Bernie, Black Lives Matter, & Invisible Man

Black Lives Matter activists disrupt a Sanders speech

Black Lives Matter activists disrupt a Sanders speech

Tuesday 

Bernie Sanders has been surpassing all expectations as we move towards the presidential primaries, but he has stumbled in one area. Apparently he is having difficulty connecting with minority voters, who make up a significant portion of the Democratic Party base.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man may give us insight into why.

Early signs of Sanders’s blind spot occurred when members of the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted a couple of his rallies. This made no sense to either him or his followers. Since BLM agitates strongly for members of the black underclass, didn’t they realize that no candidate is proposing higher taxes on the wealthy or more downward wealth redistribution than the socialist Sanders? In some ways, his frustration was reminiscent of Barack Obama’s frustration following the implementation of Obamacare. Though poorer Americans were the major beneficiaries, the president was still attacked by people like black activist Cornell West for not focusing sufficiently on African American issues.

The conflict resembles the tension between the Invisible Man and “the Brotherhood” in Ellison’s novel. The Brotherhood is essentially the American Communist Party, with whom Ellison was briefly affiliated during the 1930s. At first the narrator, accustomed to southern racism, is enthusiastic about the Brotherhood. As the book unfolds, however, he discovers that the party is blind to specific race issues. The blindness is symbolically captured through party leader Brother Jack’s glass eye.

The shock is great because Invisible Man (IM) initially thinks that he has found an organization that honors his humanity. As he says in the Brotherhood speech that launches him to prominence,

I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human. Do you understand? More human. Not that I have become a man, for I was born a man. But that I am more human. I feel strong, I feel able to get things done! I feel that I can see sharp and clear and far down the dim corridor of history and in it I can hear the footsteps of militant fraternity! No, wait, let me confess . . . I feel the urge to affirm my feelings . . . I feel that here, after a long and desperate and uncommonly blind journey, I have come home . . . Home! With your eyes upon me I feel that I’ve found my true family! My true people! My true country! I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land. I feel that here tonight, in this old arena, the new is being born and the vital old revived. In each of you, in me, in us all.

SISTERS! BROTHERS!

WE ARE THE TRUE PATRIOTS! THE CITIZENS OF TOMORROW’S WORLD!

WE’LL BE DISPOSSESSED NO MORE

IM becomes the Brotherhood’s most effective organizer because he understands Harlem far better than the white members do. He focuses on the issue of evictions, creates a rainbow poster of different races (anticipating Jessie Jackson), and draws large crowds with his “People’s Hot Foot Squad,” a drill team that does elaborate formations while striking sparks with their hobnailed boots. After a friend is shot by the police for being black, he gives an impassioned eulogy.

But IM is essentially accused of focusing on African American concerns rather than general class concerns. During a key confrontation with Brother Jack, IM is horrified when a glass eye drops from his face. The horror arises in part from the fact that Jack cannot see his identity as a black man. Given the novel’s theme of identity and invisibility, this is no small thing. Here’s the scene:

I stared at the glass, seeing how the light shone through, throwing a transparent, precisely fluted shadow against the dark grain of the table, and there on the bottom of the glass lay an eye. A glass eye. A buttermilk white eye distorted by the light rays. An eye staring fixedly at me as from the dark waters of a well. Then I was looking at him standing above me, outlined by the light against the darkened half of the hall.

“. . . You must accept discipline. Either you accept decisions or you get out . . .”

I stared into his face, feeling a sense of outrage. His left eye had collapsed, a line of raw redness showing where the lid refused to close, and his gaze had lost its command. I looked from his face to the glass, thinking, he’s disemboweled himself just in order to confound me . . . And the others had known it all along. They aren’t even surprised.

Now, Bernie Sanders is no Jack nor, for that matter, a communist. He has made admirable strides since his first missteps and now has Cornell West as an advisor. Still, Ellison helps us understand why the misunderstanding arose in the first place.

The challenge is one that confronts the Democratic Party as a whole. Can they acknowledge the specific identities of certain constituencies without alienating others? In politics as it is practiced, this can seem a zero sum game. Some trace the rise of Donald Trump, with his birther attacks on the president and his anti-immigrant rhetoric, to America’s “angry middle class,” who perceive the country’s wealth going both upward to the 1% and downward to the Black and Latino underclass.

That’s why Democrat candidates cannot afford a glass eye. Black Lives Matter is about no long being invisible men and women, and the eventual nominee will need to acknowledge both class AND race.

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