THE BLOG

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, and Humanizing Our Black Youth

02/27/2014 03:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2014

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook... 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."

Sixty-two years ago, Ralph Ellison, who would have been 80-years-old this week, wrote those words, and one cannot help but be reminded of them today. That is because, for many, including most mainstream media, black youth are still not seen as children, friends, or siblings. George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn did not see human beings with minds as Ellison writes. They were blinded by racism and preconceived notions about hoodies and music. They did not see Sybrina Fulton and Lucia McBath's sons. They only saw "thugs" and "criminals." In short, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were invisible.

For five years, Michael Skolnik, Political Director to Russell Simmons and Editor-in-Chief of Global Grind, has done a remarkable job of making sure that so many, like Trayvon and Jordan, who have died at the hands of senseless gun violence, are known as more than a statistic. Under the banner of "He Has a Name," Global Grind publishes photos and biographies of the individuals, and in so doing, makes clear that the victims are remembered as sons and daughters rather than nameless, faceless "others."

As I was writing this piece, one of my students, Preston, came to my office to discuss his academic progress. He explained the difficulties of working multiple jobs, while meeting all of his parole duties, and still having time to attend classes. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied with the same smile and resolve as usual and said, "Maintaining." Preston knows that, so far, he has beaten the odds. Now he is committed to changing his life and is focused on one thing: education. Growing up poor and black in Jackson, Mississippi, for most of his childhood Preston was invisible to teachers and counselors, becoming a cliché and "falling through the cracks." Turning to gang life, Preston, the teenager, remained invisible to lawyers and judges, and by the time he was an adult, society had determined he was just another "thug" in the prison industrial complex. Today, in many circles, Preston is still not seen. To employers and the state, he is simply a felon. Many view Preston only through the eyes of Michael Dunn. They do not see the Preston I know: a scholar, role model, and survivor.

One of Preston's classmates, Talia, is preparing to transfer to Howard University. Like Preston, Talia spent most of her life as an invisible child. Also growing up poor, Talia had little family support. Once her father was released from prison, he traveled long distance as a construction worker. Thus, Talia worked multiple jobs to put herself through school. Recently, we talked about why she has been willing to struggle through so much to earn her education? "I want to show my brother and sister who have both dropped out of school that no matter how long it takes, they can still become educated," she said. "My journey is a little longer than expected, but I will not quit. I want to be the motivation for my siblings and community." Rarely, have I seen a drive in a student like Talia. And yet not a day goes by where I do not think she could have easily been Renisha McBride or one of Michael Skolnik's profiles.

I mention Preston and Talia for the simple fact that no news agency will. Turn on the local news and you are likely to see 10 minutes of black on black crime, followed by the weather, and sports. There will be no stories on those who have beaten insurmountable odds, survived institutional racism, are earning an education, and helping their community. Few reporters are interested in humanizing those like Preston and Talia.Tragically, they are only discussed when it is too late. And so I write this to make Preston, Talia, and all those like them visible on the birthday of Ralph Ellison, and so we can hopefully reach a day when we will no longer have to say, "He Has a Name."

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