Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Someone We Know

Someone We Know

"He's a nobody," people sometimes say,
as a way of saying the person described
should be ignored. Overlooked. Forgotten.
The sentence raises problems.

If the person were a nobody, he or she
wouldn't have a gender, and there'd be
nothing and no one to ignore. Also,
"a" nobody implies particularity,

when indeed we must assume that all
who constitute the mythical Nobody
are indistinguishable. If, however,
"nobody" is used only in a figurative

sense, even more problems arise.
Figurative nobodies--the obscure,
the abandoned, the betrayed, the
common, the exploited, the humble--

approach heroic stature as they
persist in their lives. Think of
an obscure waitress in Canada,
Uruguay, the Ukraine, or Lesotho.

To herself she's not obscure. She
performs tasks well, keeps herself
clean, cares for others, remains
patient and energetic amidst

persistent obscurity and impending
oblivion. How extraordinary. How
utterly not in keeping with the term,
"Nobody." The unknown, exemplary

waitress embodies somebodyness--
in secret, without hope of extraordinary
reward. At a news-stand, she glimpses
a magazine's cover, on which appears

the rendered image of an officical
Somebody, a Celebrity who appears
momentarily to have slain Time and
seized immortality. The waitress, the one

who serves, alleged by some to be
a nobody, smiles. Her smile is particular.
She is herself and specific, standing there,
just like someone we know.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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