Invisible Boy by Harrison Mooney
As I was writing this I realized I wanted to do two things. I wanted to give a review and I also wanted to reflect on how I experienced the book. So it’s two posts in one now. Feel free to just read one or the other.
Full disclosure, Harrison is a friend I’ve known since university.
This book will unsettle you. It is meant to. It is meant to show you truths many people would prefer not to see. This book made me cry. Crying in grief, in compassion, in horror, and in thankfulness for promised hope.
This memoir walks you through Harrison’s life as a Black person adopted by a white family. It puts a bright light on the problems inherent in a certain thread of inter-racial adoption that happens all too often, such as in the recent case in the US of the use of inter-racial adoption as an attempt to assert whiteness and to “save” the souls of children.
Though the focus of the book is on Harrison’s experience which may be new to many readers (growing up in a fundamentalist group considered extreme by the other Christians in the “bible belt”), the underlying concept (especially explored as Harrison moved out of the bubble his family created) is that their performance of whiteness was just one way that Blackness is attacked.
In Harrison’s narrative he points out that whiteness and white supremacy are intertwined. When white becomes default all else gets swept away in the move to embrace the similarities, but only the similarities to whiteness. It’s a perspective that harms everyone because it hides that the differences matter, and ignoring that makes it very easy to privilege what we are used to and shun/hate/fear what we are not used to.
This book is about the attempt of whiteness to use Blackness, to exert control over Blackness, and ultimately to erase and destroy Blackness. I wanted to start writing that sentence by saying “well meaning whiteness” but it doesn’t matter that those involved thought their intent was good, because the intent was only good for whiteness. Erasing and destroying are what white supremacy does, but worse, it makes us think that there can be a good way to do it. That the harms and lives destroyed in service to whiteness can be minimized because really the people doing it are good but misguided people.
This book doesn’t let you walk away with that thought. It might make you walk away though. It is hard for those of us who grew up with whiteness being a default to face the truth. Like Harrison’s classmate late in the book you might walk away instead of facing truth.
So it’s a book about attempted destruction, and about survival. About asking the questions were afraid to ask because it means moving away from the uniformity of using whiteness as a default.
And it’s especially a book that brings us to the hard question James Baldwin wants us to ask ourselves. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
If you’re ready to ask yourself hard questions, read this book.
For me reading Invisible Boy was an especially emotional read because I exist just off screen. Imagine reading a book where you exist in the world, in the city, at the camp, in the stores, at the university, but not in the book. Its unsettling, but comforting. Things you remember exist there but seen from a different perspective.
I attended the churches his church saw as old and not charismatic enough (we didn’t do dancing). I attended the school his school said had too many Sikhs. I shopped at the same Christian book store, steered away from the products his parents embraced (what I didn’t realize then but do now is that my parents saw the Pat Robertson’s and the Charismatic Pentecostal and Evangelical celebrities as misguided, grifters, or heretics).
I went to the same camp the same year, but I seem to recall reading a book through the entire cougar ordeal. Things that were impactful for him have since been wiped away by other memories I have of there. We met again at the secular University as he was wrestling with his identity and relationship with his adoptive family. I was part of the clubs and classes and theatre with him.
I’m not in the book, but everything is so familiar that I am one of the extras who you only see the back of the head of in a crowd. When I knew him is almost a footnote in the book. A deep breath before his eyes were truly opened.
And that makes everything hit harder. Because the people I thought were weird were in fact abusive. The places I shopped or visited used him and his existence to market themselves to me. Places I felt welcome in were actively hostile to him.
Having read back through this I’m thankful for not being part of the story of my friend’s trauma. But I also know that not throwing stones doesn’t mean I wasn’t holding the coats. And this probably won’t be how others read the book (hence why it’s in a reflection), because that particular shining of the light isn’t hitting something they’re familiar with. But that was a big one for me, seeing how many places, people, and experiences from my childhood don’t move people toward being “larger, freer, and more loving”.