Clint Eastwood Isn’t The First To Make A Black Man Invisible

I know I’m not alone in being confused about Clint Eastwood’s speech at the GOP convention on Thursday night in which he addressed an empty chair as President Barack Obama. I can tell you, I was completely offended and not because of anything Eastwood — hailed as the mystery speaker before Senator Marco Rubio’s introduction of Mitt Romney’s nomination acceptance speech –said.

I was appalled that Eastwood or someone had decided that an empty chair could be used to represent Obama. Addressing the thin air, Eastwood seemed to be talking to an invisible man.

Invisible Man is the name of a 1952 novel by Ralph Ellison that is considered a canonical work of African-American literature. The unnamed protagonist, a young African-American male who grows up in the segregated deep south in the early 20th century, believes himself to be figuratively “invisible” to society. People do not see him as a person, as himself, but as all manner of stereotypes of an African-American man. In the course of the novel, the protagonist moves to Harlem in New York City and — continuing the invisibility metaphor — lives underground in an abandoned coal cellar.

I’ve no idea, and am inclined to doubt, that Eastwood meant to refer to Ellison’s novel. But anyone who is a person of color in the US knows, or who is “different”as in “not a white heterosexual male” (as have been quite a few of those on the stage in Tampa) — anyone who is a racial or ethnic minority knows what it feels like to be seen as invisible; to have someone look at you but, somehow, manage to act as if you are not there.

I’m a third-generation Chinese-American educated at some “WASP-y” institutions, who teaches the “dead” languages of Western literature, Latin and ancient Greek. I never felt so invisible as when, standing in my late in-laws’ kitchen, a visitor (he had come to give them communion), looked right at me but my presence did not register in his face, actions or words.

“I’m not going to shut up,” Eastwood said to the empty chair. He addressed the President in the third person:

“So I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here and I just was going to ask him a couple of questions. But you know, I remember 3 ½ years ago when Mr. Obama won the election and, no, I wasn’t a big supporter.”

The actor seemed to put words into his imaginary conversation partner’s mouth, as noted in Politico:

“I’m not going to shut up. It’s my turn,” the actor blurted out a few moments later, still glancing over at the make-believe Obama sitting in the empty chair next to him. “I just wondered, all these promises, and then I wondered about you know,  … what do you want me to tell Romney? I can’t tell him that. … Tell him yourself. You’re absolutely crazy.”

People reacted immediately over Twitter (“Wow,” Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter simply said.) Romney aides have been doing some furious damage control. While at least two of Romney’s top advisors cleared Eastwood’s appearance, the New York Times also says that

…another adviser said that several top aides had reviewed talking points given to Mr. Eastwood, which the campaign had discussed with the actor as recently as a few hours before his appearance. Mr. Eastwood, however, delivered those points in a theatrical, and at times crass, way that caught Romney aides off guard, this person said. Mr. Eastwood even ignored warnings that he had exceeded his time.

I am clearly biased. But I can only agree with what Obama campaign spokesman Lis Smith said: “Clint Eastwood’s speech tonight brought new meaning to the good, the bad and the ugly — but mostly just the bad and the ugly.”

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Photo by Siebbi

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