The Visible Man: They Will Figure It Out

“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 and anything except me.” –

-Ralph Ellison, “The Invisible Man” (1947)

“Invisibility is an inner struggle with the feelings that one’s talents, abilities, personality, and worth are not valued or recognized because of prejudice and racism.”

-Dr. A.J.  Franklin, Boston College

My Dear Readers,

The opposite of visibility is invisibility. Everyday, people live their lives openly and clearly in front of us, but we observe them without really seeing them.   We will discuss this phenomena in a series called “The Visible Man.”

The Visible Man

The objective of this series is to provide a voice for the individual who finds themselves to be invisible based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation. We aim to create a safe environment in which individuals can share their feelings when they encounter situations arising from their invisibility in society that makes them feel invalidated, under-valued, unwanted or underappreciated.

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Dear Visible Man:

I am a 27-year-old African American male.  Being an elder in the community, I wanted to get feedback from you regarding an incident that recently happened while I was riding the light rail system in Seattle.

While I was sitting there, I observed these five teenage boys acting up, talking loud, cursing, and repeatedly using the N word with each other.  As I sat there shaking my head in disgust, I took a moment to remember the times when I was a similar age, remembering that my friends and I did the same type of ridiculous and immature behavior.  I eventually figured it out, and I believe they will too.

Unlike me, however, these kids took it to a different level by talking loudly about “jacking and robbing” the passengers on the train, and now, these teenagers and myself are the only black males on a train filled with wide-eyed, tight lipped and frightened white people going home after a long day at work, being terrorized by a “wild bunch.”

I understood what the kids were doing.  They thought it was cool to get a rise out of the white folks.  It made me feel uncomfortable because at their age I had been there before.

I know that these kids saw themselves as being invisible to the white folks on the train, much like I did when I was their age. They were using their words, tones and nonverbal cues to be seen and to gain respect.  Like I said, I get it.  I have been there before.

However, now that I am older, I see a difference today that I didn’t truly understand when I was their age.  These transit riders actually had quite a bit of power in redirecting my life, and they would on these kids as well.  I saw fear in the eyes, and anger in the tightened jaws of these white people.  I saw women clutching their purses/hand bags more tightly.

What I didn’t see was movement. Just silence.  There were riders who stared at me with those fearful piercing eyes, pleading, as to say “You’re an adult, you should say something to them.”   The elderly woman sitting next to me said, “Those boys need a talking to.” I knew she was talking to me.

I just sat there.  The elderly woman shook her head in disgust.  I knew that the disgust wasn’t just for the young kids; it was also being directed at me for not taking action.

It was weird and disturbing sitting on the light rail that evening going home to my wife and two girls.  It was as if there were two worlds, the kids in one, and the white transit riders in the other, neither really being seen or understood by the other. Maybe I could have done something to resolve the situation, but I did nothing.

When we arrived at the station, the transit police appeared out of nowhere and removed the young males from the train.  The train continued on its journey and we were all more relaxed, but the silence remained.

I don’t know what happened to the kids who were removed by the transit police.  I was told by an officer that they could probably be charged with felonies for making threats, even though they did not take any action.

Should I have done something?  Could I have passed on some wisdom, knowledge, or experience? Or will they just have to grow older and figure it out, like I did?

My wife tells me by staying out of it I did the right thing.  I am walking around with a lot of guilt. I just don’t know.

Looking In The Mirror,  Seattle

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My Dear Young Man,

It appears that you are responding to the many external voices and non-verbal communication that was swirling around you not only during the incident but also now as you write your letter.  I am referring to the following:

  • The adolescents acting inappropriately
  • The words and disgusted look of the elderly woman
  • The piercing eyes of the transit riders
  • The police officer who spoke about the possible felony charges
  • Your spouse who feels you did the right by staying out of the fray.

However, I feel the real issue is the common experience you shared with the adolescents:

“I know that these kids saw themselves like myself as being invisible to the white folks on the train.”

This feeling of invisibility is a form of complex trauma that is called the Invisibility Syndrome.  This is the psychological and emotional distress that African-Americans, in this case, males, endure as they attempt to establish an identity within the context of a larger society that utilizes racism to either exclude them from or force them to conform to societal rules and structure.

