Saturday, April 7, 2012

Invisible man, in a hoodie

Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

I happened to be reading Invisible Man as the Trayvon Martin story erupted, so I will totally give into temptation and draw some parallels, as a completely unexpert reader and onlooker. The book is wonderful. I think Ellison's greatest accomplishment is in his tone- one of bemusement and evident reasonableness and likeability, even while grappling with the harshest questions of American race relations.

It partakes of magical realism, telling a highly archetypal story in memoir form, filled with episodic drama and occasional actual dreams that heighten the drama still further. The stories range from an idealistic Southern youth forced to box fellow blacks for the obscene entertainment of the local white oligarchy, expulsion from Tuskeegee Institute for inadvertantly opening a trustee's eyes to the underside of black culture, to work in Harlem as a Communist organizer (an archetypally white organization) and a closing affair with a white woman comically drenched with stereotypes about her black "buck." Looking it up online, I was surprised to conclude that it has never been made into a movie. It would make a fantastic movie- deep, dark, humorous, and action-packed. For its time, (1952), it was both stylistically advanced, and politically prophetic, with race riots and themes of black power, foreshadowing events of the 60's.

Why invisible? Ellison's core observation is the universal one of psychological projection- that we deal typically with our images of the other, rather than with the real, actual other person. Lovers are notoriously in love with their idealized object, not with an actual person, and the test of marriage is then whether affection can survive the fleshing out and occasional shocks of reality as the real person gradually elbows his or her way out of the image. Incidentally, self-images are likewise hopelessly stylized and rose-tinted.

But darker projections are just as common, especially of minority groups that have been ritually subjugated, denigrated, and segregated. Blacks in America are so heavily projected upon that they hardly exist in real terms- they are invisible. And for a black person, navigating this treacherous terrain is undoubtedly extremely exhausting in the best of times. The landscape can be played with, but can never be ignored. Barack Obama performed quite the feat of racial jujitsu by inverting the projection in its key points, presenting high intelligence, extreme discipline, and a Cleaver-esque family to disarm marginally sympathetic white onlookers. Yet, even now, roughly one-third of Americans refuse to be disarmed, and entertain the most vitriolic hatred, and dismissal of his legitimacy, despite Obama's diligent impersonation, in office, of a milquetoast Dwight Eisenhower.

All this was acted out in tragic fashion in Florida, with George Zimmerman apparently in the grips of a racist and overly-armed animus towards blacks. Projection meets invisible man, and the invisible man ends up dead. Little of Zimmerman's story holds up. Nor does the "Stand your ground" law provide any legal cover. Zimmerman was not on his own ground, either on his home property or approached where he sat. He stalked the "intruder" on a public street, after being explicitly and officially told not to do so, started a fight, then killed him. The only person standing his ground was Trayvon Martin, not very successfully.

To top it all off, the police and/or the district attorney appear to share these strong projections, regarding Trayvon Martin as invisible, hardly due the benefit of their doubt after their quasi-deputized vigilante was attended to first, emerging as the only survivor telling tales. Obviously, I am shamelessly rushing to judgement based on little evidence. But the story has belatedly erupted because the pattern is so maddeningly typical of the psychological hazards facing, not just those paying the ultimate price for our stereotypes, but all those who drive, walk, drink, and exist ... while black, in the US.

Here are a few choice quotes from the book:

The black doctor / prophet / insane asylum inmate is treating the old white trustee, and speaks of the naive college student driver & narrator:
"'You see,' he said turning to Mr. Norton, 'he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. *Understand. Understand? It's worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is- well, bless my soul! Behold! a walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!' "
...
"' Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child or even less- a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power are not a man to him, but a God, a force-'"

The paint company engine room mechanic, who is black, tells the narrator to keep an eye on the dials:
"You caint forgit down here, 'cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain't everything; we the machines inside the machine."

The narrator has finally had it with his communist organization that cares little about black issues:
"Oh, I'd yes them, but wouldn't I yes them! I'd yes them till they puked and rolled in it. All they wanted of me was one belch of affirmation and I'd bellow it out loud. Yes! Yes!, YES! That was all anyone wanted of us, that we should be heard and not seen, and then heard only in one big optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh! All right, I's Yea, yea, oui, oui, and si, si and see, see them too; and I'd walk around in their guts with hobnailed boots. Even those super-big shots whom I'd never seen at committee meetings. They wanted a machine? Very well, I'd become a supersensitive confirmer of their misconceptions ..."

"I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied- not even I. On the other hand, I've never been more loved and appreciated then when I tried to 'justify' and affirm someone's mistaken beliefs; or when I 've tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear. ... But here was the rub: Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind. Oh, yes, it made them happy and it made me sick. So I became ill of affirmation ..."

"I'm invisible, not blind."

"Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, who plays the role of a learned, emphatic, and upright Confucian prime minister, has been challenging the other half of Deng consensus -- absolute political control -- from the liberal right. He has continuously articulated the need to limit government power through rule of law, justice, and democratization. To do this, he has drawn on the symbolic legacies of the purged reformist leaders he served in the 1980s, particularly Hu Yaobang, whose name he recently helped to 'rehabilitate' in official discourse. As every Communist Party leader knows, those who want a stake in the country's future must first fight for control of its past."
  • Bonus video- a little virtuoso piano by Errol Garner. A lot, actually.

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