The Invisible Man

*This is not a nationalism post, but I love and appreciate my culture. This is not an affront to whiteness. However, if we cannot engage safely in these conversations without hurt and shame then don’t comment. I’m not here for that.*

Before my senior year of high school, we were required to read a book from a selected list and turn in a 10 page paper the first week of school for AP English. Being that African American literature has always interested me, I chose to read The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I remember being enthralled by the book and at that time I still wasn’t into reading too much. I know, amazing, that I did well enough to be in AP classes :). It tells the story of a young Black man that has taken to living under the streets of New York City. No one looks for him and no one is aware of his existence. Yet he manages to survive and live underground. The protagonist has no name and explains how comfortable he is living underground rather than living in American society. The story follows his experience to find identity and meaning in the early 2oth century of America. A time when the identity of Black men was rejected and commodified to fit the ideals of a racially segregated society. It was a time period that further destroyed whatever dignity Black men had left.

As Ellison wrote with an angry pen the story of the invisible man, African American men struggled to find a home and a place where their identity would not be questioned. In fact a place where their identity would be honored and revered. The one institution where Black men found this was the Black church. Leadership opportunities and a chance to make a difference in the community helped the invisible become visible. An argument could be made here that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) did the same, but for these purposes I will focus on the Black church. As we know, at least some of us, churches were still segregated so denominations for African Americans were formed so Blacks could worship. It was here African American men engaged in political and intellectual debates, social conventions were created, and life was given meaning. While the Black church has shifted from being a place of intellectual debate, it is still the reason many older Black men go to church. It is not for the closer walk with Jesus but for the visibility that is achieved.

Today we find that many young Black men no longer attend church. According to a Pew Forum on African Americans and religion, a majority of Black men state that spirituality and religion are important in their lives. About half of the Black men that report being members of a church regularly attend service once a week. This is still higher than other ethnicities in America. Basically while Black men may still believe in God, attending church is not on the list of priorities. On a blog I read, Single Black Male, one of the writers Dr. J wrote about his own spiritual struggles and religious identity:

What if someone was in a part of the world where there were no information about You or Your great love for us? Why is it us against them? How could a God who claims to love us all not be known by all? How can I be in love with a God who believes heaven and hell? Hell always bothered me because I didn’t believe in the concept that everlasting love could ever do that to a believer.

In prayer, I found answers. God showed me that I needed to know that most of religion was created by man, it wasn’t him. God showed me that he was truly in love with all. God showed me that he is a god of love and understanding. After many days of prayer, I didn’t tell anyone but I had grown so much and I knew what I believed.

After reading this though, I thought about how Black men have slowly slipped back into that underground invisibility. The church is no longer meeting the intellectual, political, and social needs of a new generation so they find other ways to create identity. There is nothing particularly wrong with this because everyone needs to find a way to bring meaning to life, however, as the bond between the institution of the Black church and Black men becomes loose, it is growing stronger with Black women. This is problematic as African Americans struggle with what it means to be Black in America…still. It affects our community building, our interaction, and our families. Invisibility is not something we can afford.

I’m not arguing for a return to church necessarily but a retreat of Black men from significant institutions is not beneficial to the Black community. What is the alternative? I’m not sure. I went out to eat tonight surrounded by Black men (I live in the DC area) and women yet I felt no particular connection with any of them. Honestly, I saw myself as very different from most of them. There was a time, I remember, when Black folk took the time to speak and talk to each other even in passing. This disconnect, this invisibleness that we feel may be a result of living in a society that commodifies us along with the shortcomings of our institutions. Or the scary answer…we just don’t give a sh*t anymore.

How do we become visible and known to each other? Can we see each other as more than objects and strangers in passing? Maybe I’m exaggerating but I feel the distance between us getting wider…

Sincerely,

In Love with Blackness

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