Has it come to this? Has the Invisible Man of Ralph Ellison's great construction become yet one more archetype we can project onto the 'blank screen' that Barack Obama or any politician -- though this archetype might demand one of color -- offers us during a long and increasingly defensive campaign?
What follows here you may all discount as the ravings of a sulky young academic who doesn't even have an academic job yet, but who comes home from the gym and reads the five (online) pages in the New Republic written by David Samuels on Barack Obama and a novel she has spent the last several years of her life thinking about on and off. I expect it's the way young Shakespeare scholars felt watching Stephen Greenblatt on Colbert. Personally, I begrudge Stephen nothing. It would be patently idiotic. But since I owe Samuels nothing, I'm bringing it.
It's not that Samuels is completely off in his analysis. Obama is a transformation of the invisible man (or Invisible, as Arnold Rampersad dubbed him, or IM, as I cheekily called him in my first dissertation draft) in certain ways that are too compelling to ignore: a young ambitious man thrown in front of a crowd, who finds that they love him for his oratory, and then gets steered astray by political advisors he can't ignore. On the other hand, Samuels wanders way off track when complaining about how Obama can't talk about his "carefully constructed" identity, which he equates with his foreign family, enough and therefore has sacrificed (or invisibilized) that part of his autobiography for the sake of the electorate. He ends not with a bang but a whimper, saying that all the talk about race is really just self-indulgent nonsense, and Barack Obama needs to grow a pair (or borrow Hillary's) and focus on fixing the Things That Matter, like the economy, Iran, and public education.
This flies directly in the face of his previous five pages, in which he, like I, praises Dreams from my Father highly for its literary qualities and the limited yet stunning candor of its accounts. What would Ellison have done with some of Obama's strange adventures, Samuels admiringly asks? Well, I think we already know, if we go back to look at Invisible Man. Community organizing gone wrong, authority figures turned menacing, it's all there. Race matters. Cornel West said so, and he was in one of the Matrix movies, so he must be right.
What is irritating Samuels, I think, is the way that Obama, despite the justly famous "A More Perfect Union" speech, does not fit into U.S. molds of race, and the fact that he's not able to use that to blow the mold itself wide open. How he would do this without making himself unelectable is certainly difficult to tell. That he does not do so makes him, in Samuels' plaint, invisible. We might also justly say that it makes the American public illiterate. (On an empirical note, after the 80th time I heard my father complain during primary season that we knew nothing about Obama's family, I threatened to buy the book and ship it to him. I then recited Obama's family tree as far as I could.)
It is, again, not an unreasonable charge. Still, there are so many rebuttals to this, beginning with the one Samuels wisely foregrounds: 'doesn't everybody?' I seem to recall a young Arkansas governor whose campaign blathered on and on about Hope. Hope, Arkansas, that is, the most felicitously named birthplace in the history of American politics. A more reasonable rebuttal is, for god's sake, let us have invisibility as a weapon. Let Obama cloak himself with whatever he can to fend off the darker possibilities that can be projected onto his blank screen with a planetarium-sized "overhead projector." Remember Sybil in Invisible Man, who gets Invisible to 'rape' her and fulfill her fantasies about black men? She gets only an oblique mention by Samuels.
But let's also turn and look at Ellison's novel, which has a problematic relationship with foreignness, back-to-Africa, Afrodiaspora, or whatever anachronistic term you would like to apply to this. There's no palling around with Ras the Destroyer, who rides through Harlem like a horseman of the racial apocalypse. Coming from South to North is culture shock enough. There's no blame to be assigned here; it's simply a fact that Invisible, and perhaps Ellison himself, can't embrace Africa as a source of power and pride as Ras asks him to. Can't or won't? Samuels says that it doesn't matter in the end; either way you're invisible. Can or will? Either way, you're foreign. The funny name doesn't help.
And we're back to nationalism. For all the academic talk of globalism, globalization, transnationalism, and diaspora, there's no good place for it in a political campaign, and a faint unease about it in American politics as a whole. If Barack Obama were Deval Patrick (governor of Massachusetts from the South Side of Chicago), there'd be none of this quiet current of 'he's not really black, so he doesn't deserve the special treatment he's getting.' Obama has to avoid being cast as the crazy, violent, foreign Ras whose story goes nowhere in favor of being the invisible man who... oh wait, as Samuels also points out, ends up writing in a basement.
But the chief difference? Samuels talks about it, but fails to emphasize its importance: Obama's already written it all, and it was in a law office, not a basement. His is not an identity in progress like Invisible's. He's come to some kind of useful terms with his Ras-like father (as much as anyone ever comes to terms with a distant father, I'd say) and his own foreign experiences. He knows how to be the young frontman of the Democratic party. And casting himself as a blank screen may deny him some rhetorical freedom, high energy and an extra ping of the teeth, but I highly doubt that it's chipping away at his identity. In the end, the only ones who are denied anything are the audience members. It's not Obama who has to focus on the facts and issues; it's us. To paraphrase Michael Douglas speaking Aaron Sorkin, we're drinking the sand because we don't know the difference.
We could go pick up the book.