Back in the 1970’s … wait?  You don’t want to go there?  But maybe you would have if you had been me and I was indulging in my party decade.  I went to so many parties in the 1970’s that I only had snack food for me and my refrigerator.  Eating out was going to another fete, and eating in was swallowing the food that I brought home from some other party buffet.

Today one party that stands out in my mind in the 1970’s was given by Arthur and Alexandra Schlesinger.  You may recall that Arthur Schlesinger was a kind of roving cabinet member without portfolio during John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration.  He was the one who created a big splash in the social pages of the day when he fell or was pushed into a swimming pool at one Camelot event.  But by the time of his party I had known Schlesinger by a book he wrote that I studied in my government class in high school – the Imperial Presidency. 

Schlesinger’s book prophesized that simply by the grip of increasing numbers of presidents, American would finally become ruled by a president who would want to become a lifetime king.

And so on was this party, which seemed by its guest list to be a kind of celebration of the 1950’s.  One of the first guests I met was in fact Mayor Robert F. Wagner, who was a very popular mayor in the 1950’s, one of the last New York mayors to try to be a public servant to everyone no matter whom.  And then a man walked up to me (they were all walking up to me to tell me their names) was a light-colored African-American man in professorial tweeds who said, “I am Ralph Ellison. I have written a little book called Invisible Man.”

It was certainly a modest way to introduce the author and the book that must been the most influential novel to influence American race relations in the 20th Century.  Ellison and his book had been preceded by Richard Wright and his epoch-making novel Native Son, but Native Son went right to our throats.  In contrast, Ellison’s novel about the New York African-American Invisible Man whom the white world was not seeing went straight up our brains.

To understand Invisible Man, I am sure it comes in handy to have read one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s shortest novels, Notes from the Underground.   Dostoyevsky’s underground man had the problems of any other Russians who had been exiled after being imprisoned – other more fortunate Russians were reluctant to recognize their existence of these exiles among them.  And yet even the great Dostoyevsky had been a prisoner and an exile himself.

Ellison’s Invisible Man is about how difficult it is for white Americans to see an African-American who may be running toward them to catch an elevator before the door closed, or who may be sitting at a café waiting to be served breakfast.  The elevator closes in the African-American Invisible Man’s face, and then he sits and sits at a café table but no one comes to give him service.

Eventually the Invisible Man learned to at least try to compensate against the invisibility he is suffering from.  He learns to raise his voice, louder, and then louder still, until at least one person around him cannot help but hear him. But even if raising his voice fails, he learns or perhaps it would be more accurate to that the tension he feels forces his instincts to gesticulate with his arms and hands and fingers that he is in need of some response and dialogue.

Surely these Invisible Men preceded the 1950’s and the scenes that Ellison wrote of.  The natural reaction to talk more loudly when you are invisible and to gesticulate with visual accompaniment has surely been intensified into genetic memory.

Today there have been NFL football players kneeling at the National Anthem to mark and mourn the death of innocent black Americans who have been shot by police perhaps in even greater numbers than they used to they used  to be lynched in the south.  The time of arrest for a black person carries even more than normal tension because there is so much more chance to be killed in this encounter if you are black.  And please remember that your genetic memory may force you in all this stress to gesticulate – because gesticulation is a classic instinct against not being heard – and it is so very easy for any fearful person to interpret your nervous gestures under arrest as reaching for a gun.

Chris Sharp- Commentary

Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . Sharp's latest book is an Amazon Kindle collection of his published short stories, Every Kind of Angel . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon.