“When we take away from a man (woman, animal, earth itself) his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace I with something of value.” Robert Ruark
I keep these words on the wall above my computer so that I can be reminded of them daily to better understand what is happening with me and the world of my experience each day. Every time I experience something or read something I realize that what is happening in my world (beginning with me – a female in a white man’s world, the environment and the endless cycle of war, famine and poverty) is the result of treating this piece of advice as fake news. I have a great deal of respect for understanding the teachings of Jesus as a foundation for living to help me understand what it is that oftentimes robs me of finding the “peace that passeth understanding” that Jesus lived.
I grew up reading the Bible and believe in the truth and wisdom of these teachings, but I do not discount the teachings of others who have been enlightened, especially by honest observation of the world around them, and have their own parables designed to help me better understand spiritual truths that transcend this physical world, whether of some other faith or simply the playwrights and authors that have shared these ideas in great works of literature and the other arts. Robert Ruark did it in his best-selling book “Something of Value” and as I have delved into the authors from the Harlem Renaissance I am beginning to see how their works illustrate how the African Americans both in the North and the South are still in bondage because of Mr. Roark’s astute prediction. I could also see how all of us (women, indigenous people, immigrants, Asians and on and on) have been affected in the same way.
I just completed the chapter in “The Invisible Man” where the main character goes North with seven letters of introduction to some of the most powerful men on Wall St. He doesn’t open the letters but believes in the truth of what the President of his all black college in the South has told him is written in the letters. The character believes that he will spend the summer in the North working for men of power who will make it possible for him to return to school in the Fall and redeem himself in order to graduate to follow in the footsteps of the esteemed President.This journey to the North has been the history of the African American in his/her struggle to be free and reap the fruits of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which is what the North has always meant to the African American.
What the main character of “The Invisible Man” learns is much the same as the experience of Richard Wright after he moved to Chicago.
Wright’s autobiography details the truth of his experience there. His fictional story “Native Son” is a powerful commentary on the situation in the North and gives the reader an understanding about why the Black Power movement and destructive race riots have been centered in the North instead of the South. “The Invisible Man” like Native Son and Another Country by James Baldwin are other examples of great classics from the Harlem Renaissance.
After arriving in New York and settling in at the Men’s Club (a YMCA), the main character has a lot of time on his hands because despite visiting all but one of the offices of these powerful men, he never meets any but the secretaries and receives the same response from all after the letters, “he will be getting back to you." The character has encounters with owners of restaurants where he is allowed to sit at the counters with other white people but the white owner's stereotypes are all the same. When he finally gets an interview with the last man on the list, he is shocked by the ugly noise being made by a caged, tropical bird living in this resplendent office. Why is he making such an ugly noise? The character then remembers a visit to one of the museums on the campus of his all black college.
“I recalled only a few cracked relics from slavery times: an iron pot, an ancient bell, a set of ankle-irons and links of a chain, a primitive loom, a spinning wheel, a gourd for drinking, an ugly ebony African god that seemed to sneer (presented to the school by some traveling millionaire), a leather whip with copper brads, a branding iron with the double letter MM . . . preferring instead to look at photographs of the early days after the Civil War . . . And I had not looked at these too often.” As I remembered the metaphor of the beautiful caged bird, I realized why the bird was making such an ugly noise as I connected it to Robert Roark’s prophetic words. When I finally discovered the contents of the letter along with the main character, I too, lost hope. The letter began “The Robin bearing this letter is a former student. Please hope him to death and keep him running. . .”
After leaving the Wall St. Office with all hope drained from his heart, the main character hears a black man singing a rhyme he remembered from his childhood.
“Ole well they picked poor Robin clean
Ole well they picked poor Robin clean
Well they tied poor Robin to a stump
Lawd, they picked all the feathers round from Robin’s rump
Well, they picked poor Robin clean.”
When the main character returns to his room, he begins to make a new plan – one now based on revenge.