Yesterday was a good day. I spent the afternoon reading Ralph Ellison’s ‘The Invisible Man’. It’s a classic, and one I’d heard a lot about, but in my tastes of these things I have no ability to differentiate between great classics and cheap thriller novels, and the same goes for movies and music. But this was a really great book about race in the US, though not just about that. The main character, a young black man whose name you never learn, grows up in the southern US, I guess around the 1950s or early 1960s, goes to a black college there, gets expelled, goes to Harlem, falls in with the local Communist organization, which is fighting street battles with the black nationalist organization, and leaves that group in disgust of their inability to understand or see the reality right in front of them. He ends up living in a hole in the ground, surrounded by hundreds of lightbulbs. My summary abstracts out some extraordinarily painful and unforgettable scenes, some brilliant dialogue, and some amazing insights. The title comes from the fact that, because he’s Black, no one is able to see him. People are able to use him, and eager to do so. But not to actually see him. It’s also a brilliant book because you see the character grow and evolve over the course of the book.
Having read The Invisible Man, I went to a party organized by Toronto’s invisible: the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. In fact it is inaccurate to call them Toronto’s invisible. It is rather those who would be invisible if it weren’t for OCAP itself. But they are most certainly not invisible. As Eqbal Ahmad once said about the Palestinians, refuting Golda Meier’s famous atrocious remark (‘the palestinians don’t exist’) they damn well exist now.
The party was a fundraiser on the approximate occasion of OCAP’s 15th birthday (hence one of the slogans, ‘kicking the ass of the ruling class since 1990’). It was at a little bar in downtown toronto, but the back room had been taken over and made into an exhibit of an extraordinary history. Several walls were full of press coverage accumulated over 15 years of action – a large portion of which was truly absurd and hilarious for those who actually know what OCAP is about. There was a constant slideshow running of extraordinary photos taken by OCAP folks. And then there were toasts – on an open mic, about a dozen people spoke to celebrate what the organization has meant to them (and it has meant things like the difference between homelessness and housing, the difference between deportation and staying, the difference between wanting to get up in the morning and not). And unlike the organizations encountered by the main character in The Invisible Man, this one is not concerned with making reality fit its theory. It is concerned, first of all, with the survival of its constituents, who are society’s most vulnerable people. And it fights for this survival in the most dignified way – by actually fighting, intelligently, politically. Oh, there are problems, and they are serious, but they arise because this thing is alive.
I realized that it’s far too easy for someone like me to take an organization like that for granted. It is a blessing. It is also, for lack of a better term, the most civilizing influence in the city. That word usually isn’t associated with the kind of uncompromising anger one hears from OCAP – but that anger, as far as I’ve seen, is completely appropriate and proportionate. I wish those people OCAP always ends up fighting could understand that.
There were a lot of really moving toasts people made at the mic, and I can’t really do justice to all of them. So I’ll just quote the last line of the first toast, that went something like this: ‘OCAP is hated because it is a thorn in the side of the powerful. But it’s not enough to just be a thorn in their side. So in the next few years let’s go from being a thorn in their side to being a stake through the bloody bastards’ hearts!’
I could drink to that…