Dear Lily June,
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is ostensibly a novel about (forgive the heresy of the paraphrase here) a black man who begins to–literally and figuratively, physically and psychologically–live underground as a reaction to and protest of white culture’s constant stereotyping of what it is to be black.
When I first read it in high school, I remember being knocked back by the raw violence of it (especially in the much touted and republished “Battle Royale” section at the book’s opening), but I don’t know that I got it. When I taught it in graduate school in a course on American Literature, I made much ado of the book’s symbols of light versus dark (and their corresponding implications of knowledge and ignorance–and who is granted the rights and access to the education that makes a difference between them), but I still don’t know that I got it.
Now, in rereading it as the first book I’m picking up after a long reading hiatus, I know enough to know that I’ll never truly get it. That I am, as a white woman, born in the North, educated in the South, and returned to the North, incapable of getting it, even while I nod my head in horror at a particular passage in Ellison’s introduction, written thirty years after the novel itself was published:
My friends had made wry jokes out of the term [negro] for many years suggesting that while the darker brother was clearly “checked and balanced”–and kept far more checked than balanced–on the basis of his darkness he glowed, nevertheless, within the American conscience with such intensity that most whites feigned moral blindness toward his predicament; and these included the waves of late arrivals who refused to recognize the vast extent to which they, too, benefitted from his second class status while placing all of the blame on white Southerners. [emphasis mine]
Now, in my third serious grappling with the text, I’m knocked back by another kind of raw violence: the violence of cultural complacency and how prophetic of 2017 America Ellison’s passage in the Introduction has become. Underscoring that feeling is the fact that my copy is used, clearly owned (if the title page is any indication) by a former student of the University of Texas, an owner who had no trouble writing another N- word over and over again across their marginalia. And not knowing the full identity (and thus the intentions) of that former owner is impacting me as much as the novel itself. There is literally an invisible man in my copy of Invisible Man haunting me.
In an age and country where racial tensions are taking the forefront of conversation again–where many Americans have been forced awake to confront, regardless of their political party of choice, the reality that problems which some of us (I implicate myself) deluded ourselves into thinking were in our history’s basements are actually in our very own living rooms–the text resonates deeper than ever for me. The novel reads in a new, heartbreaking way that inspires nauseous recognition: Yes, I think to myself as I read it, yes, that is where we’re at today.
Right now, I can’t escape from a passage at the beginning of the novel where the narrator is talking about a near-hallucinatory daydream he finds himself experiencing inspired by Louis Armstrong’s song, “Black and Blue.” This reading around, the nightmarish dreamscape Ellison crafts is lush and palpable, and in pulling up the song on YouTube, one lyric has burrowed into my brain and won’t leave me alone.
Armstrong croons almost pleadingly,
“I’m white / inside / but that don’t help my case, / ’cause I / can’t hide / what is in my face.”
Lily June, I implore you to ask yourself many, many questions as you come, someday, to understand your own racial identity:
- What does it mean to be white inside?
- Do you feel “white”?
- Do you have to feel it?
- Can you imagine feeling black?
- Can you understand the limitations to your imaginings?
- Have you ever been made to feel invisible?
- Have you ever been able to, in all of your strength of spirit, embrace someone else’s erasure of you, use it to your own advantage?
- Should you? Should anyone? Can anyone, really?
In addition to the fact that reading more is one of my 2017 goals, I’m also starting here because of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge. For me, reading Invisible Man again accomplishes Goals #9 (read a book you’ve read before) and #17 (read a classic by an author of color). I truly believe, Lily June, that reading–and the empathy it produces–is a revolutionary act. The revolution, after all, will not be televised. But damned if it won’t be written about, everywhere and in every time and by every kind of person throughout human history.
Listen, my darling daughter, to the voices of those who have (had) to live harder.
- By Jefferson Pinder – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37627791