Ralph Ellison and the man who is not seen

Ralph Ellison and the man who is not seen

To be or not to be, that is the question, and whether or not one becomes that which they set out to be from the first step of a thousand mile long journey is life’s main preoccupation for many an individual living within the set confines of the “system” of the world with its many statutes, laws, acts, amendments, and repealed annulments that set out to control the life of one, or to force one to be “within control”, that is, to yoke one with the demands of taught philosophies on how to live right whilst one’s sense of self is in the process being erased, and one is forced to be an unrecognisable robot; an automaton whose sole occupation in life is to fulfil the demands of the masters posing as managers of the system: a situation whose stark reality is that one can never find or understand who they truly and honestly are because they are just a statistic; a number that bears no face nor even a name.

Faced with the reality of being just a statistic, just a number in some roster somewhere, the modern man rebels futilely to make something of themselves, to be ‘recognised’ for achieving “something” that will guarantee that their name shall not be forgotten even before their funeral, and the battle in the bucket of crabs begins . . .  and the individual begins to compete with the next individual for recognition, work their weary bones to mush trying to prove their worth in a world where “awards” count far more than the prestige, and in the process their brains turn to tepid mush from the endless sessions of hair tearing and skull cracking musings on what one can do to be the best crab in the bucket, the crab that finally manages to escape the claws of fellow crabs in the bucket infected with the syndrome PhDs (Pull him downs).

To be becomes the preoccupation, and how one can be if they are not seen or heard renders many poor individuals insane with jealousy, exhausts them to the core with endless quests into the netherworlds of the mind where one ventures into on a regular basis just so they can find “the” plan that will help them get out of the bucket of crabs that is the creation of the oppressors and slave drivers who ‘own’ the system.

The writer stands at a point in perspective which allows them to see the trends flow in society, fashions come and go, and the whole time observing the changes in behaviour of the varied people living within society relative to the change in the mode of production.

From time immemorial the writer has penned the acts of the individuals and the societies within the mode of production in the era within which he or she lived, more as the teller of the tale of mankind going through the changes that the process of progress and human civilisation comes with.
Whether he or she pens it with the plume and the inkpot or paints it in the ochre of the inerasable oxide paints the San and the cavemen left on the ceilings and walls of rock, the writer leaves a story for their contemporaries to read and the following generations to analyse and to criticise.

The story of the second and third class citizens who form the larger component of the engine of progress has been told a countless times; but their plight lies in the simple fact that they remain unrecognised: they are faceless invisible individuals whose story is told ten thousand times each day but is never heard.
They are in essence invisible people whose sole hope lies in their belief that one day, their effort will get a mention in the annals of time, because for the moment; their names bear the title persona non grata: they are allowed to set foot in the lush gardens where the rich and the famous live, but only as garden tenders and no more, they set tables and cook sumptuous meals they will never sit down to enjoy because they are just the house help and no more.

When it was published in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was set to become a Bible for those individuals who sought to understand themselves in the light of the prevailing social conditions within which they lived their lives on a daily basis. Setting out with the declaration in the prologue:
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…

Being seen is paramount to being, for to be, a human being needs to be recognised as human by fellow human beings and other beings that live within their society; without such recognition as to their existence, one is never complete as a human being but remains as a perpetual citizen of the borderline where only the insane and the unstable are secluded to.
One cannot claim to be if the others think they are not, it is only until they are given due recognition that individuals can fully express themselves in a manner that justifies their being.
The Descartes declaration, “I think therefore I am (cogito ergo sum)” does not apply in the case of the individual faced with racism as a daily reality, the individual who has to “eke” a living from below the poverty line, and the individual that has to deal with class, tribal and ethnic lines of societal division.
All of these individuals think, but their position on the status quo renders them non-existent. They question society as to who they really are on several occasions, but their reality dulls them to the fact that sometimes (which is oftentimes) the answers to the questions we pose in relation to our position in society have their answers within us.

We are not seen because we fail to question ourselves to get to the answers as is found in chapter one (Battle Royal) of Ellison’s Invisible Man:
All my life I had been looking something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were in contradiction and even self contradictory, I was naïve.

I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I could answer . . . that I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!
Upon graduation or without a degree many of us define ourselves on the lives and the terms of others who are deemed greater than themselves.
It is well and good to look for role models, but the problem with it is that we fail to find roles on which we can model ourselves; and so we spend a larger part of our potent years floundering instead of founding the basis upon which we can base our lives.

