English Journal: Speaking Truth to Power: Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics P. L. Thomas

English Journal, Vol. 104, No. 1, September 2014

Speaking Truth to Power

Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics, P. L. Thomas


As a pre–Civil Rights era novel dramatizing Ralph Ellison’s perspective on being African American in the United States at mid-20th century, Invisible Man opens with the unnamed narrator explaining:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me. . . . That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact . . . [Y]ou often doubt if you really exist. . . . It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful. (3–4)

Readers learn that the narrator’s response to his invisibility, ultimately, is hibernation, a withdrawal from a society, a world that refuses to see him.

A 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights offers a disturbing picture of how US public schools see African American (AA) males in the first decade of the 21st century: AA males are disproportionately targeted in disciplinary actions in schools, referred to law enforcement, and suspended from schools. The academic picture for AA males is just as disturbing since they have less access to advanced courses but are overrepresented in retention data. AA males also tend to sit in classrooms taught by inexperienced and under-/un-certified teachers who are under-compensated (“Revealing New Truths”).

When AA males are seen in school, then, many must recognize that they are mostly viewed as misbehaving, as potential, if not already, criminals. AA males have become both the embodiment and stereotype of the school-to-prison pipeline as well as the school-as-prison phenomenon associated with urban schools across the United States (Nolan). Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, then, AA males often make decisions paralleling the narrator’s hibernation—one of which is seeking the support and potential achievement found in athletics, both as an oasis of possibility and as a ticket to college or a profession (despite that ticket often being an illusion). …

Common Core, then, will be yet more failure if it becomes another aspect of the traditional commitments of schooling and if it is a distraction from the sorts of reform that should address race, class, and gender inequities in discipline, retention, academic access, and the emphasis on athletics to the detriment of the athletes. In our ELA classrooms, committing to close reading of text may once again shift our eyes in the wrong direction—the decontextualized text—if we fail to see the students in our care. It is well past time not only to see AA males, but also to listen to them.

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