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Lucas E. Morel
On Becoming Visible
"I am an invisible man." Thus begins the most insightful book on American race relations of the twentieth century. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) recounts the struggle of an unnamed, black protagonist to make a name for himself in postwar America, a struggle exacerbated by a predominantly white society that refuses to "see" him as an individual: "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me." The tragic irony for the invisible man is that in a nation founded on "self-evident" truths—namely, that each person possesses the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—his rights are not self-evident or visible to others.
Ellison's affirmation of each person's visibility has a Christian analogue in the imago Dei, the idea that all human beings bear the image of God their Maker. As Acts 17:26 puts it, "God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." Alas, even St. Peter had his difficulties with the idea of an unbiased Creator. After stumbling over the world-historical "color line" of Jew/Gentile, he needed some heaven-sent dreams to conclude that "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34). This, unfortunately, would not be the last struggle of the church with the issue of race and one's visibility as a child of God.
Take the American church, whose record on racial discrimination does not exactly reflect the Golden Rule. The escaped slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass once observed, "There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it."1 Post-reconstruction black codes, Jim Crow laws, and segregation only reinforced this principle.2 Noting that it was a preacher, Thomas Dixon, who wrote the 1906 novel The Clansman (which inspired pioneering filmmaker D.W. Griffiths's racist masterpiece, Birth of a Nation) and another preacher, Joseph Simmons, ...