For the agnostics and atheists among us, there is no divine force dictating our paths. We are only that which we decide, individually and collectively, and can achieve with our own intellect. The human body has natural limitations. And coincidence is merely coincidence.
But every so often, I’m confronted with seemingly unconnected factoids that give some credence to cosmic intervention. For instance, the fact that Ralph Ellison died on April 16, 1994, only three days before the release of Nas’s classic debut album, Illmatic, on April 19, 1994. Ellison, of course, is best known for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, a work now heralded as one of the greatest American novels. Drawing from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground both thematically and narratively, Ellison artfully constructs the psychic terror of a black man living in a society of political and social hierarchies that render him, this unnamed narrator/protagonist, invisible, at least insofar as anyone can be bothered to understand his basic humanity.
Ellison’s time had come: he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the no-longer-young age of eighty-one. But there is some poetry to be found in the passing of one of the most influential black writers in American letters only days before the release of the most influential hip-hop album of all time. Illmatic, like Invisible Man, is a document of black male life, this time from the vantage point of a post–Civil Rights, post-Reaganomics urban landscape. Nas captures the paranoid sensibility of a black man highly aware of his own mortality, attempting to survive in a world that offers him little more than drugs, police, guns, and prison.