I remember getting picked up to go to a friend’s house when I was around seven. As we crossed a bridge in dusty post-industrial Ohio, I had sort of a magical experience. A small, luminescent object drifted slowly across my field of vision. When I tried to follow it with my eyes, it sped up and darted into a corner. But when I looked out again on the dilapidated Midwestern wasteland the thing drifted upward again like a shopping bag on a breeze, then again dove out of sight when I tried to focus on it. This went on for several minutes – was it some sort of spirit? Angel? Faerie? Finally I tried to tell my friend’s mom what I saw.

Not even looking over she said, “That’s trash. In your eye.”

It was a poor choice of words – first of all, no kid wants to hear they’ve got “trash” in their eye and second of all, we were in Cincinnati, everywhere you looked was trash. Being a preacher’s kid, I should have said “before you talk about the speck of dust in my eye, take the toxic landfill of single-parent disappointment out of your own.” But she was right – it was just a dust particle, one of the billions of insignificant specks that surround us and sometimes stick to our lenses. Thirty years later I still remember it, one of those defining childhood moments when there’s a little less magic in the world. Which, you know, in Ohio… If there was a charity to give more magic to the lives of Midwestern kids…I’d send them my whole vacuum bag and say, “Kids, when this dust gets in your eye, pretend it’s a faerie.” Actually, come to think of it, that would just be trash in their eye.

Still sometimes in the bathroom I see those little floating light-dots, but they’re not that mysterious (although, now that I think of it, I still have no idea what un-magical phenomenon they are, it’s enough to know they’re not magical, I don’t need to do a Google search to make life more boring). And as I get older I frequently see, out the corner of my eye, little gnome-like creatures darting around corners, mischievous elven pranksters that hide one of my shoes, but it turns out they’re just small children, my house is infested with them. And children are sort of magical, especially when they sleep (they’re kind of blurry when they’re awake, always in motion, I literally have to take a photograph if I want to get a good look at them). They dart around leaving mysterious messes and vanish when it’s time to clean up. And, being children, they have their own fascination with invisible people – ghosts and faeries and leprechauns and dwarves (although it turns out dwarves are real). They want to know about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and before we eat they watch me close my eyes and talk to someone they can’t see. And when my children ask about invisible people I don’t say “that’s trash,” I just answer honestly, I don’t know.


In this last seventy years, there has been a recurrent running theme in the social and political debates shaping our culture: a theme of visibility. Who gets to be socially visible? In 1952, Ralph Ellison wrote a book about the plight of African Americans, beginning with the line, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms…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 imagination.” (Ellison 1952)

Confession time, I never got further than that in the book – once I figured out it wasn’t about the guy in the bandages I said “maybe I’ll read that when I grow up,” and then promised myself I would never grow up (and here we are). But still that unforgettable opening paragraph: I am invisible because people refuse to see me, they see only figments of their imagination. This was Ellison’s statement of race relations almost a century after the emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Maybe the Northerners wanted to free them, but they didn’t want to see them – not at work, not at school, definitely not at the dinner table. Segregated bathrooms and schools, diners, restaurants, even cities, and “Separate but Equal” laws were designed to make African Americans invisible. I heard recently that “Separate but Equal” is, apparently, now a thing of the past, which is fantastic. Somebody should bring that good news to our public schools.

And while we, as a culture, adjusted our eyes to the sudden visibility of black people, it turned out there were all sorts of hidden wonders waiting in the wings. Did you know that more than fifty percent of the US population is women? Yes, for those of you who are checking, there are some among us in this very room. But don’t be afraid. It turns out they’ve been here all along. But only very recently in history (appropriately named his-tory) have women become socially, economically and politically visible. This didn’t happen by miracles, it developed through struggle, a struggle every inch of the way. I don’t know why men have been so stubborn about it – my wife is a medical doctor, and she gives birth to babies. All I have to do is sweep the floors, walk the kids and cook dinner? Jackpot.

I could go on all day listing the victories in social visibility in these last decades. And there are current issues in social visibility that could start an argument that would last all week. There are still invisible people among us, some of them want to be known and acknowledged. I was reading recently about trans-gender individuals wanting to stand up and be counted, and also to sit down in the bathroom of their identification. I also read about white supremacists who feel emboldened to take their private hatred and become more publicly visible. And maybe it’s politically incorrect, maybe you’ll call me intolerant for saying so, but I don’t feel that comfortable sharing a public bathroom with neo-nazis. Do I think we should go back to having “White Only” bathrooms? So that everybody else can feel safer? No. I still dream of a unified America where my children can be judged, not by the color of Donald Trump’s skin, but by the content of their character.


