“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
– Ralph Ellison,”Invisible Man”
(Hired for their ability to be “seen and unseen” at the same time, African-American working along the railways as Pullman Porters were generally stripped of their own identity and called “George” in homage to the company’s founder, George Pullman).
I am the Beholder
What’s In a Name?
It has often been said that justice, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Well, darling, that’s meI am Lady Justice.
I was born into the world the brainchild of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, who wanted to present himself as the paragon of impartiality and, in doing so, created me. I am the personification of fair play for those seeking truth and a redress of their grievances. From the moment I was crowned as the Roman goddess Justitia (Lady Justice, if you will), until this very day, the world has taken note of the power I wield in temples of jurisprudence everywhere. In fact, the very mention of my name demands immediate respect and invokes a modicum of fear from even the strongest of individuals. You may not like me, but you will respect me. Of this, I have no doubt.
Having a name is the first and most important gift that each of us are given at birth, one that will generally follow us for the rest of our lives. As babies, we immediately identify with, and respond to, the sound of our names when uttered by the ones we love and those who love us. As children, we begin to build our names, our brand if you will, and start to understand that our reputations truly proceed us. As adults, we hope to cultivate a name that is integral to the legacy we will leave long after we are gone. But having no name at all, is both wounding to the spirit and debilitating to one’s own sense of self, rendering that individual worthless to those that choose to see them, and all but invisible to everyone else. Just as it was intended.
For nearly one hundred years, from the collapse of slavery in the South in 1865, until the the 1960’s, countless black men traded their enslavement for employment as a Pullman Porter on America’s railroads. Responsible for serving as ushers for passengers along the rail lines, these men were universally referred to as “George” (in honor of the owner of the company, George Pullman), thus stripping them of their sense of self and putting them in the same conundrum that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man experienced as an individual without his own identity. But never fear… I am here. The world may not know your names, black men, and may refuse to see you… but I have never taken my eyes off of you.
I am Lady Justice.
The stories I will share with you in this book, hearken back to the fictional experiences of a black man I will present to some and reintroduce to others; one without a name or an individual identity who, in many ways, did not exist, but is as real as you and I. As your narrator on this, your path to compassion and understanding, I will also introduce you to other black men, from various walks of life who, like the Invisible Man, have spent their lives seeking to be seen for their individual contributions, but unlike the Invisible Man, they are real, very real, and so are their individual, yet collective, experiences. As the reader, you should note that it is where their personal experiences intersect, regardless of their income or education levels, that the truth of America is exposed. As the guardian of that truth, you should also be mindful of the fact that I have an ugly underbelly that would shock your conscience, were I to lift my gown. In theory, I’m blind. In reality, I see everything. Don’t let the tipped scales fool you.
I am Lady Justice.
I am the muse that lovers seek, but only some will ever find. I’m the cream in your cup of Starbucks coffee—paying customers only, please! Everyone wants me, but I tend to play hard to get. A lady must have standards, right? And if you want my undivided attention, please know its going to cost you, because I am no cheap thrill. In his poem, “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes, an African American poet who emerged during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, declared: “America was never America to me.” (6). And he was right, I must admit. Especially, Hughes observed, as it relates to her citizens of color. “O, let my land be a land where Liberty/ Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath/ But opportunity is real, and life is free/ Equality is in the air we breathe./ There’s never been equality for me/ Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.” (Hughes. 15-21).
“America was never America to me.”
In eighteenth century America, when the framers of the United States Constitution embedded within the Declaration of Independence, the three ideals that made its citizens quintessentially “American,” namely the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” those inherent truths were initially guaranteed only to white men with money. Initially… What is less understood, however, is that in twenty-first century America, one can’t truly enjoy “life,” and the “pursuit of happiness,” without the “liberty” one needs to search for them in earnest. And that’s where I come in…
I am Lady Justice.
In 1507, with the publishing of the Waldseemüller Map, which included the newly “discovered” continent that would thereafter be called “America”, the country that would become the United States has been a complex ideal of one nation, theoretically indivisible, but in reality indelibly divided and perpetually angry, one side with the other. And since its organizational inception in 1776, the country has been continually locked in an epic struggle between the sociopolitical realities of those fighting for change versus the intractable views of those urging more of the same. And, at varying points in its history, one ideal has prevailed over the other. Throughout this time, however, as a nation established by and for white slave holders who wanted to be free, willing to decimate an entire group of people – namely Native Americans – to take the land for themselves, America’s name and reputation has been met with skepticism and wariness almost everywhere. But, to be fair, that’s only one aspect of what can arguably be described as the “greatest country on earth.”.
