Blue Like Me 

On race and depression

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000

The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.

--W.E.B Du Bois, 1903

The overriding experience of the black American has been grief and sorrow and no man can change that fact. His grief has been realistic and appropriate. What people have so earned a period of mourning?

--From Black Rage, 1968

Today blacks are as religious, socially conservative and patriotic as any other ethnic group, with a deep belief in the goodness and inclusiveness of American society and, despite the popular perception that blacks blame whites for their problems, a willingness to shoulder a large amount of responsibility for the present condition of their brethren. Values supposedly matter in America, but if black people have these values and are still not fully welcomed into the mainstream, it is fair for them to finally ask whether anything they do will ever make a difference.

--From By the Color of Our Skin:

The Illusion of Integration

and the Reality of Race, 2000

I Feel Good -- Not

About a year and a half ago, a thought struck me with unprecedented force: Life sucks. Overall. I had become acutely aware that I hadn‘t been feeling good in years. Not physically, but psychically, and in a way rather worse than the modern miasma of inner perplexity and urban wariness that we call depression, a condition we’ve grown almost fond of because we‘ve grown so fond of countering it with the latest wrinkle creams and poetry workshops and such. This despondency was different, and felt completely above, or beneath, any self-actualization remedy. The usual miasma was there, but surging beneath it, like oil stealthily darkening a floor where you thought only water had spilled, was a sense of brokenness that felt vast and familiar, lived in; it had the wonderful and terrible assurance of a thing that had long been alive, much longer than myself. This great anxiousness seemed to speak, much better than depression could, to all the manifestations of my lacking life: the bills that couldn’t quite get paid, the boyfriend who seemed a permanent fixture but was always passing through, and most of all a weary acceptance that this would be about as good as things would get. Everything and everyone felt ephemeral, so what I was most attached to, what gave me the most comfort, also felt the most ominous. Each day I had to invent the world and appoint its order, try on attitudes like suits of clothes, discard them in heaps, finally bolt out the door with invariably ill-chosen feelings: Life was making me not sad so much as exasperated and pissed off. Nothing fit the occasion of my life, whatever that was. I had decent-paying work, a roomy place to live in a decent part of town, a car, no family-household obligations, license to shop when I wished. What gave? Why did life so often feel like a football pass thrown to the wrong player, something I had been bobbling in my hands ever since the happy mist of adolescence lifted 20 years ago and I balked because I could no longer reasonably live under the auspices of naivete and preposterous expectation? How and why were my blues not like everybody else‘s?

Eventually all these questions slowed to a freeze. I spent three lost days holed up in my apartment without a telephone or any other form of quick communication, moving about as little as possible. After I thawed I decided, with the help of a few friends and family members, that some therapy might be in order. Quite inadvertently, this decision began unraveling the mystery of my inertia. I had always lauded therapy in theory, but discovered I scorned it in private. Therapy was for wimps and complainers, or at least for people who had sufficient leisure time and money to take up a talking cure in the first place. In other words, therapy was for white people.

When I first sat before a therapist, a very pleasant white woman of unsparing insight, I realized there was far more to it than that. I am black and, as such, had never been disassembled as an individual. It had never really seemed necessary, or even practical. In the course of life I had concluded that history had never taken much note of Negroes who were not iconic or tragic figures, or some combination thereof. They were symbols to admire at best and loathe at least, but not people to embrace for their vulnerability and personal explorations and resonant existential crises in the way that, say, Anais Nin or Albert Einstein were embraced for theirs. Our people, I had learned over and over in so many ways, are not like yours. We are not so finely calibrated, or so emotionally instructive; the a world is more interested in how heavy a burden we can shoulder than in our capacity for curiosity, for observing the stars or walking a beach and collecting shells and bottle caps (which I did as a kid, alone, vaguely embarrassed by the lack of a larger point to it all). The world recognizes our capacity for resistance, and that’s the best it can say about us. That‘s the best we can often say about each other; that is the best I can often say about myself. We are thus forever defined by the tension of standing opposite to something; in the absence of such tension, we are the trees that fall in a forest and that nobody hears.

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