Thursday, June 01, 2006

"that's wells, not ellison, in case you feel like being cute again."

Speaking of Afro-futurism,, it comes up in an interesting way in Mission: Impossible 3. Lawrence Fishburne plays the role of Theodore Brassel, the head of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force). He actually had me cracking up in the theater. In his big scene, he goes off on Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Musgrave (Billy Crudd) in a hilarious piece of "dialogue" which made him sound like an erudite version of Eddie Murphy's boss in Beverly Hills Cop.

At one point, after describing how the central villain (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) has been difficult to catch and is an "invisible man" Fishburne says to Crudd: "That's Wells, not Ellison, in case you feel like being cute again."

I'm sure I'm over-analyzing this (at least, I wouldn't claim that the author of the screenplay had any of this in mind) but I think it's more than just a coincidence that Ralph Ellison's novel about an African-American man who is hidden and ignored and H.G. Well's science-fiction novel about a man who is literally invisible share the same title. Invisibility (secrecy, hiding) is a major component of the Black condition. For example, Afro-Latino invisibility is almost a cliche at this point.

Check out: Afro-Colombians:'Invisible' People Strive to Survive War, Racism by Saeed Shabazz, Mestizaje and the Mexican Mestizo Self: No hay Sangre Negra, So There is No Blackness by Taunya Lovell Banks, In Peru, Afro-Descendants Fight Ingrained Racism, Invisibility by Angel Paez and then invisibility blues and tuning out blackness

But it actually goes deeper than that... a few years ago I wrote a poem which started off with the 'joke' that from time to time, all the Black people in the world have secret meetings where we review and plan for all the various manifestations and expressions of Black culture. (e.g. "we decide what sounds will drip down from ghetto blasters to suburban frat parties for the next ten years") And in the middle of working on that piece I started to come up with example after example of how secrecy and hiding show up as themes in black history. (e.g. "we hid pyramid construction instructions in hieroglyphics and guarded them with mummy curses", "we hid getaway plans inside of gospel hymns" "we hid orishas under white-washed saints" etc.) In a Western context (especially under slavery) where Black existence is precarious, it makes sense that we would place a premium on being able to communicate among ourselves without being understood by others.

In working on this poem, what really surprised me is how far back it was possible to take this idea. We can even go back to the most ancient Black man of the Western Canon, namely Noah's son Ham, and read these themes into his story. Specifically, Ham's 'original sin' was that he "uncovered his father's nakedness", in other words, he revealed something which should have remained hidden, and as a result his descendents were cursed with slavery. And so for me, Ham's parting advice to his children was "Not every true thing need be told".

Of course, the above description only goes so far, and is only true from a certain vantage point. I wouldn't want to essentialize and romanticize Black invisibility. We should just acknowledge that it plays a large role, but then ultimately move past it.

No comments: