Trayvon Was an Invisible Man

Trayvon Martin

As the George Zimmerman trial ended in a “not guilty” verdict, I found myself agreeing with New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb that, above all, the trial was about racial profiling. Trayvon Martin would not have been stalked in the first place had not Zimmerman made assumptions about him, and Zimmerman’s defense team was able to use Trayvon’s blackness to make a plausible case that Zimmerman shot the teenager in self defense. Plausible enough, anyway, to raise reasonable doubts about Zimmerman’s guilt.

Of all those who are projecting their racial fears upon the dead teenager, Fox commentator Geraldo Rivera may get the prize:

I see those six ladies in the jury putting themselves on that rainy night, in that housing complex that has just been burglarized by three or four different groups of black youngsters from the adjacent community. So it’s a dark night, a 6-foot-2-inch hoodie-wearing stranger is in the immediate housing complex. How would the ladies of that jury have reacted? I submit that if they were armed, they would have shot and killed Trayvon Martin a lot sooner than George Zimmerman did. This is self-defense.

Ralph Ellison gives us the ultimate description of racial profiling in the opening pages of Invisible Man. Note how well it describes Rivera’s view of Trayvon:

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. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.

If one wants to know why the Trayvon killing struck such a deep chord with America’s African American community, it is because of how continually frustrating it can be to have the Riveras of the world seeing nothing but their own projections when they look at you. Here’s Ellison:

It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, 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.

Trayvon, of course, got bumped against—and bumped off—by someone with poor vision. Zimmerman’s words to the dispatcher–“Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away”—show him pretty much on the same wavelength as Rivera.

In the novel, the narrator explains black rage as a reaction against being rendered invisible. I cite this part of the passage with some reluctance since it feeds into the stories of those who see Zimmerman as the victim and Martin as the aggressor. The narrator has even less cause than Trayvon to turn on the man who bumps and curses him. But lest it appear that the Invisible Man is justifying black violence, it is worth noting that nowhere else in the book does he countenance violence. In fact he comes down hard on Ras the Exorter, a black separatist who is filled with his own race hatred, who loathes black moderates (like the Invisible Man), and who instigates race riots. In any event, the passage makes the interesting psychological point, also found in Richard Wright’s Native Son, that sometimes one finds it a relief to fulfill the stereotype that others hold:

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.

One night I accidentally bumped into a man, and perhaps because of the near darkness he saw me and called me an insulting name. I sprang at him, seized his coat lapels and demanded that he apologize. He was a tall blond man, and as my face came close to his he looked insolently out of his blue eyes and cursed me, his breath hot in my face as he struggled. I pulled his chin down sharp upon the crown of my head, butting him as I had seen the West Indians do, and I felt his flesh tear and the blood gush out, and I yelled, “Apologize! Apologize!” But he continued to curse and struggle, and I butted him again and again until he went down heavily, on his knees, profusely bleeding. I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood. Oh yes, I kicked him! And in my outrage I got out my knife and prepared to slit his throat, right there beneath the lamplight in the deserted street, holding him by the collar with one hand, and opening the knife with my teeth — when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare! And I stopped the blade, slicing the air as I pushed him away, letting him fall back to the street. I stared at him hard as the lights of a car stabbed through the darkness. He lay there, moaning on the asphalt; a man almost killed by a phantom. It unnerved me. I was both disgusted and ashamed. I was like a drunken man myself, wavering about on weakened legs. Then I was amused. Something in this man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I began to laugh at this crazy discovery. Would he have awakened at the point of death? Would Death himself have freed him for wakeful living? But I didn’t linger. I ran away into the dark, laughing so hard I feared I might rupture myself. The next day I saw his picture in the Daily News, beneath a caption stating that he had been “mugged.” Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!

There are those in the rightwing media—figure like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh—who seem almost to be relishing the prospect of violent black blowback against the jury’s “not guilty” verdict. A race riot would vindicate their racial stereotypes.

