Invisible Man


The brother on the bus was 20, maybe 25, and just out of prison. A good-looking young dude, well-developed musculature, probably from playing hoops in the jailhouse courtyard. He was a picture of health but had some psychosocial issues.

Started bitching to another brother seated nearby, about conditions behind bars. Wasn’t the food or the lack of female companionship that had upset this young man. Wasn’t mean guards, or pepper spray in his face. Wasn’t some other inmate trying to back-door him in the privacy of the cell. Apparently he could handle all that.

What upset him most during his time inside had been the price of candy. He had been paying more than a dollar for a Snickers or a Hershey bar—maybe even a bag of M&Ms. That was, said he, too fucking much.

“That ain’t nothing but robbery,” he complained of commissary prices in Texas prisons. The brother got an indignant tone that, in different circumstances, might have prompted a letter to Governor Perry. “That’ll make,” the young man said of the price of sugar, in a stir, “a nigger not want to go back to jail.”

Recently, black people in this country been having what are called “Cosby moments.” These phenomena are named after Bill Cosby, comedian and actor, de facto elder statesman of the black entertainment industry, and part-time spokesman for mainstream Negro America. What happened is basically, Bill Cosby said what a lot of us have been thinking: Maybe black people have made a few wrong turns on our way to the American Dream.

For example Mr. Cosby wondered how it happened that otherwise poor black kids are wearing expensive sneakers or how, instead of speaking standard White English, a lot of us talk Jive instead. Or, you yourself may wonder, how is it that certain county jails and state prisons have developed the cachet of boarding school? It’s not my style to brag, but my own Cosby moment happened three or four years before Bill had his—about the same time that young brother on the bus opened his mouth.

Because so much time has passed, my thoughts have had a chance to settle and get organized. The answer to Bill Cosby’s question about what went wrong is clear to me if not to him. Those values—hard work and self-betterment—that got black Americans out of slavery and through Jim Crow, have recently been spent, like the dollar in the prison commissary, on something sweet and almost wholly unfilling.

Both sides of my family come from Texas. There are slaves back there in the not-too-distant past. That’s a source of pride to us as a family. We’ve survived the perils of the early republic—and although things were rough for the first century after Emancipation, there’s been no prison stay for any of us in the last couple of generations. In my particular case, one or two locked doors have closed behind me, but my stays in confinement have never been long enough to leave me worrying about prices in the commissary.

Middle-class black people today have a different worry: Are Negroes out-moded? That’s the real question being asked. That’s the fear many African-Americans feel, expressed by our Cosby-like angst, after seeing or hearing of episodes like the young brother on the bus, just out of slam.

If we’re merely out of style, we can wait to come back in. We are a patient people after all, and two centuries in chains means we can handle a few decades out of favor. It’s the more permanent possibility that is so upsetting and has led to the search for a scapegoat. If black people are obsolete, like last year’s computer, is it because the Hispanic model costs less and is more user-friendly?

In this state we have a special perspective on the issue. Just at the turn of the millennium, Hispanics became the predominant minority in the country, knocking blacks down to second place. But it’s not clear that—in Texas—blacks ever were number one. There’s long been a predominant or near-predominant Latino minority.

“The question on Spanish origin was first asked in 1980,” says State Demographer Steve Murdock, speaking of that landmark census, and “the Hispanic population was already larger than the black population of Texas. In fact, given the long heritage of Hispanics in Texas it is not clear that Blacks ever exceeded the number of Hispanics, at least not in recent times.” Mostly, thank God, we—the other minority in this state, niggahs at large—have learned to get along with our brown brothers, and they with us. In other parts of the country, blacks may feel threatened. Here, if we do, it’s nothing new.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t real issues in this “multi-racial” society. In Houston, for example, Anglo politicians have maintained control by playing blacks against Hispanics. In East Austin, the traditional black neighborhood of the capital city, we are being squeezed by Hispanics moving north, while whites move east and south from their old neighborhoods as part of a wave of gentrification. Black people are being pushed east—back to the pineywoods and cotton fields we thought we had escaped with the help of the Union Army.

Our options are limited. We can’t tell anyone to stop procreating. (Sure we can—but who would listen?) We can’t tell them no block-busting, no buying in our neighborhoods.

That’s how black people integrated America.

My walk home from work used to take me through the state Capitol complex. It was always a historic stroll for me because my great-grandfather, daddy’s daddy’s daddy, the last member of my family to do serious time, was in prison when the Capitol was built. He may have been one of the convict laborers. Probably he was back in East Texas chopping cotton on the prison farm, but that’s my daydream, that he helped build something that survived him and his sins.

During my walk home, there was also new construction to see. The state history museum was being built. Weren’t any brothers on-site—at least none in view. There were Anglos, but they were mostly looking at plans or giving orders. The guys doing the actual work, the heavy lifting, were Latino. Hispanic manos have built a lot of the present state that we know and take for granted.

People make a big deal out of Texas and the mystique and all that, and a lot of it’s bullshit but some of it is true, like the nature and the people. If Texas is special, it’s because we’re next door to Mexico. Indians, Spanish, and Anglos all came together here in a kind of fusion.

Black culture has had a smaller role to play and in the future may have a smaller one still. There’s nothing we can do about that except be cool and hang tough as we watch the change.

Contributing writer Lucius Lomax has again left Texas, this time to work in Brazil.