We knew George Floyd before he was suffocated to death under a White cop’s knee.
We’ve seen him dozens of times on television in the faces of the Black men, and women, who were killed because of the color of their skin.
We’ve seen him thousands of times in books, newspapers and photographs of Black men hanging from trees, or telephone polls or scaffolds; thousands upon thousands of Black men, invisible to the law.
The great writer, Ralph Ellison, saw George Floyd clearly, long before George Floyd was born, and murdered.
In his remarkable book, Invisible Man (Random House, NY, NY, 1952), Ellison chillingly depicted how White people looked right through Black men, and saw only what they wanted to see, for whatever purpose they found gratifying.
Ellison describes it through the eyes of a college-bound, young Black man, herded into a wealthy, elite White club, to provide the inebriated rich, powerful men of a small community with some entertainment:
“ All of the town’s big shots were there in their tuxedos, wolfing down buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars. It was a large room with a high ceiling. Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring. The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor.”
Ellison’s educated main character was invited to the elite gathering by the White Superintendant of Schools to be honored for his scholarship, and was told he would be able to deliver a speech. But, first, he, and nine other young Black men had to perform.
“In those pre-invisible days, I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington…I suspected the fighting might detract from the dignity of my speech. We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get into our fighting togs. Each of us was issued a pair of boxing gloves and ushered into the big mirrored hall…”
“We were a small tight group, clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat, while up front the big shots were becoming increasingly excited… Suddenly, I heard the School Superintendent, who told me to come, yell, ‘Bring up the shines, gentlemen! ‘Bring up the little shines!”
“We were ordered to get into the ring…All 10 of us climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded, with broad bands of white cloth…I felt a sudden fit of blind terror …I stood against the ropes trembling… it seemed as if all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once. Blows pounded me from all sides…A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood…”
“Everybody fought everybody else…I heard one boy scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post…The (White) men kept yelling: ‘Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out! Uppercut him! Kill him! Kill that big boy!’ When the bell sounded, two men in tuxedos lept into the ring and removed the blindfolds…”
The White men—bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants and pastors—all dressed in tuxedos, now arranged for the second act of the evening’s entertainment: two Black “boys” would fight it out, before all would get some money.
“I saw the howling of red faces crouching tense beneath the cloud of blue-grey smoke…I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything because I felt that only these men could judge truly my ability…A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye popping like a Jack-in-the-Box and settled my dilemma…I wondered if I would now be allowed to speak…”
The tuxedoed White men stopped the fight, but only because they wanted to see one more show. They rolled away the portable boxing ring, and set up a small square rug in the vacant space surrounded by chairs. An emcee gave the signal for the young, Black men to “come and get your money,” a collection of gold, coins and a few crumpled bills tossed in the middle of the rug.
“As told, we got around the square rug on our knees. ‘Ready, Go!’ the emcee said. I lunged for a yellow coin lying on a blue design of the carpet, touching it …A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified…my muscles jumped, my nerves jangled, writhed…Suddenly, I saw a boy lifted in the air, glistening with sweat like a circus seal, and dropped, his wet back landing flush upon the charged rug, heard him yell, and saw him literally dance upon his back, his elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by too many flies… his face was gray and no one stopped him when he ran from the floor, amid booming laughter.”
To ground himself against the electric shock, the young, college-bound Black man, grabbed the wooden leg of a chair being stradled by a laughing, corpulent, drunken White man and tried to topple his tormentor onto the electrified carpet. The fat, rich, White man kicked him viciously in the chest and back onto the charged rug.
“ The chair flew out of my hand, and I felt myself going… It was as though I had rolled through a bed of hot coals. It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared trough the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me, and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion. It’ll all be over in a flash, I thought… It’ll all be over in a flash.”
Life was over in a flash for George Floyd, and it seems as if several centuries of hate and abuse have exploded before our eyes, no longer invisible. And, Black men and women are demanding to be seen.