It's safe to say that I see myself in this novel and what I see I don't like. Not that I don't like myself. I don't like what I am encouraged to inherit on behalf of all the other folks who look like me. Moreover, I don't like feeling guilty of being white. For some white men, this means bitching everyday about everyone who is not white always bitching about white folks. I am not one to whine about being called white, though. And really that is not getting at the heart of the matter at all. It just scractches the surface. Yet this introduction to my complex relationship with my own whiteness begins a story I have been attempting to tell since '95 about seeing myself as helplessly tied to something I have been vehemently rejecting since I was a child.
It wasn't that I thought it was wrong to call black kids in my East Tulsa neighborhood niggers, or brown people spics, or the Vietnamese refugee families, gooks. I did think it was wrong; I was taught it was wrong. This is the simple way to tell the story of race: talking about name-calling and finger-pointing. More significantly, what I suffered was a pain in my gut and head, a real pain that often left me lying in bed writhing in real physical pain. What pleasure is there in treating others in such a way? Maybe I was naive and sensitive. But I was affected when I was a kid. Too smart for my own community, too creative and free-thinking for school, and too emotional for my own good. In short, while genius, a total nutcase. (It helps to have a good sense of humor. You're supposed to smiling.)
I'm sure to write about this a little more. But the difference I felt was always knowably not the difference the black kids endured. For many folks in power, knowing about injustice absolves a person from guilt. And that absolution then serves as a pass to participate in the unjust intstitutions anyway. What I was upset about was that I was always encouraged to say yes to something others were never going to be allowed to access. And that bargain has always made me sick to my stomach.
I never picked the fight against white. It chose me. Maybe it's genetic: or maybe to support the white power structure is unnatural--a perspective I choose to support on my more optimistic days--and unnatural because it is at the core of some of the more grotesque social and cultural realities we confront everyday without thinking about them: realities like "Capital is self-valorizing" and "Might makes Right."
I am not perfect. It's hard to reject the allure of self-righteousness and Right. I find no comfort in our Original Sin. I do find that its mark--Whiteness--and its practice--Masculinity--and its economy--Capitalism--are quite easy targets actually. But though the facility with which we can point to the visible errors in these institutions may suit a comedian's need for a quick, efficient and intelligent or timely joke, I think we need a dedicated fight to destroy each of these institutions and revise our work and common goals.
I am not patting myself on the back or trying to be eloquent. And I am not saying anything new. It's hardly shocking. You may have every right to say, "Hey, here's another white guy who has discovered injustice! Go figure." I understand. But I do believe that I have been tasked with overcoming the intellectual cynicism and smirk of educational professionalism and I ought to do something about it. It's a vow. I suppose this is why I am an Americanist. This drive is written over and over again throughout our short history. Yet, we go nowhere with the knowledge that we have sinned against humanity in a most severe way. We are racists, sexist pigs; we hate the poor, the working class; we heap unearned ambition and morality on the wealthy. It's almost as if because we know these things we feel we have done enough. By the way, this is a problem I feel we have inherited from Europe and what we call Continental Philosophy is rife with smart bigots who we insist we cannot overcome because their innovative thoughts are so rich and complex: for an example read Kant.
And this is what Ellison's Invisible Man is about. And this is why I love it. It reminds me that I should do something. It's only that, at times, I wonder if a guy who looks like me can do anything other than betray his race? (And you do realize that race is an illusion. What we are talkign about is a social construction. The biology is different thing altogether. But the biology is about our similar mothers. The sociology is about the sexist pig fathers and their attempt to find, by any means necessary, hoard all the material exploits our planet has to offer.)
But this should serve as a quick introduction to my reason for picking the novel to read. I do have a simple reason, too: Praise has not read it. I loved the idea of reading it with her for her first time.
Ellison has two kinds of reader: people who love his novel and cherish it, and folks who will admit the book is great but are upset at the subject matter. It isn't that people don't know the truth (about white power in America,) it's just that some people don't want to do anything about. It's hard work betraying the power structure: it has benefits for everyone.
I had fits about one thing that nearly drove me crazy--and it did leave me in a deep depression from which I emerged 6 months after undergrad graduation, in 1997, with a bottle of pills in stomach, from which all the rest of my life has sprung. The One Thing: I am white and though I want to transform the power structure, I have had to learn to let go. To betray my racist, unearned inheritance...well, it's not easy. Ellison's novel is refreshing. It is comic. It is shocking. It is revelatory.
The unnamed narrator of Invisible Man is the greatest Modern male protagonist in American literature. There are a handful of these great, male protagonists: Isaac McCaslin, Quentin Compson, Bigger Thomas. Look I love Melville. A lot. Moby Dick is a great novel. But some things happened to the American novel in the early twentieth century: color, expressionism, surrealism, war, genocide, and psychoanalysis. Maybe I should use the troubled term High Modern. I really am superfocused on 1910-1960 when it comes to film, literature, theory, and art overall.
More to come.