One Nation…With Liberty and Justice For All

20th April 2013

Today as I walked into my American literature class, just having seen the interview with the Boston bombing suspects’ uncle Ruslan Tsarni, I armed myself with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a clean, new copy given to me by a former student just this morning. Not all of them were aware of what had happened in Boston; the other students aware of the news filled them in, and then I read them this:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

[As an invisible person]…you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.  – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I stopped reading when the invisible man describes spooking a man in the street and then beating the man because he doesn’t see the invisible man, saying: “I was both disgusted and ashamed…. Then I was amused: Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life.”

I closed my book and said, “Sometimes the desire to be seen makes people do unimaginable things.” Invisible Man may be a work of fiction, but fiction so often reflects real life, and I certainly believe it’s capable of reflecting real emotion, and that description of feeling so outside of society that no one sees you that you purposely “bump” against it? It gives me chills.

Mass killings are, regardless of other motives, about attention, whether that is attention to a cause or a deep-seated anger or pain. One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, reportedly said in a wrestling profile, “I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.” Though I won’t speculate as to his thoughts, it does seem that to some extent he felt excluded, Othered, just as the invisible man does. And just as the invisible man rails against his invisibility as an act of reclamation of self and of defiance against those who don’t see him, I believe too that these mass killings are at a very basic level about the same thing.

In my class this semester, we’ve focused many of our discussions on the inability to successfully answer the question: What or who is an American?  We spent time attempting to define the word, and with each text, I try to bring us around to whether that text is exemplifying or undermining our societal norms/goals. I think it’s a valuable conversation to have.

I brought up the FBI photos of the suspects, and I asked them what first came into their minds. We talked about the underlying issues in speculating the suspects’ origins, pointing out that if we can’t define who or what an American is, how can we possibly glance at a photograph and tell? A couple stated if they could speak with the suspects that they might be able to narrow it down, but I pointed out that students in our classroom have accents and that we don’t doubt their qualifications as Americans. I explained that I don’t have the answers here. I have no better definition than the rudely constructed one we’ve updated all semester. In the end, does it matter whether or not the suspects are American? Will it change the deaths or the life-altering injuries or the trauma?

Part of what I’ve seen this week is our intense desire as a nation to know. We want to know exactly what happened, how many people are dead, what the injuries are to others. We want to know who did this and why and how. We just want to know. Because if we know, we can place blame. We can tuck this away into a particular category in our minds and feel safe. As the victim in Invisible Man, we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that the terror wasn’t in our minds and hastily push it back into the darkness. That is very much human nature.

Yet it is that same desperate need for categorization – if the suspect is [insert ethnicity here], the motive must have been [insanity, anger, hatred of America, drugs, extremism, religion] – that causes us to make others feel excluded. And this exclusion all too often makes the excluded bump us back.

One of my students said, “But we’re not like that. We’re college students. We’re open minded and tolerant.” And it’s true, for the most part. They are. But what I wanted them to understand, what I want *us* to understand, is that we can’t escape this society we live in. We can’t remove ourselves from those of us who are also suspicious of those with accents or different skin color or those who beat a woman because of her religion and what we think that means. The reporters questioning Ruslan Tsarni are us, as much as I absolutely hate that aspect of my country. Our need to know creates the need for more, and that need creates the heartbreaking moment when a reporter asks a man living in America what he thinks about a country he calls home, a question that much of this population would never be asked.

President Obama last night said in his address, “…one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on earth but also what makes Boston such a great city is that we welcome people from all around the world, people from every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe. So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let’s make sure that we sustain that spirit.” And for a moment, I wanted to believe it. Instead, I found myself hearing his words less as an acclamation and more as an invocation: Please let us be these people.

And I think, now, sitting at my computer, trying to process the terror and fear and anger and sadness and shock of this week: Please let us live up to what we so like to talk about being. Please. Please let us be these people.

  • This is really lovely and sums up so much of what I’ve been feeling the last 24 hours. Though I felt relief when everything came to a conclusion last night, I also felt a huge sense of dread over the constant media and political battles this is going to cause for a long time to come.

    • Yes, I dread it too. Now we politicize it, and I really can’t muster the energy.

  • Jenn — what a gorgeous post. Thank you. One, I am loving that you’re teaching Invisible Man (so.good) and two, what an incredible, moving conversation you’re having with your students. I hadn’t thought of Ellison’s book as I sat yesterday doing my own armchair analysis of the suspects, but your observations resonate with me. And your invocation and ‘prayer’ rings true for me as well. xx

    • Every semester (except this one), we read the whole thing. It’s such an amazing book and unfortunately, so appropriate.

  • This was an amazing and insightful post – thank you for sharing this with us. I’m glad that there are people like you educating and bringing to light these discussions. It seems that when tragedy strikes, there is a lot of love and a lot of hate and more than anything, uncertainty. We can keep asking questions, but are we asking the right ones?

    • I think that’s exactly right. We need to be asking different questions, but I’m afraid that, like with other aspects of politics, those questions will be pointed and voiced with agenda.

  • Stephanie

    Lovely, Jenn.

    • Thanks, Steph.

  • Cat

    Just a wonderful post. What a perfect passage. I’ve been meaning to reread that for years; perhaps now is the time.

    • It’s a fantastic book, and yes, I thought it was a strangely apt description.

  • Loved this. Thanks for sharing. I feel like I want to say more but really I just feel like I need to really THINK about what you wrote — mull it over. This was beautiful and thought-provoking and I’m so glad you shared.

    • Jamie – I need to think about it, too. I’m afraid too many aren’t doing enough thinking.

  • This is an incredible post, so much to think about here. Thanks for these thoughts.

    • Thanks, Monika.

  • Catherine @Book Club Librarian

    Thanks for writing and sharing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. After reading it, my thoughts are drawn beyond labels, identity, and ideology–to our basic humanity.

    • Catherine – thanks. I couldn’t ask for more.

  • *Standing ovation*

    Very, very well said. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Heather.

  • heidenkind

    Aw, this post brought tears to my eyes, Jenn. I never really understood what my grandparents who emigrated to America went through until I traveled to another country where I didn’t know the language. It’s fucking* tough. And you go a little crazy sometimes. I read The Invisible Man years ago and never drew the connection between it and violence like the Boston Marathon, but I think you’re right. Sometimes there’s only one way for the invisible to be noticed. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand where the perpetrators were coming from.

    *necessary cursing

    • Completely necessary.

      I’ve read and taught Invisible Man for a long time. I think it’s an incredible text, and its discussions of identity have always fascinated me. And yes, the reaction to that invisibility is partly what defines us. I don’t believe violence is the answer, but I do think we should look more into that feeling as motive.

  • Charlie

    Good post, Jenn. We need to ask the questions you’ve talked about, think about things that way, otherwise everything remains about exclusion.

    • Exclusion is so so dangerous – to the excluded as well as the not. But it’s not something we consciously consider, particularly as a society.

  • This post is amazing; I would love to be in your class.

    We had a EDL march in my town yesterday – fascists marching to keep England English, whatever that means – and your words strike true not only in regards to Boston, but beyond that, to this too. Ignorance is a mind killer; we all want to place blame so we can compartmentalise, know there is a difference from the bad other and the good us and feel safe again. Nothing is, or should be, that simple.

    • Thanks, Alice.

      And wow. I’ve read here and there in fiction about the cultural tensions in UK, but I always like to think better of the British. Guess I’m an idealist in ways. What I expect and what actually is are very often two very different things.

  • Such a wonderful post. I haven’t read this book. I think I should read this and then read your post again to fully appreciate it.

    I love though how you relate literature and incidents of today. Your classes must be so interesting.