Teaching "Invisible Man"

Today after yoga class, Stephanie, the beautiful woman who once cherished my infant son while I used the gym told me she had six relatives die in the hurricane. I stare into her high-cheek boned face and try to recall if she had ever told me she was French Creole. One of them was bitten by a poisonous snake, two were washed from their house into Lake Ponchartrain, one had a heart condition and the last was so badly bitten by an alligator, he did not survive.

I can’t imagine any of this.

I had the good fortune to live in San Francisco before the earthquake, in New York before 9/11, in London before the bombings and no one seems interested in attacking Chicago. While I lost my beloved sister without warning, mass tragedy is something I can’t claim to understand. It plays out on the television while I fold my son’s clean clothes, momentarily reminding me of how close we all are to unspeakable suffering.

I have been teaching Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to my senior honors English class.

The novel tears at the idea that race can be ignored as the single factor that determines your fate. The narrator enters the world hopeful, willing to learn, anticipating his destiny and he is taught that as long as he is poor and black he must dance double time merely to stay alive.

This class is a miracle: white kids, black kids, boys, girls, Hispanics, Asians. They are reading the book, they are thinking about how things could be so bad fifty years ago and still be so bad yesterday. We discuss the evacuees who were first called looters and then refugees.

Can you imagine that?

At my son’s opening day school picnic, I listen as a class mother refers to the people in New Orleans as criminals. “They looted! Can you imagine that? Looting during a hurricane?”

“Yes.”  I snap at her. “The real lesson to be learned here is that poor people just get worse in challenging situations. Imagine looting when your baby is hungry or your elderly mother is dying?”

Who is a “good man”?

She says he is a “good man” and no one can expect him to go visit a disaster site where people might be a danger to him.

The “he” she refers to is President Bush. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone actually does their job. I notice she is wearing stiletto heels at a picnic and the way I feel about women who wear those kinds of shoes is reinforced. I am guilty of stereotyping.

My students have questions.

They want to know how Ralph Ellison could be so angry fifty years ago. We discuss Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery. They wonder why they have to read such a long book and why I’m getting married again.

“Insufficient catastrophic coverage.”

When I lived in Dallas with another husband, part of our house was on a flood plain. We bought flood insurance even though the area hadn’t flooded in a hundred years. The people in Louisiana, Mississippi and other parts of the Gulf were all living on a flood plain. Most of them did not buy flood insurance which is very costly. “It was a hurricane that blew the water, not the water that flooded.” But their insurance companies do not want to give them the price of their house. The insurance companies aren’t sounding like those nice people with the good hands, or a good neighbor or any of those other kind advertising slogans we have heard in the past. They are murmuring other phrases like “Insufficient catastrophic coverage.”

The Invisible Man believes his race makes him invisible which is both an opportunity and a curse.

He can move among the enemy, gathering information and avoiding confrontation; but he is also doomed to be ignored, passed over and forgotten. We are stunned by the parallels we see in a novel that was written over fifty years ago by a man who knew so much he can barely contain his words on the page.  The courage of individuals defies the pessimism of the current situation. On the day Rosa Parks dies, (2005) I think back to the day when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. How I yelled at my mother at the injustice of it all. I was eleven years old and had just finished Richard Wright’s brutal collection of short stories Uncle Tom’s Children.

Nothing will ever change, I told her. People are terrible.

She assured me that people are capable of enormous courage and goodness. She reminded me I should remember to always say something about injustice. And she asked me if I would help her make bread because that was something that made us both feel better.

I tell my students I’m getting married again because I’m optimistic about the future. I tell them I believe in love and they look appalled.

I hear one of them compare me to Oprah.

I have a better job, I tell him. Oprah doesn’t get to teach senior honors English…


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Huntington Theatre Company.

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