Updated: September 3, 2013 7:02AM
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe …I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…” — Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man” (1952)
I am not invisible. I am a shadow.
People react not to me but to the exaggerated image of me, to the two-dimensional shadow that is every black man.
That is why white people with whom I have worked, people with whom I have laughed and joked and traded stories, have sometimes passed me on the street and not recognized me. Out of context, out of safe surroundings, I am but one among a cast of dark shadows.
Shadows are insubstantial. They are inconsequential. But they are menacing. They loom disproportionately large. Light from the right angle in a darkened bedroom makes a teddy bear a grizzly.
Shadows turn men into bogeymen.
I am a shadow. It is the experience of black men in America. By his own words, it is even President Obama’s. My grandfather’s. My son’s. Mine.
I am not a thug. Not a felon. Ex-con, murderer, robber. I am educated, middle class and have laid hold on the American dream. As a black man, I am accountable and responsible.
And yet, I am always a suspect. American menace. Most feared. Most hated.
At the root is racism. Racism blows like the wind. Slaps us in the face, swirls.
It doesn’t matter where you grew up, where you were schooled, what you do for a living, whether your daddy was a professor, plumber or a pimp. Black men speak the same language.
I will be sitting around with friends and someone will say, “Man, I was crossing the street today, and there was this line of cars stuck in traffic…” And someone else will finish his sentence: “…and all around you people were clicking the locks shut on their doors.”
Or someone will say, “I was in the Metro today, sitting there on the train, which was pretty crowded, mostly white people standing in the aisle…” And another will say, “…but the seat next to you was empty.”
Or someone will say, “I was minding my business in this store…” And someone else will say, “…and they tailed you like you were a shoplifter.”
Or someone will say, “I walked onto the elevator today and there was this white woman…” And someone else will finish, “…and she hugged her handbag to her chest.”
Black men can do this by rote. Yet, to speak publicly of our collective experience is to risk being called racists or whiners. Will collective silence make it go away?
Racism lives. It is delivered to us in one of two ways. The first is a slap. You are stopped and frisked by police, because of your race. You overhear an ethnic joke or you are called a name. The insult is overt. In your face.
The second kind is as invisible as the wind. You cannot anticipate or discern its source. It is anonymous. You incorporate it into your life. You go on in spite of it. It’s what happens when a black man tries to hail a cab.
Who is to say why a cabbie passes you by? Maybe he has another call. Maybe he had gone off duty. Maybe he doesn’t like black men. Maybe he just doesn’t see you. Or maybe he does.
I am a shadow.