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.Â – 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.”Â Invisible ManÂ 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?Â 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.