America’s invisible men

“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.”

The above quotation comes from Ralph Ellison’s classic work “Invisible Man”. Written 63 years ago, it has since been repeatedly hailed as one of America’s most deeply moving and profound works of literary fiction, rooted in Ellison’s “Invisible Negro” narrator, as he tries to navigate a world that sees, at best, only aspects of himself – aspects that are what the viewer wants to see, what is not actually there. As I thought of the latest spate of “missing Black men” stories coming out in the media, I couldn’t help but to think of Ellison, and the powerful work he sired more than six decades ago. Only he would truly, fully appreciate the colossal irony that these current news stories points us all to.

By now, I’m fairly certain everyone reading this has at the very least heard about all of this in passing, but for the record, it all got started with a piece a few weeks back appearing in Forbes and focusing on Ferguson, MO – site of where young Michael Brown, a Black teenager with a complex history, to put it mildly, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. The Forbes story noted that Ferguson, a small city of just over 21K residents, had the highest percentage of “missing” Black men of any city or municipality in the nation.

Other stories followed – perhaps the best known one to date being the New York Times “Upshot” blogpost that reported three of America’s biggest cities – NYC itself, Chicago and Philadelphia – also had very high rates of “missing” Black men – some 120K for the Big Apple, more than 40K for Chitown and 36K for the City of Brotherly Love. A followup blogpost appearing on the website delved a bit more into detail for the grim tale of the tape for my beloved hometown. In all, the tally suggests that there are more Black men “missing” nationwide than the total number of Black men in NYC itself – at something like 1.5 million.

Nor is this anything new, all of the pundits and quants tell us – it has been a steadily growing trend ever since the 1950s (!), with the pace quickening every decade since.

Before I go any further, I would like to suggest that the use of the term “missing” is not only woefully misleading, misguided and sensationalistic – it is also, simply, inaccurate. “Missing” infers that Black men aren’t where they’re supposed to be, and that there are others actively searching for them – like Natalee Holloway, or Elizabeth Smart if you will. Instead, I would like to propose that what we are seeing here, isn’t just some random event, but, as Ellison so astutely noted so many years ago, that so many Black men in our time are “invisible” – and not just to the near-mythological “White Man(TM)”, either. Indeed, Black men are invisible right within the bowels of Black America itself. Many Black Americans are loathe to admit this within ear/eyeshot of White folks, but the harsh truth is that they too do not wish to see so many Black men.

This is important because of the spin being put on this being put on the so-called “missing Black men” story, most notably by the NYT’s Upshot blog, is that what is driving it all is the Big R (read: Racism) big and small – from draconian prison sentencing and flawed court proceedings, to the way in which public education resources are allocated to America’s Black precincts, to the ways in which cops who are patrolling their districts or walking the beat mistreat Black male citizens, to the ways Black men are treated with regard to employment, hiring and career advancement opportunities. While all these factors have their merits, so too do the internal forces within Black America that have served to render Black men invisible, as the American Thinker website dishing on the NYT piece lays out: while many Blacks are loathe to openly admit it in front of whites, the fact of the matter is that the LBJ-created Great Society programs, making possible what I have coined as Baby Mamaism to reign, has indeed not just greatly weakened the Black family, but it has almost single-handedly made millions of Black men invisible, proofed by the now mantra-turned-parody, “I don’t need no man” trumpeted by so many Black women themselves. Researchers and writers like Kathryn Edin and Hanna Rosin know the deal on this score as well, but aren’t willing to shout it from the rafters, lest they be turned out as heretics and traitors to the causes of the Left.

So too, does Black-on-Black crime, particularly that of the deadly sort, homicide, play a role in making Black men invisible, but once again Black folks aren’t all that enthused to address the matter with the same vim and vigor as they do whenever a white cop guns down a Black male on America’s streets. And for good reason: doing so would open a serious can of worms so monstrous and devastating in scope, that it would really tear some stuff up – and, in the minds of some of the more self-proclaimed “enlightened” Negroes, give whites everywhere a smoking gun with which to visit their racism onto the rest of Black America-proper. While these aren’t wholly unfounded concerns, they cannot work as legitimate excuses as to why we in Black America shouldn’t be as brutally honest and as enthusiastically engaged in rooting out the very real internal causes that undermine us from within. At the very least, it gets harder and harder with each passing “outrage” of a white cop-on-Black-male shooting, to take seriously, when if, for example, Walter Scott was gunned down not by officer Michael Slager but “Mike-Mike” Jenkins from around the way, to take seriously – one cannot help but come away with the very distinct impression that #BlackLivesMatter ONLY when said Black lives are being taken by whites, or those perceived as such.

