I just finished Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and am well into Native Son by Richard Wright. Both were well-known black writers from decades ago, but whose existence was unknown to me until recently despite nineteen years of formal education and despite Richard Wright having grown up in Mississippi sixty miles from my boyhood home. Ralph Ellison, I heard of two months ago on NPR. Richard Wright, I heard of last month on Jeopardy. Why, I wondered would a Jeopardy contestant know the name of a veritable neighbor of mine whom I had never heard of—prejudice?
I read a passage from Native Son to Peggy. It was about two teenagers masturbating in a theater. Well, duh, said Peggy, maybe you never heard of him in school because he was vulgar. “No,” I objected. “They could have done him like they did all the white writers. They could have left the objectionable passages out of textbooks, knowing full well that not one kid in a thousand would go to the library looking for more. Besides, the books of a sexually explicit black writer wouldn’t have been in a white library.”
Really pisses me off that somebody on Jeopardy knew the name of a gifted Mississippi writer when I did not. Makes me wonder what else my teachers failed to mention. Ironically, both of these authors focused upon the fact that being black in their day MEANT being invisible. I can support this assertion by pointing out that the only black person who I remember reading ANYTHING by during my nineteen years in school was George Washington Carver, and that was only an excerpt from his autobiography. Every school kid knew that he was born a slave, was tutored by benevolent white people, was emancipated by another white person, and invented peanut butter at a college that was funded by white people. Such was my education in black history.
Now comes Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, and I am having nightmares. They are simply too damn good at showing me a world that I grew up in the middle of yet never knew existed. My only hint of that world came from the fact that I ended my friendship with every black man with whom I ever became close once I realized how he really felt about my race.