Non-fiction

Ghosts: Whiteness and the Spectre of Race in America

And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog…

‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, Moby-Dick

The myth of the Ring of Gyges recounts a Lydian shepherd who discovers a golden ring on a corpse. The ring grants him the power to become invisible at will. With his newfound power, the shepherd seduces the queen and usurps the king in a murderous plot. It’s a familiar trope, invisibility—familiar enough to have become a trope. Plato uses the ring myth in The Republic to explore the nature of justice: is justice a good in itself? Are our worst instincts of self-interest held in check only by our accountability to others? Plato puts the argument in favour of justice as a good in itself into the mouth of a ficto-phantom Socrates, who in the flesh justice had failed.

The two best-known adaptations of the myth tend to emphasise the haunting quality of becoming invisible, how the person wielding this power is visited with terrors. In H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, the anti-hero Griffin furtively attempts to reverse the process by which he attains invisibility, and his failure fuels the action of the story. Griffin pinballs between vengeful criminality and earnest remorse, a captive to his own power, until he is beaten to death by an angry mob. Only death restores visibility to his naked and mutilated form. The Lord of the Rings franchise warns its readers with an allegory: the ‘one ring to rule them all’ haunts a succession of its wearers with the promise of power. Such power alienates the wearers from their peers, with the worst-off among them transformed from a copacetic Shire-dwelling hobbit into a literal golem. The narrative engine of Lord of the Rings is that the ring is evil and must be destroyed. Becoming invisible, in Tolkien’s reckoning, is not only to lose one’s form, but to lose one’s very substance, to vanish into the narcotic spell of unaccountability.

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Growing up in the suburbs imbued me with a sense of being outside of the action. Our lives, my friends’ and mine, were lived in the shadow of New York City, where presumably real life took place. Playgrounds, walls and parking lots served as waiting rooms where we sat out the formative years, smoking pot and drinking beer, counting down the days until life would start. Invariably, a police cruiser would roll up, the windows would roll down, and the cops would tell us to move on. Where were we supposed to go? Go home, the cops usually said. Go home at 8:30 on a Friday night. If you gave them lip, they’d say something like, shut your face you little freak. One cop looked me up and down in disgust, at my studded motorcycle jacket and dyed-black hair spiked with Elmer’s glue. He said, I bet your mother is really proud of you. I said, yes, she is. We both have jobs so we pay the taxes that pay your salary. As revenge, he stopped me every time he saw me for sixteen days straight, saying don’t loiter on the streets, go home. Go home.

Occasionally we managed forays into the city. There’s a photo of me and my friends, standing around in the subway en route to a gig at Irving Plaza, casually adopting the attitude of people for whom this was an unremarkable moment. On the streets, not even the overwhelming indifference of New York’s eight million inhabitants could erase our sense of painfully standing out. It took cans of Silver Thunder wrapped in brown paper bags, staggering down St Mark’s Place, hiding the beers in our jackets when the cops (who didn’t give a shit) walked past on their beats. A kid not much older than us begged for change through gritted teeth, reclining on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign. Some guy leaned down and shouted in his face, ‘go back to your mom and dad in the suburbs’. The implication was that kids like this were kids like us. I simultaneously held these kids in contempt for reinforcing the stereotype that all of us would rather be homeless than be who we are, but I also totally understood the impulse. It was justifiable, despising this rush to catch the last train back from Grand Central, watching the world outside of the carriage windows getting darker as the city lights receded, your own unwelcome reflection against the blackness getting sharper the closer you got to the place you had to call home. Continue reading

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