Last year during the height of election madness something fascinating happened. Thousands of native Americans, and Jackson Browne who I named my first-born son after, gathered to protest a pipeline running through sacred native lands. They got beaten with night-sticks, fire-hosed and bulldozed out of the way and the pipeline proceeded anyway. But the Native protests were not a total defeat – actually, there was a small victory. They did not succeed in blocking the pipeline, but they did get nationwide media coverage for their effort. Here it’s important to remember that this pipeline situation was not unique – big business and big pollution always see impoverished reservations as easy prey for exploitation, and there are always Native Americans protesting to stop them. That’s old news. But when members of three hundred tribes gathered together, they actually got some attention, reminding the nation that Native Americans and their land-loving traditions are still alive. Reminding us that “the Indian Wars” did not end in the 1890s, but continue, and we can’t just say it’s something ugly our ancestors did – we’re still doing it. This was a victory of Social Visibility.

Then the newly-elected president Donald Trump, who owns stock in the company and received campaign contributions from other pipeline stockholders, sent police in riot-gear to brutalize the protesters. In today’s nightmare nation, the president sends police in riot gear to beat up non-violent Native Americans, then sends police to defend a violent rally of neo-nazis and their freedom to spread hate. Then he picks a fight with black football players who protest against police brutality. Right now the most socially visible man on earth wields his power like a playground bully, shining his twitter spotlight to shrink is enemies, try to silence the news, and make people afraid to stand up for their constitutional rights to a fair hearing. Racists who felt silenced and pushed aside to make room for multiculturalism elected a monster to stand up for their right to blame “others” for their problems. And now they demand to be heard with all their bigotry and hate – and I want them to be heard. I don’t want them silenced, I want this festering filth out in the light of day, so we can all see its whining cowardice. And I don’t care if the rest of the world sees it – we’re a joke to them anyway, let them see our Homer-Simpson country voting to deregulate big business and un-insure the poor, and then blaming refugees when the jobs disappear and the children get polio.

I’m tired of hearing about “alt right” bloggers, so-called “trolls,” (did you know trolls are real?) hiding behind their computers, binging on pornography and medicaid opium pills, using twitter-feeds as sniper-rifles. If they’re angry about hungry, hard-working brown immigrants taking jobs away let them step out in the sun and say so, and we can all look at their pale, lazy, flabby bodies that refuse to go out and pick strawberries with the immigrants because it brings in less money than welfare. I want these “trolls” to come out from under their dank bridges and let us all see them for what they are. They want social visibility. I want them to have it. I want them exposed in the light of day, so their own grandmothers can tell them they should be ashamed.


These issues of public visibility will continue. Our grandparents had no idea about the visibility issues we’re dealing with now, and we have no idea what cultural debates will take place in the future. I wish we could learn from the Natives to treat the trees and animals like members of our community. Or too late we may find that we need them as neighbors more than they need us. And when scientists finally figure out how to communicate with dolphins? Wow, imagine the presidential campaign debates a year after that.

And meanwhile, children all over the world are still looking for invisible people to make life more interesting. Faeries, gnomes, leprechauns, sprites and spirits, ghosts and a heavenly host of other supernatural beings. My kids ask me – do they really exist? I don’t know, but I do know this – if they did exist, and they watched our intolerance for those who are different from us, our fear boiling over into hatred again and again… Then I would understand why they want to badly to stay hidden. Also the leprechauns must know that even a rumor of possessing a pot of gold and a rainbow really brings out the worst in people.

But when I think of the progress we’re making, learning to see the people our culture has pushed into invisibility…women, blacks, natives and a mosaic of other races and genders… There is something miraculous about it, almost like eyesight being given to the blind. And when we learn to see the person who is different from us, we might start to see some inner commonalities, maybe even more important than our outward differences. And when we start to see ourself in the other person, and see the other person in ourself, we gain valuable new insights into who we really are. The children are right. Invisible people really can make life more interesting.


1 Comment

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  1. Mary Stuart

    I believe that those things in life which cannot be explained but have had a place in human history and imagination add a richness to life and I am glad you and your children thinks about these things. Pairing this concept with the invisible people among us is a new perspective, and so true. Wish it could be different. Hopefully we are building a future where it will be different – as MLK said, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. Thanks, John, for making us think about these things.

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