Racial strife no longer “Invisible”

Kicking off on Jan. 5 with a live reading of selections from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the fifth annual Williams Reads program launched smoothly into its Winter Study-length exploration of diversity, community and power through literature. The Williams Reads program was started by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), formerly known as the Commission on Campus Race Relations, five years ago to further its purpose of improving community relations and increasing understanding of diversity on campus.
“[Williams Reads] provides an occasion for members of the campus community to discuss common works of literature that provoke thinking about the cultures we live in,” said Karen Swann, professor of English and co-chair of the CDC.

The program features one book per Winter Study, which is selected by the CDC by vote from suggestions solicited from committee members. Free copies are circulated throughout the campus, and discussions and other events are scheduled weekly to encourage faculty, staff, students and the broader College community to engage with issues of “diversity and community [and] power and disenfranchisement in a U.S. context” raised by the chosen book through meaningful dialogue.

Leslie Brown, associate professor of history and chair of the subcommittee heading Williams Reads, finds the program to be an important aspect of community building at the College. “I think it’s a wonderful idea; [we] take a block time period during the year when the pace is a little different, we read a book, collectively, together, at the same time and through that book and its reading we engage together – and apart – on the intellectual project of thinking about our world – the one we inhabit, the one we came from. We examine and assess differences and similarities and recognize our conflicts and incompatibilities, but also our crosscurrents and confluences.”

Invisible Man was chosen this year due to how universally relatable it is. Its social commentary places an emphasis on inclusive themes such as “invisibility, aspiration, hard work, access and opportunity, self and community” in an era when the discourse of race relations had not yet attained the dynamic of equality so prevalent in discussions of civil rights today.

In his introduction, written in 1981, Ellison comments on the process of writing Invisible Man. “So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American,” he wrote. “I would have to approach racial stereotypes as a given fact of the social process and proceed, while gambling with the reader’s capacity for fictional truth, to reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal.”

Invisible Man is not about a physical condition, but instead about the narrator’s refusal to let others see him. Most of the story is an account of the man’s life in retrospect, beginning with him as a young man in the South with a gift for public speaking, moving through his tumultuous college years and work in Harlem and all the time dealing with the issue of his race versus the whiteness that surrounds him. “It is a strange story in which many extraordinary things happen, some of them shocking and brutal, some of them pitiful and touching,” the Williams Reads website describes; a perfect choice to engage students both intellectually and socially.

For Winter Study 2011, Williams Reads has much more than simply readings in store for the campus in its lineup of Invisible Man events. Despite the fact that the second event, a jazz concert featuring Freddie Bryant and Andy Jaffee, was canceled due to weather conditions, the program will continue on with its scheduled events in the coming weeks. David Smith, professor of English, will lead the discussion “Invisible Man in the Age of Obama” in a Gaudino Lunch session today at noon in Shapiro 129. There will also be a staff lunch discussion on Jan. 26, and a collection of photographs and other art that reflect life in Harlem in the 1940s will be put on display in the Rose Gallery of WCMA starting Jan. 27. Swann “hopes to end [the program] with another open reading.”

The value of the month-long event comes in one specific characteristic of the program, according to Brown: “Invisible Man as a Williams Reads project actively engages us.”