MAXWELL:  Come look within the outsider

11/16/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like many other Americans, both black and white, my life often is mired in the putrefaction of race.

How I wish that I could find a way to let whites everywhere enter my consciousness, to experience what I experience as one who must cope with depersonalizing assaults on my sense of being a human being. But I cannot provide a way for them to enter. Even if I could, they would not see what I see. Or feel what I feel. Vicarious experience is never enough when race is involved.

As a black man, my place in America is like that of the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man. It is a “warm hole in the ground,” a place of hibernation, where I, too, discovered the paradoxical condition of invisibility, where, as the protagonist says, “I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation.”

The English language lacks the words to help black people adequately describe our burdensome awareness. How do we explain that invisibility provides us a unique freedom while being an entrapment at the same time? Or that, in another way, invisibility is a state of isolation, an outsiderness that a white person will not experience as a lifetime condition? And while whites condemn irresponsibility among blacks, they fail to understand that invisibility absolves people of responsibility? I am not whining, by the way. I am informing whites of a core truth they would rather ignore.

Try to imagine having to perpetually search for personal meaning because of your skin color _ a circumstance over which you have no control _ of being out of synch with the world around you.

Listen to Ellison’s hero: “Invisibility . . . gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead.”

At another time, he says: “All of my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers, too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which, I, and only I, could answer.

“It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an Invisible man!”

Can a white person ever understand the experience Ellison describes and the multitude of horrors related to it? Few white people have earnestly tried to understand. Oh, many whites talk about black problems and read about them and write news stories and columns and books and make movies about them.

But few, if any, have gone to the extraordinary lengths of, say, author John Howard Griffin. In 1959, he left his wife and two children in Mansfield, Texas, for six weeks to have his skin darkened with the drug oxsoralen and travel through the South passing as a black man.

The result was his 1960 best-selling book, Black Like Me, which became a blockbuster movie. In the preface, Griffin outlines his struggle to come to grips with this nation’s living legacy of racism and its centuries of grievous wrong against a people.

“Some whites will say this is not really it,” Griffin writes, explaining the purpose of his metamorphosis. “They will say this is the white man’s experience in the South, not the Negro’s.

“But this is picayunish, and we no longer have time for that. We no longer have time to atomize principles and beg the question. We fill too many gutters while we argue unimportant points and confuse issues.

“The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested. It could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any “inferior’ group. Only the details would have differed. The story is the same.”

In the first chapter, he writes: “How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist.

“Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell the white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.”

Obviously, I would not expect the average white person to do what Griffin did to learn what being black means. But I would invite all whites who care about our race dilemma to stop being so scornful of the black perspective, a perspective derived from the ugly reality of being treated less than human each day of your life.

But given the sophistry surrounding the current affirmative action debate, along with other issues of racial equity, in Congress and elsewhere, I am not hopeful of the future. Moreover, I hear too many seemingly bright white people uttering the language of deep denial when race is at issue. I see bright white people treating race as if it were a unicorn _ a creature that never existed. Heck, if race never existed and does not matter today, then affirmative action is unnecessary and bad.

Again, who in his right mind would ask a white person to emulate Griffin? I would not. But I do suggest that all whites, especially opinion leaders and lawmakers, read Black Like Me. I see the book as a metaphor for a sincere effort to find real answers to a problem white America itself created but, apparently, refuses to repair.

In 1976, Griffin, still haunted by the hatred and soul-scorching slights he encountered while passing for black, explained what he had learned: “I was living in a land where there were so many myths and racial stereotypes, it sinks into the blood. And I would never have gotten them out of my blood unless I lived them.”