Since the founding of its republic, America’s name has also been synonymous with hope, opportunity and generosity; welcoming those from around the world willing to contribute to our society, an opportunity to enter through the golden door of liberty. America is also known for standing with the oppressed, responding to tragedies and natural disasters and promoting economic opportunity and free market capitalism all around the world. As a force for good, America has stared down the world’s most scurrilous dictator, Adolph Hitler, defeating nazism and fascism in one fell swoop. As a beacon of hope, America has held aloft the lamp of liberty for those who seek better opportunities. As a land of unending opportunity, America has been the only place on the globe that someone with nothing can make something of themselves. Time and again, the United States has risen to the call of leadership and, in doing so, has continued to secure democracy and defeat tyranny for countless individuals “yearning to breathe free”. I should know, I helped to make all of that happen. As the ultimate protector of freedom, I, too, sing America. I just pick my lyrics carefully and always put my best foot forward. After all…
I am Lady Justice.
In my America, justice is often an expensive proposition. So, tip me now, that way I will know how to serve you! It is I, who stands between you and the ravenous wolves, chomping at the bit, waiting to tear you limb from limb. And whether or not I cast you into the depths of the “just-us” system, has little to do with your guilt or innocence, and more to do with your pedigree. If you’ve got the “complexion for protection” or a mountain of money–preferably both–then by all means… let’s make a deal. If not, take your chances.
It has often been said, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” I can vouch for that. Times have changed, and so have I. Sort of… You see, unlike the year 1952, when Ellison introduced us to his Invisible Man (what was his name again?), in today’s America, freedom is no longer just black or white–but green! “Its all about the Benjamins baby!” Now, I consider that progress!
When self-described socialist minister Francis Bellamy wrote the “Pledge of Allegiance” in 1892, he posited that America was a utopian meritocracy, “…with liberty and justice for all.” President Ronald Reagan once called America a “shining city on a hill.” And they, too, were also correct! So which America is it? The answer is all of the above? Has America changed since its founding? Absolutely! But, on issues of racial equality and equitable treatment of all her citizens, the concept of making the necessary changes to achieve these goals has morphed from moving with “all deliberate speed” to crawling along at glacial pace in the view of those who are deleteriously impacted. As such, until the promise of liberty is extended to each and every citizen, without regard to race, creed, national origin or orientation, this land will never truly be free, and I will always be for sale.
In God I trust… All others pay cash.
(A drawing of Lady Justice: “The Personification of Fairness”)
Will It Ever End?
Throughout the history of America, the United Sates has gone to great lengths to marginalize men of African descent, from the moment enslaved men and women of color were forced ashore onto the banks of Hampton,Virginia in 1619, until today; where black men represent one-third of America’s prison population, according to John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center. In his article, “The Gap Between Blacks and Whites in Prison Is Shrinking,” the author points out the fact that even though the chasm that existed between the inordinate number of blacks that were incarcerated versus their white counterparts in crime has decreased over the years, African Americans are still overrepresented in the prison population, illustrating a system of jurisprudence tilted towards partiality. In his analysis of the racial dynamics that color the criminal justice system, Gramlich noted the following: “The racial and ethnic makeup of U.S. prisons continues to look substantially different from the demographics of the country as a whole. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. And while Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, they accounted for 23% of inmates.” If America is to ever realize her full and utmost potential, she must first begin by understanding that criminalizing individual existence has never been the answer. When given the opportunity to excel and succeed in every aspect of American life, blacks have demonstrated time and again that capacity, character and commitment are universal abilities that transcend racial politics.
On April 16, 1952, two days after the release of what would be Ralph Ellison’s only novel, New York Times writer Orville Prescott set the example for other white journalists to follow when he publicly acknowledged that Ellison’s brilliance could not be ignored, when he declared Invisible Man to be “the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” (Prescott). In a country already fraught with racial strife, with the recent murders of Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriett, who became the first martyrs of the civil rights movement when they were killed by a bomb placed underneath the floorboards of their bed on Christmas Eve, some four months earlier, Ellison’s novel and, indeed, the world’s response, was the beginning of a running dialogue on what it means to be a black male in America. “Invisible Man,” Prescott wrote, “is undoubtedly melodramatic; but each melodramatic incident represents some aspect of the Negro’s plight in America, or of his response to it.”
But just as important as it is to recognize the literary genius Ellison exhibits in his work, we must also be mindful of the struggle the book’s narrator and protagonist continued to encounter in every aspect of his life, all of which led to his feelings of hopeless invisibility. Today, black males in America continue to face some of the same challenges that the Invisible Man faced in his own life, as a college educated man who continually finds himself in situations that reinforce his own societal limitations. They, too, feel trapped in a skin that, at once, renders them as someone to be watched warily, simultaneously forgotten and increasingly inconsequential.
In the nearly seven decades that have passed since the publishing of Ellison’s work, Invisible Man has shined a light on the effects of systemic racism in America. For example, a recurring theme of the book centers around the narrator’s need to fit into his environment and, in doing so, becomes an inauthentic version of himself. Today, this same narrative continues to play out in the lives of African American men everywhere, as they live sicker and die quicker than any other group in America, all while struggling to be seen in a nation that pretends that they aren’t there. In his article, “American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man At 60,” journalist Nathaniel Rich of The Daily Beast reminds us that this iconic novel not only broke barriers in literature, it also went a long way towards helping to expose the harsh realities of racial discrimination in the country. In his insightful analysis of the book’s impact since its initial publication, Rich observed: “In Invisible Man we experience American history as a nightmare. Sixty years after the novel’s publication we still haven’t woken up.” On this singular point, history and time, have agreed. Perhaps the most insightful synopsis of Invisible Man comes from Ralph Ellison himself, who described the nameless protagonist at the heart of this novel, as “a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.” (“American Nightmare”). And even in the age of a “post-racial America,” black males are still asking the fundamental question: “will they ever see us?”
In their Op-Ed piece entitled, “Forcing Black Men Out of Society,” the New York Times Editorial Board, led by Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal, spoke with one clarion voice about the need to address the systemic exclusion of black men in many aspects of American society. “An analysis—”1.5 Million Missing Black Men”— showed that more than one in every six black men in the 24-to-54 age group has disappeared from civic life, mainly because they died young or are locked away in prison,” the times noted (Rosenthal). “While the 1.5 million number is startling, it actually understates the severity of the crisis that has befallen African-American men since the collapse of the manufacturing and industrial centers, which was quickly followed by the “war on drugs” and mass imprisonment, which drove up the national prison population more than sevenfold beginning in the 1970s,” the editorial board continued, noting the dismal statistics that are oftentimes attendant with being black in America (Rosenthal). Unless and until we reverse these declines and bring our missing men back into the fabric of our nation as productive members of society, nothing will ever change.
The aforementioned New York Times report went on to note that systemic racism, poverty, crime and lack of opportunity have all colluded together to effectively stymie the ability of black males in America to beat the odds stacked against them. “In addition to the “missing,” millions more are shut out of society, or are functionally missing, because of the shrinking labor market for low-skilled workers, racial discrimination or sanctions that prevent millions who have criminal convictions from getting all kinds of jobs. At the same time, the surge in imprisonment has further stigmatized blackness itself, so that black men and boys who have never been near a jail now have to fight the presumption of criminality in many aspects of day-to-day life…” (Rosenthal). Be that as it may, in spite of the fact that the majority of Americans know and fully understand the impacts that systematic exclusion can have on any group of people, many still refuse to even address these intractable issues, preferring instead to pretend they don’t exist, and simply hope that they will go away. Then, in 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States and everything changed.
Here We Go Again?
In quoting novelist Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, Conrad Pritscher, in his book “Skin Color: The Shame of Silence” underscored the necessity of rooting out racism at its core, if America is to ever deal with its “original sin” once and for all and truly become a more perfect union.”There is power in naming racism for what it is, in shining a bright light on it, brighter than any torch or flashlight. A thing as simple as naming it allows us to root it out of the darkness and hushed conversation where it likes to breed like roaches. It makes us acknowledge it. Confront it.” (Pritscher 107). But before racism can be effectively confronted, it must be universally recognized for what it is.
In his 1964 concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, reversing the conviction of Nico Jacobellis, the manager of an Ohio movie theater, for his repeated screening of the movie “The Lovers” which the state had classified as obscene, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart laid plain the reality of a “thing that speaks for itself,” in writing: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” (Jacobellis). For hundreds of years, the United States of America has demonstrated to her citizens of color that it operates on a system of racism and discrimination designed to keep minorities in a permanent state of disadvantage. As such, if there is one thing most black people know when they see, like Justice Stewart was with obscenity, its racism; an odious disease of the spirit they can smell a mile away.