All of this, the internal and external forces, add up to making millions of Black men invisible, not just to whites, but to Blacks as well. And it does so in many, many ways.

For example, one of those profound ways Black men are rendered invisible, is when it comes to the massive homelessness problem Black men face. Late last year, shortly after officially joining the staff of A Voice For Men as its Editor of Urban American affairs, I discussed a wild idea I had with Managing Editor Dean Esmay: I would shadow roughly 300 Black homeless men, for an undetermined length of time, and at some point in the future would write about my findings. Dean was ecstatic, and enthusiastically gave his stamp of approval on the project.

For the next six months, I would attend countless NA and AA meetings, job fairs and other social events with these homeless Black men – and the stories I would hear, see and experience, is the stuff you simply do not get in what I have come to refer to as the Negrosphere Media. There, the focus, indeed I would dare say obsession, is with glam-level fame and celebrity on the one hand, and the outrage-of-the-day news “stories” designed to gin up racial angst and foaming at the mouth on the part of its readers. The stories of the Black men I was shadowing, didn’t exist.

That’s because, in a very real sense, they don’t – and many of these and related Black men, homeless or not, gainfully employed or not – get it. Which explains why so many of them crawl into their own holes in the ground, much like Ellison’s narrator of Invisible Man does towards the end of the book. While there is much made of the idea of Men Going Their Own Way among largely white men in the largely white Manosphere, Black men have been doing just that for decades, and without much fanfare or even discussion among others. While white men can make a stir with their saber rattling about “going their own way” – a kind of act of civil disobedience to the powers that be, of which they would say, includes women themselves in our time – for Black men, it ain’t about making a social or political point, but just sheer survival in the face of a world that is at the least indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to them. Nobody really cares about Black men in their own right, and the fellas who live life everyday and every night as Black men know it.

Indeed, all of the stories coming out about “missing Black men” invariably turn to the impact on Black women, and how missing Black men are derelict in their duty to them and to children, whether they have sired them or not. Notice how none of the reporters/researchers/writers of these stories have actually deigned to go out and sit down with a room full of Black men, and simply ask them what they would like for their own lives? No, the issue of “missing” Black men, is really about them fulfilling some predetermined role, for others – in this case, that of Black women writ large, secondarily for kids, and of course, for society at large. Coupling this with the frequent, unhelpful and unwarranted “tough love” sessions coming at Black men from every direction – even the President of the United States himself – it’s little wonder as to how or why so many Black men simply drop out.

As noted above, there are scores of invisble Black men, and not just those most at-risk, either – indeed, scores more Black men, who are otherwise contributing members to an indifferent/hostile society, are also rendered invisible. I’ve referred to them as the “Tyrones” – solid, hardworking blue collar brothers, who, while they may not have gone on to a life in the professions, values education and hard work every bit as their white collar betters. Nevertheless, scores of Black women – the very same Black women who hold up news stories about “missing Black men” as “proof” of the uniqueness and dire straits of their travails – are quick to turn their noses up at “Tyrone” as a mating prospect, because of the nature of the way he makes his living. Indeed, a tremendous amount of focus in what I call the Black Relationship Expert Industrial Complex, is on trying to prepare the Sistas to engage in, and win, the Battle Royal for the astonishingly small pool of highly eligible Brothas in the round. One doesn’t need to be an economics expert to see how that is lilely to turn out. I’ve written so much about this topic alone that it could amount to a book in its own right, deeply informed, in part, by my shadowing of some of the Black Relationship Expert industry’s biggest and most popular names – all of whom agree with me in private but parrot the party line that their Black female clients want to hear in public – that it would be darkly funny if the issues weren’t so urgent. Yet another example of this Black male invisibility can be seen in the current wails  of “street harassment” on the part of Black women, and Black feminists in particular, as my good friend and AVFM contributor Rom Wills makes clear in a piece he wrote on the matter late last year:

“Now, to be clear, I’m not saying just ignore street harassment. I personally believe that men should limit who they talk to on the street anyway. If a woman isn’t giving a man a blatant invitation such as a smile or she initiates the conversation, he should just leave her alone. Too many men are gassing up the heads of basic women and it really isn’t worth the trouble. That’s what men need to do. Women, on the other hand, need to examine their own actions in encouraging street harassment. I don’t mean in terms of how they dress. Women need to look at their selection criteria. Boys evolve into Gamesmen because they no longer want to be invisible. The only way for them not to be invisible is for women to change their criteria.”

Indeed, it’s so palpable, that even the Happy Social Justice Warrior, Dr. Nerdlove himself, admits it:

“The Invisible Men“You see someone trying to intimidate and harass women. I see someone crying out ‘notice me! Pay attention to me! I exist!’”

