living under Jim Crow laws that barred Blacks from doing many things that Whites could do, such as sitting at lunch counters in stores and drinking from the same water fountain. Even in the North, Blacks still experienced a lot of prejudice.

The article also uses the term "negro" to refer to Black Americans, which was a commonly accepted term at the time.

As you read, answer the following questions in the notebook or journal you keep for this series.

  • Why did labor unions often discriminate against black members?
  • What three industries experienced little discrimination within their unions?
  • What union fields historically experienced high levels of prejudice and discrimination?
  • What did many unions in both the South and the North succeed in doing to skilled Black labor after the Civil War?
  • Against which two other races and ethnicities did the American Federation of Labor (AFL) discriminate under the authority of Samuel Gompers?
  • What event occurred in July 1917 in St. Louis after Black workers were brought in to work during a strike at an aluminum plant?
  • Why did Black union members lose the gains they had made during the 1920s by the 1950s?
  • How many unions still barred Black membership in 1944?
  • What happened to Black railroad workers between the 1920s and 1940s?
  • Which union welcomed many Black workers since the 1930s?
  • According to the article, what were the general conditions in unions since the AFL and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged in 1955?

After recording your answers, check them against the ones below.

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  • Would you have wanted to join a union in the first half of the twentieth century if you were a Black worker in one of the industries mentioned in the article?
  • What benefits would you have gained by joining a union?
  • What disadvantages might you experience by joining a union?

Reflect on these questions briefly in your notes and then read Chapters 10-12 in Invisible Man.

Continue using the copy of the novel in the format you chose to complete this series of Related Lessons (right-hand sidebar). If you do not have access to the novel, you may download Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison from the Internet Archive.

As you read, take notes in your notebook or journal on the narrator's experience with the union, as well as how his identity or sense of self is affected by his experiences at the paint plant, his hospitalization, and his time at Mary Rambo's apartment.

When you have finished reading and taking notes, move to the Got It? section to explore the details of these three chapters more closely.

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