This leads to many leading an existence based on temporal whims instead of solid foundations that can in the long run benefit us in a lasting manner.
The basic problem is not that we are invisible, the root of the problem lies in our allowing the system to confine us in the manholes of poverty, unemployment, and listlessness which we go on to accept as a reality we can live with. The quintessential statement of the invisible men and women of today is:
That’s just the way it is, things will always be the same . . .

And the question one poses to themselves is; why give in to the whims of a power that never created you in the first place? If they cannot control my dreams and my stream of consciousness, then they have no control over me however they may wish to have . . .
In Africa indignity in served alongside cognitive dissonance of opportunity, that is, one is presented with the false carrot of opportunity and they are then led on into exploiting their own kind.

It is not dignified to sell the land your forefathers sweated and bled for based on interest in paper money which soon burns up in debauchery associated with money.
The reality is that those “VIPs” and elites that gained their wealth through the exploitation of their kin are in the eyes of their users just mere “natives” who sell their folk into slavery for a shard of mirror and coloured plastic beads.

They are not remembered and thus remain invisible for eternity, and if you disagree; just tell, how much do you hear of kings who sold their subjects into slavery in the history books?
I know there is more on Christopher Columbus in the history books than there is about an entire continent’s sad history.
Academic opinion and research cannot erase the fact that entire histories of once proud nations are vague details in the books of history.

If present, the views they carry are vague when it comes to defining the African aborigines in detail. Tell me not in a hip-hop song who you really are; the reality is that you forgot yourself a long time ago and will take even longer to fully understand yourself to a reasonable degree: a degree to which the world can consider you a prestigious individual with veritable pedigree. For the moment, many remain invisible.  We see many of them working on jobs for below minimum wage in abhorrent conditions (think of the poor factory workers and the domestic help) where they can be fired any day on a baseless charge.

I guess the old concept of Botho/Ubuntu renders a people more visible because they in their clustering become a group whose voice can be heard.
An ant walking across the landscape on its own is virtually invisible and cannot overpower a grasshopper, but an army of ants is visible and can overpower even a venomous serpent.
That the plight of others is ignored in the name of monetary gain, or, the usual selfish ‘mind my own business’ mantras of the fast-fashion world of today is what is making us even more invisible, ethereal even; and we cannot be seen or heard.

Voiceless and invisible, the African continent is descending into a manhole we might never get out of, unless the selfish attitudes borrowed from the West and brought into our midst in the portmanteaus of “Been To” Smart Alecs and Dandy Jeans. We borrow turd from the West and forget to take jam jars of good planning that benefits all those Western countries in their national strategies. That one has a “position” does not mean they should forget their poor neighbours whose children go to school barefoot in winter, for if they do so; they are just one-eyed kings in the land of the blind, and not the puffed-up-head-in-the-clouds-dimwits-with-cash-in-their-pockets-and-no-sense-whatsoever they present themselves as in the squalid quarters of their lands.

A brief biography states Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March the 1st, 1913 and died on April the 16th, 1994.
He was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar. Ellison applied twice for admission to Tuskegee Institute, a prestigious all-black university in Alabama, founded by Booker T. Washington (another great black American. Ellison’s outsider position at Tuskegee “sharpened his satirical lens”, critic Hilton Als believes: “Standing apart from the university’s air of sanctimonious Negritude enabled him to write about it.”

In passages of Invisible Man, “he looks back with scorn and despair on the snivelling ethos that ruled at Tuskegee.”
His is a view I have come to share, for academia seems to breed a false sense of worth in those Africans that enter college or university; they come back lesser men who forget their roots just because they have read a few more books than their village men and women. The problem lies with the miseducation that scholarly education is of more worth than the indigenous knowledge systems that survived colonialism and all the other scourges of modern civilisation.

This leads to one wondering how we shall ever progress as a continent if we forget ourselves for: how can one who forgot their image and become visible?
How can you be visible if you do not know what you look like? Do you realise that the face of your brother and kin staring back at you looks exactly like yours?
If they are poor you are poor too, if they are sick you will inherit their illness. Forget the political lies that divide people into small factions and councils of opinionated fools; look for your real self if you want to be visible.  And you do not have to look further than the individual right next to you. So begins the year of visibility.

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