Framing Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN in Today’s “Black Panther” Visibility & #BlackLivesMatter
“You Have Been Selected to Attend Gracie Book Club!” That’s the email subject line that announces I’ve finally won the equivalent of the New York mega-million lottery – from a bookish point of view, that is. Armed with my winning lottery ticket, aka invitation, I arrive at Gracie Mansion a few weeks later to find a line of other bookish folk waiting at check-in. We are scanned by security, before we’re guided to the front entrance of Gracie Mansion, up its magnificent staircase, and to our seats.
Gabrielle Fialkoff, Senior Advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, welcomes us to Season Two of Gracie Book Club, for a discussion on Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN, published in 1952. I’m reminded that First Lady Chirlane McCray launched the Club in 2016, as a place for readers, writers, and publishers across the five boroughs to be connected by their love of books. I look around the well-appointed room, with its high ceiling and its windows offering expansive views on to the lawn, which stretches through Carl Schulz Park. I admit to myself that more than ever before, even in its grandeur, Gracie Mansion might become The People’s House as it is often touted – at least in this gathering of book lovers this evening.
First Lady McCray welcomes us via taped video. She frames the evening’s discussion by juxtaposing Ralph Ellison’s invisibility of black people with the visibility of blacks in Black Panther, the movie.
“Little black boys and girls, and adults, too, across the country are seeing themselves as superheroes. They are seeing themselves! Period. That’s a victory for visibility!”
In coming together to discuss INVISIBLE MAN, she also notes: “…we will explore what it means for people to be systematically unseen, unheard, unrepresented… that kind of invisibility is what Ralph Ellison evinces with his masterpiece INVISIBLE MAN, and in doing so he tells a story that still resonates deeply today.”
I’m caught unawares by First Lady McCray’s linking of Ralph Ellison’s novel to the Marvel comic book. I am thrilled by this sudden charge of seeing, this instant flash of knowing, which only broadens as the two panelists are introduced. Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, is also a scholar of science, technology, and social inequality. She is the author most recently of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. Clinton Smith, a PhD candidate at Harvard University, is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, author of a published collection of poems entitled Counting Descent, and has delivered popular TED Talks, including How to Raise a Black Son in America.
I’m already on the edge of my seat. I’ve always found INVISIBLE MAN to be as difficult to unravel as its author. The two panelists make reference to the tension between Ellison and writers in the Black Arts Movement, such as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, and many other luminous writers and artists associated with it such as Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed. I recall my politically aware mother saying Ellison was not viewed as being an activist in the Civil Rights Movement, unlike James Baldwin and other writers. Even decades after my first reading of the book in college, I am disturbed by its imagery, its haunting lyricism, and its many fantastical renderings. The battle royal, the funeral speech, and the question posed to the reader about “lower frequencies” in the novel’s final sentence still fill me with something like terror. Both the novel and the author trouble the waters for me.
It turns out; I’m in the right place this evening. Smith reads the funeral speech, which the unnamed narrator/protagonist (“invisible man”) delivers to the crowd after the young man Tod Clifton is killed by police. I’ve always seen the funeral speech as one of the most trouble-the-water passages in INVISIBLE MAN:
Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died. He fell in a heap like any man and his blood spilled out like any blood; *red* as any blood, wet as any blood and reflecting the sky and the buildings and the birds and the trees, or your face if you'd look into its dulling mirror--and it dried in the sun as blood dries. That's all. They spilled his blood and he bled. They cut him down and he died; the blood flowed on the walk in a pool, gleamed a while, and, after a while, became dull then dusty, then dried. That's the story and that's how it ended. It's an old story and there's been too much blood to excite you. Besides, it's only important when it fills the veins of a living man. Aren't you tired of such stories? Aren't you sick of the blood? Then why listen, why don't you go? It's hot out here. There's the odor of embalming fluid. The beer is cold in the taverns, the saxophones will be mellow at the Savoy; plenty good-laughing-lies will be told in the barber shops and beauty parlors; and there'll be sermons in two hundred churches in the cool of the evening, and plenty of laughs at the movies. Go listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and forget it. Here you have only the same old story. There's not even a young wife up here in red to mourn him. There's nothing to give you that good old frightened feeling. The story's too short and too simple. His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and he was unarmed, and his death was as senseless as his life was futile. He had struggled for Brotherhood on a hundred street corners and he thought it would make him more human, but he died like any dog in a road."[Excerpt only. From Chapter 21]
Smith notes that while there has been some progress in dismantling racism and violence against African-Americans, we can see in Black Lives Matter that police brutality against black bodies persists – even 65 years after the publication of INVISIBLE MAN. He shows me the novel’s ties to today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement – and protests in historical context, eschewing dichotomies between “literature” and “protest.”
Nelson offers me a way of thinking about speculative fiction by her reading of the narrator’s lobotomy, in Chapter 11. Her intentional selection of this passage jars my memory of a telephone call last year from my son, who’d just seen the movie Get Out. Earlier, this week the movie’s writer, Jordan Peele, was awarded the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. A first for an African-American. The Oscar Awards is 90 years old.
During the Q & A, a man in the book club audience asks about the following question posed in the Epilogue:
"Ah," I can hear you say, "so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!" But only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you? [Excerpt only.]
In response, another man in the book club audience leafs through his copy of INVISIBLE MAN and begins to read the Epilogue. I’m delighted by such connecting with one another. I’ll think a good deal about these two passages that the panelists and people in the book club chose so as to be in conversation with each other – and with us.
The book club conversation also led me, for the first time, to consider Ellison’s “frequencies” as being related to the metal vibranium in Wakanda, the fictional African nation of the Black Panther movie and Marvel comic book. Vibranium absorbs sound waves and other vibrations and kinetic energy making it stronger. Compared to higher frequencies, lower frequencies better penetrate walls and other obstacles. How serendipitous that First Lady McCray led me to consider Black Panther and that Smith and Nelson selected passages that helped me grow in understanding of protest and black speculative fiction!
Indeed, I was offered an evening in which I could sit in Gracie Mansion and in the company of other New Yorkers who love reading, simply talking with them about what we’ve read. It also showed all of us gathered that evening that we make up a book club, simply because we’re in the room together, centered on engaging together to explore and share. Several times throughout the evening, Nelson reminded us of our “being in-community.” All of us New Yorkers are invited to join the Gracie Book Club community – and in my book, that’s a good thing, a hopeful thing for my beloved, fractured New York City.
Watch: Live from Gracie Mansion -- Gracie Book Club discussion on Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN