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About an excerpt from Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man'

January 19, 2015


The year is 2015. It's MLK Day. People are discussing how his legacy has been honored and not so honored. Work has been done. There is work still to do. Thinking within this context, I believe the following passage from the Prologue of Ellison's 1952 novel to be both stunningly and frighteningly insightful to the present times in which we live. I choose the word stunningly because Ellison's depictions of race relations some sixty years after he wrote them are still strikingly accurate. I choose the word frighteningly here because the relevance of such accuracies so many years later is nothing less than scary. 


Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.
Besides, the drug destroys one's sense of time completely. If that happened, I might forget to dodge some bright morning and some cluck would run me down with an orange and yellow street car, or a bilious bus! Or I might forget to leave my hole when the moment for action presents itself.

Meanwhile I enjoy my life with the compliments of Monoplated Light & Power. Since you never recognize me even when in closest contact with me, and since, no doubt, you'll hardly believe that I exist, it won't matter if you know that I tapped a power line leading into the building and ran it into my hole in the ground. Before that I lived in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see. I've illuminated the blackness of my invisibility--and vice versa. And so I play the invisible music of my isolation. The last statement doesn't seem just right, does it? But it is; you hear music simply because music is heard and seldom seen, except by musicians. Could this compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music of invisibility? But I am an orator, a rabble rouser--Am? I was, perhaps shall be again. Who knows? All sickness is not unto death, neither is invisibility.

I can hear you say, "What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!" And you're right. I leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible being that ever lived. Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me? And wait until I reveal how truly irresponsible I am. Responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement. Take the man whom I almost killed: Who was responsible for that near murder--I? I don't think so, and I refuse it. I won't buy it. You can't give it to me. He bumped me. he insulted me. Shouldn't he, for his own personal safety, have recognized my hysteria, my "danger potential:? He, let us say, was lost in a dream world. But didn't he control that dream world--which, alas, is only too real!--and didn't he rule me out of it? And if he had yelled for a policeman, wouldn't I have been taken for the offending one? Yes, yes, yes! Let me agree with you, I was the irresponsible one; for I should have used my knife to protect the highest interests of society. Some day that kind of foolishness will cause us tragic trouble. All dreamers and sleepwalkers must pay the price, and even the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all. But I shirked that responsibility; I became too snarled in the incompatible notions that buzzed within my brain. I was a coward. . . 

But what did I do to be so blue? Bear with me. (Ellison 13 and 14)


Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, "I have a dream," but let us not forget that his dream was for a world more real and less fantastic than one dictated by hate and prejudice. He was a realist much more than he was an idealist, and the world he wanted to reveal was one rooted in the realities of being human. I read the passage by Ellison above, which was published just over a decade prior to MLK's declaration, and I cannot help but think of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

However, when I read Ellison's prophetic words, I also think of the violent deaths experienced by Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. Moreover, I think about how George Zimmerman, Darren Wilson, and Daniel Pantaleo are also victims "lost in a dream world." Unfortunately, the dream world in which all these men lost either their lives or the trust of their communities was not the reality of King's vision but the ongoing lie which we have yet to slay. Ellison writes, "Some day that kind of foolishness will cause us tragic trouble," and he's right. We have seen that tragic trouble, and we are likely to see more unless we all become more responsible for our actions, our thoughts, and things so often left unseen, unheard, and unspoken.

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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