This was a sampling of one of the many comments I received on my article about the HollaBack street harassment video – men claiming that because they are so invisible – culturally, socially and sexually – that they resort to seemingly desperate measures in order to be noticed at all. And while equating street harassment to someone desperately wanting someone to acknowledge them is ridiculous on its face, it’s a very real anxiety that many men feel. I hear it over and over again in the letters I get from readers. I see it in complaints people leave on dating advice subreddits, in discussions about online dating… men insisting over and over again that society has so devalued male sexuality and masculine attractiveness that they feel functionally invisible.”

Earlier this week, in the run up to the preparation for my column today, I got wind of a number of righteously indignant tweeters demanding to know “Where are the MRAs?” in response to all the press “missing” Black men was getting – “Men’s Rights Activists, AVfM especially, should be right on the case, I tell you, saving all those Black men who have REAL problems!”. That’s the clear sentiment, and while of course being exceptionally disingenuous and bringing new meaning to the idea of arguing In Mala Fide, our erstwhile interlocutors do have a point – the Manosphere writ large, does have the perception of being shot through with privileged (read: largely college educated, white collar professional and higher-than average earning, with the attendant leisure time to engage in writing and discussing the issues of the day from their perspective online), white men; here is an issue they can actually DO something about – right?


Of course, what that conveniently leaves out, even if you buy into the idea of the Manosphere as per above, that it can “solve” or even meaningfully address, a problem that has been at the very least, SIX DECADES IN THE MAKING – and that public policy, at the highest levels, either can’t or won’t deal with. It reminded me of the appearance acclaimed and then-highly controversial film director Spike Lee made on the Oprah Winfrey Show – he was there to promote and discuss his film, “Do The Right Thing”, a tale of racial strife on the hottest day of the Summer in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, NYC. The climatic end scene, which entailed a race riot that destroyed the neighborhood institution, Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, also wound up with a Black man – “Radio Raheem” – being choked to death by the NYPD (erie shades of Eric Garner!). White audience members of Oprah’s show demanded to know why Lee had ended the film on such a “down” note; why he hadn’t concluded the feature on a more hopeful one? Lee’s response was classic:

“You want me to solve Racism inside of 90 minutes?”

The whole point of Lee’s film – which has since been praised as arguably the single best film of his entire career – was to get people talking about the issues the film portrays – not to “solve” or even meaningfully “address” them. So it is the case with A Voice For Men, made even clearer by editor-in-chief Mr. Paul Elam in his excellent response to critics, “Concerning Concern Trolls”:

“You want to know what this movement is about? It is very, very simple in my opinion. The MHRM I envision is about one simple thing. Talking without fear or capitulation.

Seriously. That is it. It is about nothing more than people talking to each other, openly and freely, in a world that does not want them to. Neither I nor AVfM has a legislative agenda, nor any politicians to endorse, nor lobbying to accomplish because none of that is of any value in a society that still refuses to accept reality.

Sure, if you look at our mission statement you will see many items that will require political and judicial remedy to ultimately accomplish. That, however is not our job at AVfM to accomplish directly. Our job is to push society to a place that it is able to sustain a narrative change that will in turn lead to sustained problem solving.”

Indeed, the masthead says “A VOICE For Men” – NOT, “A Public Policy For Men” – and the very fact that AVfM has not only given yours truly – an invisible Black man – a voice, but one of the places of honor at the table – is something that would never, ever, happen in the Negrosphere Media. Trust me, I couldn’t say what I’m saying here at the Root, or the Grio, or Ebony, or Single Black Male, or Very Smart Brothas – I simply couldn’t exist there, because they don’t want to see me and mine. They have made that abundantly clear, time and again – and the only times they are willing to put up with us, is when we can somehow either provide them with cheap yuks – as was the case with Charles Ramsey a few years back (who himself was and remains, very much invisible) or as a cudgel against The White Man(TM), as was the case with James Robertson earlier this year. As soon as we’ve served our purpose to puff up the egos and chests of our Black Bougie betters, we’re sent back to our holes in the ground, to remain blissfully out of sight and out of mind.

Invsible Black men? What is the Ebony Tower, that contains such luminaries as Marc Lamont Hill, Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, doing about it? What are all the Nice White Ladies(TM), and SWPLs, doing about it? What is Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., 44th POTUS and Leader of the Free World, doing about it? What is Hillary Rodham Clinton, doing about it?

If you either can’t, or won’t, honestly answer these questions, kindly STFU.

[Ed. Note: feature image attributed to Ricardo Camacho]

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