Colour and Invisibility

A man came up to me today while I was waiting for the blue train, leaning against my bike and reading. He nodded towards the handful of people who shunned the shade, and launched into friendly conversation – some people just really love the sun, huh? They’re crazy, the sun makes you blind, they’re going to go blind…I thought about skin cancer and freckles and wrinkles and the way I love the Arizona summer where the world is all white light and heat that wraps around you so heavy on the air you can feel its comforting weight. Of course, the only thing I like to do through the Arizona summer is read while drinking long cool glasses of anything with ice, it’s been a hell of a long time since I was able to do that. Amazing how much can go through your mind in a split second. I love the sun.

I was lucky. He required no response to continue: the sun makes you disappear. My mom was upset when I moved out here, I’m from the East coast and when I went home they thought I was ugly, I was light skinned there but here you stand in the sun and you turn the colour of charcoal, no one can see you at night, you become invisible. He lifted his arms and they were a dark dark brown, and the wiry hair on them a very bright white.

I thought about this means of becoming invisible. You become the colour of darkness, you walk along unperceived and hidden against the backdrop of night, I thought about what it means to disappear. An arcane power of sorts, the ability to become one with the dark, to travel unseen…who has never dreamed of that? With the power of flight, invisibility is pretty high on my list of unfulfilled desires. The train came then and I shall probably never see him again. I wanted to ask him if he had read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I wanted to ask him if invisibility were really a function of colour and camouflage, or of politics. I wanted to ask him about the invisibility of South Central and all the people in it, the invisibility of the poor to those with wealth, the invisibility that comes with a skin colour approaching the night. The invisibility you endure when you wear an apron or a janitor’s uniform or a name tag proclaiming your willingness to serve. The way that so many people I have known and loved have disappeared. It was not the sun that disappeared them, and I rage that they could have left this world with so small of a ripple. I wanted to reconcile the challenge, and the promise, of the gulf between invisibility in the world of my imagination, and invisibility in the imagination of the world.

I have lost much of my substance behind the name tag and pinned smile of the service employee, the painfully unfashionable clothes and bad haircut of that embarassingly poor kid who really wants nothing more than to disappear (luckily I’ve grown and fought my way out of both for the most part)…but my experience is limited as someone who will only find camouflage if the night becomes the colour of pale sand. I yet sit uncomfortably poised between several worlds none of which seem to be visible to the others, and I could not imagine myself anywhere else…and so this problem of how and what people can see seems to be one of the keys to resolving the injustices that have pushed these worlds apart. And so a blessing on the old charcoal gentleman who disturbed my reading today and set my mind spinning, may he find beauty in his skin…

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