Summary: As Ralph Ellison helped us see racism as one group treating another as invisible, so today we need to discern who is invisible to us; and we need to see how Jesus is invisible to many until He is connected to the culture and until we make Him visible.
"I am an invisible man." Those words, pecked out on an old typewriter one night in the Vermont hills, began a literary work of unparalleled beauty and power. Ralph Waldo Ellison; encouraged to make music and to write by his father; inspired by the civil rights activism of his mother, began to record that night a spiritual journey of rich, complex, profound proportions. It would take him seven years to record that journey, but it had taken him a lifetime to live the journey.
Or perhaps it would be better to say, it had taken the accumulated lifetimes of an entire people to compile that journey.
The novel "Invisible Man" was published in 1947, and became the first book by an African-American author to receive the National Book Award. It has been studied, argued about, thought over, reacted to, and felt many times since. Its author made his entire reputation on that one book. Though he wrote essays and short stories, when Ralph Ellison died just last year, it was "Invisible Man" for which he was known and celebrated.
Again, his opening line, "I am an invisible man." Think with me for a moment about what it means to be invisible.
Some people are invisible to us because they live in a whole different set of circumstances. They work at different jobs, live in different neighborhoods, attend other kinds of churches, have friends other than ours. We never really see their world. Some people are invisible, because they just move in different circles.
For example, whenever we have a snowy day, and the radio begins to announce cancellations, I am always amazed at the kinds of groups which are out there and the kinds of things they do that I never knew anything about. The radio announcer will say that the Cambodian Buddhist temple’s Lotus celebration has been postponed, and wow, I don’t know any Cambodians and I don’t know any Buddhists, and therefore I certainly don’t know any Cambodian Buddhists, nor do I have any idea what a Lotus celebration is ... a whole cluster of folks whose very existence I hardly even knew of. Invisible because they live in a whole different set of circumstances.
Ralph Ellison, writing in the 1940’s, had that kind of invisibility in mind. Legal segregation as well as segregation enforced by custom created that kind of invisibility. White people and black people didn’t see each other or deal with each other, except in very controlled situations, because they lived in completely separated worlds. Maybe it would shock you to know that I cannot remember knowing any African-Americans until I went to college in the ’50’s, not by choice, but by circumstance. They were invisible to me and I to them.
But there is another level of invisibility. There is another way for someone to become an invisible man. And that is to choose not to see. To deliberately ignore someone, to act as if they do not matter. You can make somebody invisible in the sense that you just don’t take them seriously. They don’t count, they don’t matter, they don’t figure in. It is not just that circumstances keep you apart; it is that you choose to act as if the other person is not even there. I know you’ve all heard the stories about how in slave times the masters would talk openly and candidly to each other around their slaves, as if the slaves weren’t even there. They were being treated as if they were invisible.
Now that is a serious spiritual issue. That is much more devastating than having to live in a segregated society. To be treated as though you were invisible, nobody’s nothing, that’s corrosive to the soul.
And so Ralph Ellison explains what he means by calling himself "Invisible Man": He says, "I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me."
"Invisible Man" then becomes a rich tapestry of images, word pictures, poetry ... a symphony of language. One of Ellison’s most powerful images is a hole; he speaks of being in a hole, a dark, black hole; but a hole which is lighted with precisely one thousand, three hundred sixty-nine bright light bulbs. Go figure that one out! When he is out of the hole, he speaks of struggles, battles, and disappointments. He speaks of trying to do the right thing as those around him defined the right thing. But he could never be seen, he could never be understood, he could never become a part of that larger world he could see from inside his deep hole.