Having had this experience before, you were aware that the teenagers were simply attempting to be seen and to gain respect, but you also had the experience of being an adult and noticing the fear emanating from the other riders, and understanding that that fear came from the things you had done yourself not long ago.  Now that they (you) are visible, it’s now your role to protect the adults from the ones you were once like.  But, you did nothing, and now you are questioning yourself, having doubts, and feeling the shame and guilt.

Before you drown yourself in your own psychological destruction, consider this:

  • You were the lone African-American male adult in the transit car.
  • The adolescents could have been armed.
  • There was no guarantee that the other transit riders would have assisted you if the teenagers had assaulted you.
  • How much would the riders have appreciated the stand you took? Would they have visited you in the hospital, paid your medical bills, or taken care of your family while you recovered?
  • If you died as a result of your intervention, would the transit riders console your wife, and raise your daughters?

Concluding Words

My Dear Young Man,

It may be your belief that “it takes a village to raise a child,” but in the light rail car that evening, the village did not exist.  It was just the group of teenagers, frightened transit riders, and you.

In your focus on the kids and the other transit riders, you have failed to focus on the responsibility you have to keep yourself safe and to return home to the loving arms of your family.  The police did not just happen to show up and remove the kids from the transit car.  Someone who felt threatened notified the police, who moved quickly to resolve the threat.

Your first responsibility is to yourself.  Keep in the mind the following:

  • Me-Although others may view you as invisible; you are made of flesh and bone. You are visible to you and to those who know, respect and care about you.
  • Myself- Remain vigilant; remember that as a African-American male in a society that chooses to view you as invisible, you must want to accept that there will be times when, despite being in the company of others, you will still be alone. You must want to maintain awareness of your surroundings and be alert to potential dangers.  You must want to accept the reality that others can abandon you during times of conflict or when you need their help the most. 
  • Mine– There are those who love you, depend upon and wait for your safe return every day. You can begin the process of caring for your loved ones by first taking care of yourself.

 

Kofi Annan, former Secretary General, United Nations (1997-2006) once said:

“Knowledge is power, information is liberating.  Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

You may wish to share your wisdom, knowledge or experience, but those you wish to share with must be open and willing to receive.  And perhaps, like you, they too will figure it out.

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Once burned, we learn.  If we do not learn we only assure ourselves that we will be burned again and again and again until…we learn.

-Dr. Micheal Kane “Ten Flashes of Light

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For additional information regarding Dr. Kane, please visit http://www.lovingmemore.com

 

 

 

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Bobbi’s Saga: Hold Your Tongue, Mind Your Business

CAUTION: TRIGGER WARNING. Contains descriptions of sexual and physical abuse. Please read at your own discretion.

“We wear the mask that grins and lies

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guild;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.”

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask  

 “When I get to heaven I’m gonna sing and shout

Nobody will be able to put me out

My mother will be waiting

And my father too

And we’ll just walk around heaven all day”.

Mighty Clouds of Joy (2010)

My Dear Readers,

What happens in this house stays in this house.”  It’s one of the first lessons we learn as we grow up—to keep family business within the family.   We also learn not to share how things are for us at home—we wear “the mask that grins and lies.” As a result, we also learn at home to “suffer in silence.”

It has been nine months since the last time I have shared an entry from The Journey: Bobbi’s Saga—a collection of excerpts from the journal of Bobbi (not her real name), an African-American woman in her early 60s who was sexually assaulted in her early childhood and pre-adolescence.

 

The Importance of Bobbi

 Sexual abuse is a shame that is hidden deep in the bowels of the African-American community.  Since a positive, honorable appearance and image is highly valued and sought in African-American communities, people who speak out about things that threaten that image is seen as “showing dirty laundry,” and thus, is looked down upon.

There are many people like Bobbi who have endured the traumatization of sexual abuse existing and surviving today.  There are some who, following these traumatic incidents, appear to go on to have successful lives, including marriages, careers and families.

Bobbi is one of the latter.  Following her abuse, she went on to graduate from college, remains in a 36-year marriage and has successfully raised three children who now as adults have achieved success on their own as a military officer, an attorney, and a business entrepreneur, respectively.

Despite the success of her family, Bobbi was unable to continue to ignore the abuse she’d dealt with for the last 50 years, and contemplated ending her life of pain and suffering by suicide.  However, before doing so, she decided to seek mental health treatment.

As of today, Bobbi has been involved in six years of mental health treatment.  Bobbi was doing well working in individual psychotherapy, and then four weeks ago following a long illness, Bobbi’s mother died.