I still remember the smug satisfaction from my rightwing high school American History teacher the day after Martin Luther King was shot and Washington, D. C. erupted in flames: “He lived by the sword and he died by the sword,” Jim Miller said. As he saw it, all of this violence was the natural outcome of integration. The Civil Rights Movement, not the systematic repression of blacks, was to blame

Other than some vandalism in Oakland, there have been no eruptions of black violence following the Zimmerman verdict and there was no violence at all in response to the incident over the course of the past year. Which brings us to the Invisible Man’s other response::

Most of the time (although I do not choose as I once did to deny the violence of my days by ignoring it) I am not so overtly violent. I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. I learned in time though that it is possible to carry on a fight against them without their realizing it.

His means is to stay away from the conflict and use the cracks within the system to his own advantage, illegally draining power from “Monopolated Light and Power” to light his underground cave.” To be sure, such conflict avoidance is doesn’t advance the cause of one’s people.  The novel was written in 1952, a few years before the Civil Rights Movement and almost sixty years before Barack Obama.

To Ellison’s credit, he also talks about this strategy as temporary—the Invisible Man says that he’s in hibernation. But even today, his words apply. Although America has made immense progress, Obama still has to walk carefully around issues of race. He knows what can happen when sleepwalkers are awakened.

Indeed, the right wing accused Obama of racism when he addressed the Trayvon killing. He may have soothed a lot of black hurt when he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.” But right on cue, the conservative Washington Examiner accused him of “playing the race card.”

While I think that it was unconscionable what George Zimmerman did, I also think that he was shaped by America’s racial paranoia. Maybe anxieties about his own Hispanic background led him to think he could be accepted by white society if he scapegoated another race. There’s a rich literature dealing with such scapegoating, with Philip Roth’s The Human Stain coming immediately to mind.

The whole tragic affair has proved that racial stereotyping continues to rule our lives. And that Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece is a timely as ever.

Added note – A fascinating New York Times piece confirms Obama’s way of working behind the scenes so that he doesn’t awake sleepwalkers. Of course, the sleepwalkers in this case are very well aware who is the POTUS.  Here’s a passage from the article:

In the privacy of the West Wing, away from the cameras, he has made calls to leading figures in the Arab world and has met with advisers trying to influence the crisis. But his low public profile on issues like immigration, Syria and health care underscores a calculated presidential approach that admirers consider nuanced and detractors call passive. 

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  • Sean

    As always, an excellent perspective. Growing up in a segregated town, the other side of the tracks (both literally and figuratively) were invisible to us. When your own race is all you ever see, you don’t see people of other races as real. I don’t think all the political correctness in the world (watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) changes that, at least it didn’t for me. Until I lived in a mixed race environment (for which I had the opportunity to do as an adult), did that racism wash away. I only realized it was gone upon moving back to the Midwest, and on our first trip to the grocery store, remarked to my wife, “Wow, would you take a look at all the white people.”

  • Robin Bates

    It’s interesting, Sean. I wrote on the Parable of the Good Samaritan yesterday and thought about what a challenge it is for us to step outside of our tribe. Good Judeans all, we can’t imagine that we are brother to the Samaritan. You capture the danger of living in silos, whether they be informational silos, gated communities, or any others. The lesson is that we’ve got to keep on talking with people who are not like us. Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights Movement thought it would happen naturally once children attended integrated schools. We discovered that it doesn’t happen that easily.

    But having said that, I also have to say that, sometimes when I walk into one of my classes and see Whites, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics not even thinking twice about the fact that they’re all there together, it still amazes me. As a child, I thought this day would never come and they just take it for granted. So progress is being made.

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  • gene

    Well said. But there is one bold, up-front thing that the president could and probably should do in shining the light on ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws.

    Marissa Alexander’s husband, who has beaten her in the past as well as other women, had begun another anger-filled altercation with her. Marissa retrieved her handgun from her car and fired one bullet into the wall of her house. At trial, she used a ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense. She was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

    All of this happened in Florida. Marissa Alexander is a black woman.

    As president, Barack Obama could pardon her– should pardon her; and in so doing, bluntly speak out against ‘Stand Your Ground’ and the reactionary social forces behind such laws.


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