Invisible Men (and Women) No Longer

Immigrants listening to Obama's speech

Undocumented immigrants listening to Obama’s speech

With President Obama’s recent use of prosecutorial discretion to stop deporting immigrants who are parents of American citizens, we’re hearing a lot the phrase “out of the shadows.” The words got me thinking of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who retreats to the shadows but then, in the epilogue, reports that he will be returning to the light.  While the situations aren’t identical, of course, there’s a fair degree of overlap.

IM (he doesn’t have a name) “hibernates” into the shadows after trying fruitlessly to prove that he is a three-dimensional human being. After he has been beaten down repeatedly, he surrenders and resigns himself to his invisibility. Our undocumented immigrants, who are all around us and yet are officially invisible, experience something similar:

So there you have all of it that’s important. Or at least you almost have it. I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in, if you will—and I reluctantly accepted the fact. What else could I have done? Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club, and I was clubbed into the cellar before I caught the hint.

IM talks about shedding his naïveté but not his idealism, an evolution I could imagine with our current immigrants. It sounds like a contradiction but IM feels liberated once he stops worrying about what others think of him. Since he couldn’t change their minds anyway, he can focus on the possibilities at hand. In America, there are still many possibilities:

[L]ike almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being “for” society and then “against” it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase—still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.

To be sure, politicians like Ted Cruzes, Steve King, and Jeff Sessions are trying to put America in a traditionally white strait jacket. The danger posed by such figures explains why IM remains in hibernation for as long as he does:

Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there’s an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern. Just as in my nightmare, Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to . . . well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.

IM realizes that hibernation, however, is what has kept the status quo in place. Indeed, it was the so-called undocumented “dreamers” coming out of the shadows and holding dangerous protests that helped push Obama to his executive decisions. IM invokes one of America’s founding visions: e pluribus unum, out of many one. He holds to this even though the world remains “just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before.” What has changed, he says, is a clearer understanding of the struggle such a vision calls for:

[O]nly now I better understand my relation to it and it to me. I’ve come a long way from those days when, full of illusion, I lived a public life and attempted to function under the assumption that the world was solid and all the relationships therein. Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health.

And further on:

Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway?—diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It’s “winner take nothing” that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many.—This is not prophecy, but description. Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray. None of us seems to know who he is or where he’s going.

The book concludes with an observation that no nativist will acknowledge and yet which has a deep truth:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?

Just as immigrants defined our past, so will they define our future. The question is whether we will face the changes openly with smart legislation or whether we will continue to avert our eyes and melodramatically posture. Be prepared for a lot of posturing.

Added note: In his New York Times column today, Charles Blow sounds a very similar theme. Here’s his conclusion:

Make no mistake: This debate is not just about this president, this executive order or immigration. This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.

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