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Luvon Roberson @LuvonRwriter

Luvon Roberson @LuvonRwriter

Gracie Book Club Season Two: Framing Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN

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

Q & A with Minnette Coleman, author of THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom

“BOOKish blog” – a blog about authors and books: When a Tree Stands Tall for Freedom

“The Tulip Poplar tree dates back to before 1800 and was present during the documented operation of the Underground Railroad in Guilford County between 1819-1852. The tree serves as a silent witness to the lives and actions of African Americans (enslaved and free) and their white allies which included many Quakers from New Garden,” North Carolina. The tree is in Guilford College Woods, NC. -- Guilford College Underground Railroad website.

Luvon Roberson: Why did you write THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom?

Minnette Coleman: It all started with the Tree and my desire to create a myth or legend surrounding it. The Tree -- the real tree in Guilford College Woods -- is on land that was never part of a plantation. Therefore, my story couldn't be based or focused on the enslaved blacks imprisoned on a farm. Instead, the story is based on a hero – in this case, a female character named Epsie—who escapes that prison and on what Epsie must endure and then encounter to escape and to be free. Most stories that touch on slavery do not focus on the fear that enslaved Africans faced when it came to leaving their prison. The stories focus on their trials and tribulations and leave it at “this was wrong.” They don't focus enough on the real history that went behind the movement to free those suffering. Therefore, I had to step outside the comfort zone of just talking about slavery and let my character show the other side.

By that, I mean the other side of the story about our country’s history that contained communities of free blacks and abolitionists, especially Quakers, who are also called Friends.

The Tree represented in Minnette Coleman book visited by Guilford College 2017 Freshmen students to learn about Quaker history 700x525

Guilford College freshmen students visiting Tulip Poplar trees that inspired Minnette Coleman's book, The Tree: A Journey to Freedom

Typically, the abolitionists are usually the heroes of these stories, but that is far from the truth. The heroes were those who shared the story of the Tree, who tried to get to Freedom, and who got to the Tree. It is a story of people across racial, religious, or other lines, who came together against injustice, and for freedom. Epsie is that kind of hero. Epsie shares the story of the Tree from one generation to the next.

LR: What do you see is the role of "myth" or "legend" in THE TREE?

MC: I must share that I believe that truth begets legends. "When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend." That is a quote from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring Jimmy Stewart. So myth goes a long way to getting someone out of a bad situation into a good one. And even though we know that this Tree physically exists, there is no proof of its saving powers except that some people have gotten there and survived to live in freedom.

But because it is just a Tree, there are probably those who got there and got caught. But myth, which some might say is the basis for religion, is built on faith and belief. So you have to believe that there is such a Tree with saving powers. You have to believe there were white people out there that may help get you to freedom. You have to believe in something you have yet to see. Therefore, you take the legend and run with it and give those in need something to hope for. Epsie never would have gotten to freedom if she hadn't believed.

Look for more on THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom, in my upcoming interview with its author Minnette Coleman on What’s The 411 TV. Be sure to tune in or visit You can see the Underground Railroad Tree, when you visit The Underground Railroad’s Network to Freedom, a National Park Service site, in Guilford College Woods, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Listen: “Following the Trail to a Living Monument: Underground Railroad Tree,” David Ford’s interview with James Shields, Director of Community Learning, Guilford College.

Discover: Quakers and The Abolition Project

About the Author: Minnette Coleman

Minnette Coleman is the author of The Blacksmith’s Daughter and No Death by Unknown Hands, both historical novels. An active member of the Harlem Writers Guild, Coleman also wrote Hand-Me-Downs, a one-woman show that she toured across the United States.

Minnette Coleman author THE TREE A Journey to Freedom 12282017 Photo Credit Luvon Roberson 700x933

Minnette Coleman, author of the book, THE TREE: A Journey to Freedom. Photo Credit: Luvon Roberson

Coleman’s research for The Tree began after she graduated from Guilford College, on whose campus grows a centuries-old tree that is part of the Underground Railroad tour and history. As historian for the Black Alumni Advisory Board of Guilford College, Coleman researched how this tree served as a focal point for “running aways” and the Quakers who helped them.

Coleman’s father was the city editor of the Atlanta Daily World, and her grandfather was one of the city’s last blacksmiths. A wife, mother, and grandmother, Coleman lives in New York.

Contact: @MinnetteColeman or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Visit Amazon’s online bookstore to purchase The Tree: A Journey to Freedom



  • Published in Authors

Top 9 Highlights of Hillary Clinton’s Q&A at Book Expo America 2017

Hillary Clinton Talks Politics, Resilience, & Books at BEA 2017

Billed as An Evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton by Book Expo America, the nation’s largest book trade convention, pant-suited Hillary Clinton walked on the Main Stage at Jacob Javits Center before a filled-to-capacity audience whose standing ovation and boisterous cheers greeted her, as she made her way to her seat next to a round coffee table. The last time the nation expected to see her at Jacob Javits Center was in November 2016, for her presidential election victory party. Instead, she lost the election. Several months later, on this inaugural day of June, she was victorious. Indeed, the first question asked by one in the audience, “Do you know how much you mean to us and how much we love you?” seemed to frame the evening.

For the next hour, she spoke with passion, conviction, laugh-out-loud humor, and deep pathos about topics ranging from being the first woman nominated by the Democratic party for president to her painful loss in her historic bid for our nation’s highest public office in 2016 to her Wellesley College speech in 1969 and her upcoming memoir to be published by Simon and Schuster this September.

In an engaging, thoughtful, and sometimes surprisingly vulnerable and other times lightly playful Q & A, with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cheryl Strayed, Hillary Clinton left me feeling that perhaps this history-making woman and politician has always lived a life of extraordinary challenge; a life that has helped her build up her resilience, almost like an inoculation helps one build up immunity. Indeed, “resilience” was one of the recurring themes of the hour-long talk.

In a response to Strayed’s question about her upcoming memoir, Clinton said, “in a way that I think is not just about me and not just about an election, but about resilience, about getting back up when you’re knocked down, because everybody is, where you find the courage to do that, and what helps you along the way. And it’s proven to be an extraordinary, very personally meaningful but painful experience; it really is painful.”

I was pleased to discover that reading books is one of the ways that Hillary Clinton faces life’s adversities and builds her resilience, particularly a life that has overwhelmingly been spent in the public eye. Clinton called writing her as-yet-untitled memoir a "very painful" experience, but one that is "not only good for my mental's important for us to come to grips with what we need to do for the country in the future."

In the hour-long talk with Strayed, Clinton never voiced the name of the man who won the 2016 presidential election.

Here are some highlights of the book-focused Q & A with Hillary Clinton:

1)  Hillary Rodham Clinton autographed book label: All attendees received this keepsake from the evening

2) Clinton’s Favorite book growing up: The Nancy Drew Mysteries.

3) Among her top favorite books: The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Hillary Clinton noted she was surprised to learn this book is also a favorite of former First Lady Barbara Bush.

4) Reading immediately after her 2016 presidential election defeat: Louise Penny mysteries 

5) Just finished reading: The Jersey Brothers, by Sally Mott Freeman.

6) New, picture book version of her 1996 children’s book: It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, shares her vision for children in America. To be published September 2017.

7) Daughter Chelsea’s new children’s book: She Persisted, by Chelsea Clinton. The picture book tells stories of 13 historical women who faced opposition but persisted in pursuing their goals.

8) Hillary Rodham's Wellesley College address in 1969: 

9) Her new political group -- local, grass-roots organization for activism: Onward Together 

You can view the hour-long An Evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton, at Book Expo America 2017 here.

Carl Clay Reflects on His Illustrious Career in Film and Theatre

Carl Clay is the nationally acclaimed, award-winning founder and executive producer of the Black Spectrum Theatre Company

Playwright, filmmaker, lyricist, teacher, and mentor; these are among the few titles held by Carl Clay, the nationally acclaimed, award-winning founder and executive producer of the Black Spectrum Theatre Company.  Mr. Clay stopped by the What's The 411 TV studio recently to chat with me about Black Spectrum Theatre, its past history and future endeavors, including the theatre company's upcoming presentation of August Wilson's TWO TRAINS RUNNING, on November 4 - November 20.

In the interview, you'll see why I add yet another title -- "arts activist" -- to his long list of roles in theatre, film, music, and his starring role in bringing arts to build community across this nation.


  • Published in Theatre
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