Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nobody But Himself

In this post from a while back, I discussed some observers' insistence upon seeing, in Barack Obama, a mysterious cipher, and I linked that apparent blindness to Ralph Ellison's novelistic concept of invisibility.

The narrator of Invisible Man, which I just finished teaching to my seniors, comes to realize that he is invisible to those around him.

When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, anything and everything except me.

But his invisibility is not exclusively a result of white eyes looking through stereotypes upon his colored face. By the end of the novel, the narrator has come to realize that he's also invisible to the people of Harlem with whom he's been working. Indeed, in the final sentence of the novel, the narrator suggests that we are all invisible, in a sense, to those around us:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Anyway, I thought of that post and Ellison when I read this very interesting review-essay about Obama and David Remnick's new book about him. The author of the piece, an African American journalism professor and former NY Times correspondent, writes about the difficulty that his father had in seeing Obama, his difficulty in perceiving this individual through the grid of his own preconceptions and personal history:

As I read The Bridge, what this most brought to mind was the puzzled response of my own father to Obama the presidential candidate. Invariably when I asked his opinion of the man, my Dad—a frontline participant in the great civil rights marches of the South, including Selma— would answer, “I just don’t know what to make of him.”

I’m certain these evasions didn’t represent a failure of racial pride, or even less a preference for Hillary Clinton. Rather, as best I can surmise, they reflected the instinctive hesitation of someone steeped in the activism of what I think of as our Greatest Generation before the studied, amorphous cool of an Obama.

One of the things I admire most about Obama is that he has evidently learned what the narrator of Invisible Man comes to learn: that he is nobody but himself, and that, ultimately, he must answer for himself the questions of identity that bedevil him and bedevil us all.

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