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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadiemze d'etudes ame11cames Volume 26, Number 1, Winter 1996, pp. 111-122 Darkness Visible: The Politics of Being Seen From Ellison to Zebrahead Craig V. Smith 111 I want to begin this discussion of race in one recent American film, Zebrahead , with reference to two revealing statements that have come to my attention lately, from an advertizing campaign and from another film. First, the famous Michael Jordan commercials for Nike, featuring a range of awestruck black and white boys intoning the mantra "IfI could be like Mike;" the different resonances of this desire, from white boy to black boy, speak volumes about crossover, projection, identification, role models, and career paths for young African-American men. Second, two lines of dialogue from the 1993 film, Dernolition Man, starring Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone in another turn on the interracial male bonding/rivalry tradition traced by Ed Guerrero (1993). Discussing the social work Snipes's pathological violence is performing for his megalomaniac white master, the two men-"Phoenix 11 (Snipes) and "Dr Cocteau 11 (Nigel Havers)-have the following exchange: COCTEAU: (approvingly) "People are terrified of you. 11 PHOENIX:(almost directly to the camera): "What's new? People have always been terrified of me." What I want to discuss through Zebrahead is the recent, phoenix-like reappearance of black male violence. I do not mean to suggest that this trope, constitutive of the birth of a nation long before the birth of cinema, 112 Canadian Review of American Studies Revue canadtenne d'etudes americames ever went away. Far from it. The figure of the black male has always been there, as Toni Morrison has eloquently explained, to affirm the process that constructs and normalizes whiteness in America. In the tradition Morrison calls "American Africanism," the "sycophancy of white identity" (19)-"If I could be like Mike"-is produced through the construction and deployment of black figures: Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfilment of destiny. (Morrison 1992, 52) The paradoxical invisibility of this constitutive, uncanny presence is charted in the famous opening of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel, Invisible Man: I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination- indeed, everything and anything except me. ([1952] 1990, 3) Ellison based a novel on the trope of invisibility in order to trace the destructive effects of American racism on its black victims. Four decades later, after the civil rights movement, urban riots, black power, affirmative action, afrocentrism, and multiculturalism, Ellison's trope no longer signifies as totally. This is not to say that invisibility as an enforced ontology no longer defines-through negation-large sections of the African-American population, the celebrated exceptions only facilitating the general disavowal. It is to say that invisibility has been complicated by the twist it has received Crmg V. Smith I 11~ as a result of the changes in Amencan racialism s111ceEllison wrote the novel, notably the conservative-led backlash against racial justice. Invisibility has evolved into an equally deformative, equally symptomatic visibility which is constructed, still, in order to control and contain the discomforting difference of America-to manage, that is, what Eric Lott has called the American "racial unconscious," "a structured formation, combining thought and feeling, tone and impulse, and at the very edge of semantic availability, whose symptoms and anxieties make it just legible" (1992, 23).1 At this point, let me explain that I tend to use...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 111-122
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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