The Persistence of Black Invisibility: Darren Wilson and the Invisible Man

I was on Tumblr today and saw someone post an article from Popular Science by Rafi Letzter, “What Science Tells Us About Darren Wilson and Michael Brown: What Does It Mean for a Black Teen to be a Demon” that discusses Darren Wilson’s depiction of Michael Brown moments before deciding to shoot him.  It briefly analyzed the persistent history of seeing black people or in this case the black body as superhuman or as a superhuman threat.

According to excerpts from Wilson’s account posted in the article and heard in various ways in mainstream media recently, Wilson believed Brown “was almost bulking up to run through the shots.”  A few months ago, I ended a post asking, “What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.”

I suppose Wilson’s comments are my answer.  Brown stopped being human in Wilson’s eyes, whether he knew it or not.  Wilson protected himself against not a man but a powerful villain who could somehow run through bullets and would get madder and more powerful the more Wilson shot at him.  Wilson felt like a five-year old child despite being 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs. Despite the fact that Brown, at 300 lbs, was the same height.  What Wilson describes sounds like a nightmare.  In this narrative, Wilson is allowed to express his fear and while Brown is an unfeeling, unafraid, Hulk.  Wilson is a person with feelings and interiority who can only continue to live only if Brown does not.  We do not get to hear if, no matter how terrifying Brown was to Wilson, Brown, too, showed any fear in his last moments, only that he was terrifying, unstoppable, and then subdued only by lethal force.

This article concludes that Wilson might not even know that he has attributed superhuman traits to Brown and, as Letzter reminds us, “the insidious truth of prejudice…is that it can emerge unbidden in an instant, and vanish moments later without ever bubbling to the surface of conscious intent.”

Two nights ago, I was skimming the Prologue to Invisible Man since I taught excerpts from that novel this semester, and I think these last few lines say more on this subject, not from a traditional scientific standpoint, but a literary one.  I want to conclude this brief post with what in 1945 Ralph Ellison writes about being what it means for a black man to be seen as a demon 70 years ago and what it might still mean today:

“I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything except me.  Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis.  That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition in the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.  A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality…You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.  Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

The Poetics and Politics of Race and Space: A Few Thoughts on Ferguson and Fictional Representations of Missouri

A few weeks ago, I concluded my last post with some questions I had about Ferguson, Michael Brown and the dialogue surrounding his death, law enforcement in that region, and fear as the possible root cause of this kind of violence.  Last week I had the opportunity to write a blog post, “Framing Ferguson: A Time for Mourning and Action,” for George Washington University’s American Literature and Culture Organization (ALCO) in response to a panel the university held that brought students and faculty together to discuss a variety of topics ranging from racial and economical tensions and inequalities to policing and public policy.

The panel also proceeded my course’s reading of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Last week, the students in my Introduction to American Literature course started reading Mark Twain’s novel set in the fictional, slave-holding small town of Dawson’s Landing which Twain locates “on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, half a day’s journey, per steamboat, to St. Louis” (Twain 3). Twain places Missouri as a site of “historical contradictions” (Gillman 448). These contradictions involve the actions and identities of the characters in the town as well as the laws by which they live and customs they value. As Susan Gillman explains in “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “the novel detects a central ambiguity suppressed in law, if not custom, by slave society” leaving us to ask ourselves, “How do we know…who is to be held accountable under the law and who is not? …How do we know what we know is true?” (449).

These questions feel eerily relevant today. I’m left with questions about what fictions exist about Missouri, its pivotal role as a border state in shaping United States’ history of slavery and race, and how those fictions compare, if at all, with the realities that we might know about that state today. I look forward to discussing and exploring some of these comparisons and aforementioned contradictions in a more in depth way in the future.

Works Cited:

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Gillman, Susan. “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Updates on New Postings for September

It’s that time of year again.  The semester starts next week for me, and during the fall, I’ll be trying to balance teaching with dissertation writing and research.  In the spirit of keeping myself on task when it comes to this blog, there are at least two posts I’m planning to make during the month of September. One will be in response to the film Belle (2013), which I mentioned in my last post, and the second will be a brief discussion on Juan Francisco Manzano (1797-1854) and his The Autobiography of a Slave/Autobiografia de un Escalvo.

Finally, for the past couple of weeks, my thoughts have also been on Michael Brown, his family, the Ferguson community, and the handling and media coverage of protests about Ferguson.  It’s a topic I have a lot of opinions about both in terms of my research on race, interiority and personhood as well as how it continues to shape my personal experience and understanding of race and citizenship as a black woman in the United States.  While I do believe in waiting to hear all of the facts surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, his death feels too closely linked to a tradition in the U.S. where lethal force is used against black citizens who may seem threatening, even if they are unarmed.

What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.