As we pick up Bobbi’s journal, she is cleaning up her mother’s home that is cluttered with 60 years of horrendous memories.

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2.20.17

I just left a difficult session with Dr. Kane.  We talked about the way I was as a child.  I was thin.  I felt ugly, alone, not smart, not loved, not cared about or wanted.

What the landlord did to me made me feel worthless, dirty, like I was less than nothing.  I had no purpose.  I was full of shame and disgrace.  I was a disposable child.  I recently found out that after placing me in the foster care system, my mother bragged to her friends about how she put me out for being disrespectful to her.

She was so proud about how badly she treated me.  She was so proud and I was destroyed.  At age 13, I was ashamed, sad, had no self-esteem, no friends.  I didn’t care about myself.  I just existed.

When I look at my life, it is either before and after the first rape and before and after the second series of rapes.  No one should have to evaluate their life like that.   I remember the first time my stepfather was inappropriate.   I was in the fourth grade.  He was in the living room.  I remember the lavender gown  and I wore and the little flower on my chest.  He told me to crawl to the television to change the channel.  While I was crawling, he looked under my gown.

He then took me to his bedroom and told me to “get in.”  He then forced his fingers inside of me.  It hurt so bad my body shook.  He told me my mother knew about this, but didn’t want to talk about it.  I wasn’t to talk about this or something bad would happen to her.

I limped out of the bedroom and went upstairs to my room.   I had pain that I did not know how to deal with.  At nine years old, I was naïve. I didn’t know that this pain was only the beginning.

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2.24.17

Regardless of how my mother treated me, I didn’t think that her dying would be so difficult.  I didn’t think that sitting with her in the hospital ward would be this exhausting.  Watching her decline, watching the pain she had to endure as the cancer continued to grow was frightening.

I know that I did the right thing by taking care of her and watching over her.  But there was a cost to me.   It made my sadness, fatigue, and depression increase.  While I know that I was right, I also know that I put my mother’s needs above my own.

My mother died over a month ago.  Sometimes I forget that she is dead.  Going back and cleaning up her house brings back many memories. I am having a difficult time.  I am remembering how I was treated.  These memories are hurting my self-esteem.

I want to stop thinking of my mother.  I want to think about having a positive future.  There are so many things that I worry about.  Not only am I feeling depressed, I am feeling lost… I am worrying about issues that I know with Dr. Kane’s help, will get lighter.

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2.28.17

The last 48 hours have been tough.  The song “Walking Around Heaven” was in my mind all day.  I started crying hard, and I couldn’t stop.  My husband tells me that I should be over my mother’s death by now, but he doesn’t understand. I finally cried myself to sleep.

 

 

Concluding Words

“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!”

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask 

The words of the famed African-American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar were written during the Jim Crow era (1877-mid 1960’s) of American life where a restrictive racial caste system traumatized the lives of black Americans. This poem clearly illustrates how white America treated and ignored the plight of its black citizens.

There are many people who live with the trauma of sexual abuse in the world today.  However, Bobbi’s story is particularly poignant in how it arises within a community that often keeps its guard up against injury from external sources, not threats that come from  within the community, such as sexual abuse. In fact, issues that come from within the African-American community are swept under the rug, considered to be less of a priority than threats arising from outside the community.

Bobbi’s Saga is important because it gives us the opportunity to understand the ongoing struggles of the sexually traumatized from their lived perspective.   Bobbi tells the story not only of her sexual abuse, but her struggles responding to the shame she has endured as the result of being cast out and abandoned by her mother as well as being “disappeared” from her community.

In these entries, Bobbi is in conflict and torn regarding  her feelings towards her mother.  Despite the physical/emotional abuses and abandonment, Bobbi knowingly sacrifices her own “psychological self” as she continues to seek and obtain what she never received as a child … her mother’s love.

Now that Bobbi’s mother, the tormentor and the “giver of life” is gone, Bobbi is left to review, relive and reflect on her life on her own.  As one can see in her words, she is deeply pained.  Although loved by her husband and children, she is not understood.

Yet Bobbi understands; in therapy she will continue to process her feelings and walk the journey of self-discovery.  In doing so she will learn to balance the traumatic experiences so these will become lighter as she continues to empower herself and finally be able to live the life she wants.

Until the next journey….Bobbi’s saga continues….

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For additional information regarding Dr. Kane, please visit http://www.lovingmemore.com