I’m reading ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison. Have you read it? If you haven’t, you should. It’s an important book, and better than that, a fascinating book. The funny thing is that its voice is so fresh, so modern. I’ve been noticing that lately, that I can look at something that was created two or three generations ago and find that the voices, the opinions, aren’t old and stodgy, but they’re surprisingly current. Maybe it’s because we’re still dealing with the same problems we faced back then. We still exist in a mire of racism and bigotry. Do we really think we’ve advanced so far? Think about it. We’re still struggling to hold onto women’s rights to their own bodies. There is still incest in the world, violence, corporate control. Oh, Ellison’s book is violent. If you picture it in a movie, it would have to be directed by Quentin Tarantino. Imagine the fight scene of the ‘battle royal’ with the blood lust and sweat flying. No, this book is not outdated.
Sometimes, I get lulled into thinking that our race has evolved, that I might see it in the literature I’ve read. I’m not sure I can. I certainly can’t see anything different in us since 1952, when Ellison’s book was published. Oh, you might argue that segregation is gone, but I grew up in a place where hatred of black men was so deep and dense that there were whole towns that blacks and women attending the University were discouraged from traveling through. Out of arrogance, I drive through, even now, whenever I go back for a visit, but I always think about the story about the torn bodies discovered in the corn field. I think of that whenever I’m driving through there and I can feel my heart flutter slightly in fear. I visit my folks and can still hear the vitriol with which some of their neighbors and friends discuss our President. I don’t even bother standing up for the man, a man whom I admire deeply. I know I should fight the good fight, but is there a time when you should just sit back and let a woman bury her own self with her stupid words about birth certificates and limiting healthcare for the poor? Do the rest of the people in the room hear this shit?
The interesting thing is that Ellison’s book has made me ask a question that posed itself a couple of times in my life. Can a white woman really cross the barrier to have black friends? There are so many questions I want to ask about a black person’s experience, but I don’t seem to be allowed to ask. I know their culture is separate from mine. Why am I discouraged from asking? When I meet a person from Germany, I don’t feel the same discomfort, though I ran into something similar to it when I got to know a neighbor from Mexico. I liked this woman, but she was uncomfortable talking Spanish with me. I just wanted, dork that I am, to learn the language a little better. I can read a bit of Spanish, but I’m incredibly awkward at speaking it. It would help if I’d ever visited a Spanish-speaking country. But she didn’t want to embrace her own language, preferrring, instead, to take up English, to take on any of the stylish fads from the culture here. Her own children couldn’t read in her native tongue. I just wanted to know more about how she’d lived. I suppose I could have told her what it’s like to be a middle-aged fat woman in this country.
But here, in this country, there are different cultures, not just those created by recent immigration. I know. I grew up in one, the Midwest, moved to another after college, the East coast, and now live in another one entirely, the Pacific Northwest. And yet, here, where there is so little diversity, I still want to ask those questions about experience, about values, about perception. It’s fascinating to see the variations in the way people live, and the ways that even a wildly different culture is the same as our own.
For that, I wish I could thank Ralph Ellison. Oh, I’m not saying I can understand a whole culture based on one book, but in this fiction, in ‘Invisible Man,’ there are the words of one black man’s voice, and there is power in that voice.
Thank you for listening, jules