As I watched the adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” at the Studio Theatre this past Sunday, I thought about what shape invisibility
has taken in America in 2012. I wondered if it is still just as rooted in blackness today — in the Obama era — as it was when Ellison published his book 60 years ago. Who are the anonymous Americans moving through institutions and communities unrecognized by their peers and those in power? Do they still look like Ellison and me?
In his statements at a May fundraiser secretly caught on video, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney helped answer my questions. The candidate bemoaned the 47 percent of Americans “who are dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims.” At that moment, he appeared not as a calculated candidate, but as a feet-propped-up-on-the-coffee-table man’s man speaking crudely about Obama supporters.
Speaking in welfare code words that are familiar to the Republican base — these 47 percent believe they are entitled, he said, to everything from “health care, to food, to housing, to you name it” — Romney let his wealthy donors know that he was committed to protecting their hard-earned dollars from government freeloaders. His words were void of compassion. It’s frightening to think that someone who once governed a state would reduce complex social issues to a mere matter of personal irresponsibility and shiftlessness.
But I’m not surprised that he made the statements, nor that they exploded through mass media, because what happens in the dark almost always comes to light. The onus is now on us to decide how we will interpret and respond to his statements.
By lumping millions of faceless, nameless Americans under one “entitlement” umbrella, Romney proved that race and class continue to render millions of hard-working people invisible in this country. And we would be fools to believe that his policies won’t be shaped by that sense of elitism.
Ellison’s character paints a vivid picture of what life is like for the “47 percent” that Romney condemns: a war. It is a never-ending fight to be seen and to overcome hate that’s “charged with fear.”
Romney’s reduction of people to a mere percentage mirrors Ellison’s greatest fear — to be diminished to a “phantom in other people’s minds.” The novel’s main character speaks for many of us: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
It doesn’t matter now how many visits Romney makes to small towns — or to the NAACP’s national convention, for that matter. He can’t atone for painting millions of Americans with such a wide brush stroke. Equipped now with this new truth about how he perceives us, we know, as the Invisible Man says about those who hated him, that his most “innocent words were acts of violence.”
Romney’s speech suggests he believes he will somehow save us from our own recklessness and, in so doing, save our nation from a cruel fate. If we were as loyal to Romney as the Invisible Man was to white philanthropic trustee Mr. Norton, we would obsequiously seek to please him, to conform to his ideals in hopes that we might, finally, be seen.
The problem is that, like the Invisible Man, many of us will “awake in blackness” tomorrow. Others of us in the 47 percent will awake as women, immigrants, white working class folks and nothing-but-the-education-on-our-back American Dream inheritors.
But while social invisibility is meant to render us powerless, democracy affords us a voice nonetheless. Like the Invisible Man with Mr. Norton, I want to free Romney from his burden. I plan to do that by exercising my right to vote, against him and in favor of a president who seemingly recognizes me as a person and not a percentage.
Like Ellison’s conclusion in “Invisible Man,” despite our ongoing struggles to be seen, we need to understand that we are already “whole.” Not 3/5 human or 47 percent of a whole, but whole unto ourselves. And one thing that whole people have a responsibility to do is to not perpetuate their own invisibility.
Make your presence known: Vote.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.