This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," a searing novel of black alienation from mainstream culture that shouldn't be confused with H.G. Wells' 1897 novella about a scientist who invents a formula that renders him invisible.
In Ellison's novel, the invisibility is metaphorical. The novel's unnamed narrator drifts ghost-like through midcentury American life, enduring its racial indignities unknown and unloved.
I've read the book twice in 35 years and assumed I understood most of its symbolism and substance. Alas, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has caused me to question the meaning behind the word "invisible" in Ellison's title.
This week, Mr. Romney addressed the annual NAACP conference in Houston. His speech was boilerplate and was greeted for the most part with restrained, polite applause from a solidly pro-Obama audience. It got ugly when Mr. Romney vowed to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would benefit an estimated 7 million African-Americans.
The crowd booed, of course. Honestly, black people love to boo those who believe they're powerful. Booing Mitt Romney at least once during a mostly insubstantial speech gave everyone a chance to imagine that it was Saturday night at the Apollo for a few minutes.
Some conservatives were outraged, as if the same thing wouldn't happen if President Barack Obama went to an NRA convention and advocated raising taxes along with the price of bullets. It was an applause line designed for failure, although it gave Mr. Romney bragging rights with those who question whether he's tough enough to stand up to minorities.
Later, Mr. Romney told Fox News' Neil Cavuto something that sounded like utter nonsense. "I spoke with a number of African-American leaders after the event and they said, you know, a lot of folks do not want to say they will not vote for President Obama, but they are disappointed in his lack of policies to improve the schools," Mr. Romney said, hinting at the existence of black supporters.
"At the end of my speech, having a standing ovation was generous and hospitable on the part of the audience," he said. "While we disagree on some issues like Obamacare, a lot of issues we see eye to eye."
I was fascinated by Mr. Romney's contention that he had a cabal of black supporters who were reluctant to admit it in public. Who are these secret supporters -- these invisible Negroes who clamor to have Mitt Romney as president, I wondered.
Prior to Mr. Romney's claim, I always considered invisibility a metaphorical condition. Ellison's novel trained me to think that way. But news of black Romney supporters huddling secretly among us has me wondering.
Much has been made of the lack of obvious color at Romney rallies. Even the Republican National Convention manages to put a couple of black folks waving balloons up front for the cameras every four years, but Mr. Romney's rallies have remained as white as the staff at the local Panera Bread.
But if invisible Negroes exist, I'm wondering if the fact that they can't be seen is evidence of their presence in some weird, counterintuitive way. While black support for Mr. Romney isn't obvious outside a handful of paid black surrogates and party apparatchiks, that doesn't mean the candidate won't capture a surprising percentage of the black vote.
Just when I was about to dismiss the idea of invisible Negroes as utterly crazy, I stumbled across a clip of former "Good Times" star Jimmie "Dyn-o-mite" Walker on "The O'Reilly Factor," bashing Mr. Obama as incompetent.
Mr. Walker criticized blacks for voting as a bloc, although he didn't vote for Obama in 2008. It was fascinating watching a man who had once been the poster boy for racial buffoonery running his mouth more than 30 years after his show was canceled.
That's when it hit me -- Jimmie Walker is one of those secret black supporters whose existence Mr. Romney alluded to earlier in the day. Although he didn't formerly endorse Mr. Romney, it was clear who wouldn't be getting his vote.
Perhaps one day, black voters who agree with Mr. Walker will form their own voting bloc and call it the National Association for the Advancement of Invisible Negroes. After all, a vote is a terrible thing to waste.