In his article, “Trump Ain’t New: America Has a Long History of Racist Presidents,” author David Love of The Grio.com delineated the multiplicity of examples of American presidents that have exhibited racist behavior before, during or after holding office. George Washington, who owned more than 300 enslaved Africans at his death, approved of whipping them into submission and working them into old-age. Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States regularly raped his subjects and then enslaved the children he forced them to carry to term. So, what black Americans are experiencing now, in the current renaissance of white nationalism, is certainly nothing new. In fact, the history of America has demonstrated time and again that it is not unusual for the United States to elect political leaders to the highest offices in the land that are committed to upholding the vestiges of white supremacy and social privilege. “Andrew Jackson–Trump’s hero– was one of the worst American presidents, and also one of its most racist. He owned hundreds of slaves, and censored anti-slavery mailings from Northern abolitionists while president. Nicknamed “Indian killer,” he committed genocide against of Native Americans, including women and children. His Indian Removal Act removed 46,000 native people from their land, making 25 million acres available to white settlers and slaveowners, while 4,000 Cherokee people died during the “Trail of Tears” forced relocation to the West.” (Love). As the conscience of the country, black Americans are not shocked by the antics of the current occupant of the White House who wants to keep it just that way – a WHITE House. For them, its par for the course and business as usual.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” For far too long, too many “good people” have remained silent while an overt assault on the human rights and basic dignities of all people in America are clearly being stripped away. And yet many say nothing. Absolutely noting. Instead some choose moral equivocation when faced with a choice of “us vs. them,” which pits otherwise peaceful neighbors against one another and is demonstrative of an unhealthy country. According to Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown and Kiana Cox of the Pew Research Center, in their “Race in America 2019” Report, the public’s view on race relations has worsened and most people blame Donald Trump. In a nationally representative online survey of 6,637 people, 18-years and older, conducted in English and Spanish, the researchers discovered an alarming rise in racial anxiety all throughout the country. According to their report, nearly seven-in-ten citizens believe that race relations are not only bad, but are prone to get worse. “Most Americans (65%) – including majorities across racial and ethnic groups – say it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since Trump was elected president.A smaller but substantial share (45%) say this has become more acceptable.” (Horowitz, et. al. 6). And, in spite of all this, black people are still expected to keep their mouths shut, for fear of being labeled “angry” or, much worse, a “thug”, rendering many of these men as voiceless as the Invisible Man was three generations ago. And white people are also expected to keep their mouths shut, for fear of being labeled “out of touch” or, much worse, “racist”, effectively killing any opportunity for meaningful dialogue. And nothing ever changes.
In his blog post, “According to White People, Talking About Racism Makes You Racist,” author Gee Lowery of Onyx Truth, made a curious observation about the “freedom to speak” prohibitions placed upon black people when it comes to talking openly about their daily experiences, even in the age of Trump. Lowery noted, “The new approach white society is attempting to use to deflect from Black people talking about systemic racism (the only form of racism most Black people are actually talking about) is to label Black people racist for SIMPLY TALKING ABOUT RACISM. That’s it. If you are Black and you start talking about racism, white people will try to label you as racist for talking about racism. Seriously. I’m not making this shit up”, he observed. Provocative? Yes. Correct? Debatable. It depends upon the perspective. What is not up for debate, however, is the fact that even though Lowery’s broad generalizations can’t speak to the totality of an entire groups beliefs and/or opinions, his views do represent a broadly held opinion, particularly amongst people of color, that they should simply be silent in the face of incredible injustice. America, “love it or leave it,” they say. Even to those who have earned the right to be here.
What Can We Do?
Martin Luther King, Jr., once prophetically declared: “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Today, in the age of extreme racism, with vicious screeds of “go back to where you come from” emanating even from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, open discrimination and bold faced bigotry, the time has come for men, women and children of goodwill to stand up, speak out and be heard. Arm yourselves with the truth and give yourselves permission to empathize with the black male experience.
When you consider the debt that is owed by you, and can never be repaid, as you begin this journey of enlightenment and understanding, it is important to remember that what makes the “promise of America” an idea whose time has come, is that each of her citizens are “endowed with certain inalienable rights” that must never–ever–be abridged! So until the tenet of total inclusion is realized by all Americans, the fight for freedom will continue.
If America is ever to be “America” again, the time has come for those who love this land to pause, if only but for a moment, to acknowledge the extraordinary challenges that come along with being born a black male in this country. Along with that blessing comes the burden of constantly being on the run from vigilantes who have questions and authorities who demand answers for doing what others do: going about your everyday existence. Nonetheless, you must run the race that is set before you, while never giving up on the promise of a brighter future.
Famed Abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, once said: “If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” There are many reasons, as a black male in America, to simply give up and quit on yourself. And there are plenty of reasons for everybody else to give up on black males. But life in America would not be the same without the demonstrable contributions of African American males. And America must never forget it.
So, it is in this vain, with the hope of reigniting a dialogue that can no longer be ignored, I ask you to consider one critical question…
Are Black Males in America Still Invisible?
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Invisible Man Power Quotes Page 1.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 25 Jul. 2019.
Hughes, Langston. Let America Be America Again and Other Poems.1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.
Gramlich, John. “The Gap Between The Number of Blacks and Whites In Prison Is Shrinking.” Pew Research Center: Fact Tank: News In the Numbers, 2019, https://perma.cc/FUP7-KWUD. Accessed 26 July 2019.