Jim Trueblood has generally been depicted as a Black male who, unable to control his sexual appetites, breaks one of humanity's greatest taboosincest. He further has the dubious distinction of impregnating both his daughter and his wife. Their swollen bellies attest to both his virility and his shame. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), however, the Trueblood incident involves much more than one Black man's sexuality. First it sheds some light on Mr. Norton, the founder of the college the narrator attends. In his heart, if not physically, Norton is just as guilty of incest as Trueblood is, but society does not see his behavior as deviant. Secondly, the incident sheds light on the poor living conditions of Blacks in the South. In Cane (1923), author Jean Toomer explores the effects of housing on southern Blacks. In “Karintha,” the titular character, while quite young, becomes sexually active; she “had seen or heard, perhaps she had felt her parents loving.” Toomer blames the living conditions, the “two room” plan, which force children and adults to sleep in close proximity to one another. In like manner, Ellison attacks the living conditions of the Truebloods. Jim explains that his daughter, Mattie Lou, sleeps with him and his wife because there is no heat and all of them “had to sleep together.” The conditions under which the Truebloods survive are evident from Jim's reflections as the family sleeps. He thinks about “how to get some grub [for them] for the next day,” because “I tried to get help but wouldn't nobody help us and I couldn't find no work or nothin'.” That Mattie Lou is in the bed with Jim or that Jim is awake thinking about providing for his family is more an indictment of the living conditions of southern Blacks than it is about a Black male's sexuality. Finally Trueblood is important in the novel because unlike the narrator who tries to define his selfhood in terms of Westernization, Trueblood identifies with the Black folk tradition and uses this tradition to realize his humanity. At the nadir of his existence, rejected by his family, church, and community, Trueblood turns to the blues. “I sing me some blues that night ain't never been sung before, and while I'm singin' them blues I make up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself….” The blues are cathartic, purging away both pain and guilt and allowing Trueblood to claim his humanity: “I ain't nobody but myself.” This epiphany transforms Trueblood from a self-hating reprobate into a confident, self-affirming male, ready to brave family and community. “I'm a man,” he affirms, “and a man don't leave his family”
Ralph Reckley, Sr.