By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But the therapist was listening. I was a tree in full view and hearing range. I began talking, but after five minutes or so I felt I had said too much. Here the mystery unraveled further: I found that I didn’t want to offer myself up. I was nobody‘s business. In the environment in which I was raised, character was built not on exposure -- that was foolish, if not dangerous -- but on a certain imperturbability. You could shore up weakness, but you could never be weak yourself. Being sympathetic and considerate was good, Christian if you looked at things that way, but the sympathy and consideration were supposed to emanate from a rock. It was especially important to be a rock in front of whites, who were all too eager to consign you to dysfunction anyway. So were black people, though for entirely different reasons: They didn’t mind you being drunk, strung out or ranting -- that was common enough -- but you must never admit that you couldn‘t be something else. One’s eyes must always be on a prize or a better life; hope is the cornerstone of blackness still, and to not invoke it is considered treachery and a waste of precious psychic resources. Melting down emotionally for the mere sake of release therefore never felt like an option for me, even though I longed to do it. Like voting and free speech, it‘s practically an American birthright, but another one reserved for Americans of certain birth.
There were smaller-scale but no less weighty considerations. I wouldn’t be exposing just myself during therapy, I would be exposing my whole family, my progenitors, my race, my -- and our -- still unformed legacy. This thought unsettled me far more than the thought of being colossally depressed -- that was just me, after all -- and so my next move with the therapist was to launch into a passionate defense of my father, whom I had always admired from a distance. I explained to her that he was peerless, that he had kept the wolves from our door even as he struggled to find his place among the wolves in the larger world. He had done battle, he was as rocklike as they come . . .
The therapist listened. She nodded sympathetically. “All right,” she said when I was done. “Now tell me how you really feel.”
The Third I
Such schizophrenia is really a postmodern elaboration on what W.E.B. Du Bois described 100 years ago as “double consciousness,” the state of being black and American but never both at once, because society had deemed it eminently undesirable. Du Bois talked about this double consciousness as the Negro people‘s greatest curse, because it meant that as long as they weren’t reconciled in society‘s eyes, they could never reconcile themselves in their own. At the turn of this century we struggle with reconciliation in a vastly different but no less crippling context. We are entirely free to be agitators and voting blocs and gadflies -- we are reasonably certain we won’t be arrested or shipped off to Liberia -- but being agitators has not humanized us, and therefore it has not meant real freedom. We are free to not agitate at all, to populate suburbs and remain conspicuously silent, but that extracts a price of self-denial and psychic compromise and isolation, and has not meant freedom either. That there is virtually no middle ground between full resistance and slack-jawed acquiescence speaks to how embryonic freedom still is for us. In the meantime, our greatest commonality is the very bipolar condition that describes our separation.
Depression struck me as being real but ridiculous. To be black is to inherit conditions that are well beyond depressing -- I couldn‘t imagine recalling incidents of racism and then confessing, “Doc, I’ve got this little self-esteem problem, can you help?” There‘s little documented evidence of such psychic quandaries but plenty of concurrence. Victoria Pratt of Virginia Union University concluded in a recent newspaper story on blacks and depression that “We kind of accept that depression is a part of our reality and accept that we have to deal with it the best way we can.” Even trying to describe our troubles through the model of depression is ludicrous, a bit like the famous conciliator Booker T. Washington characterizing, as he did more than a century ago, the uptick of lynchings in the South and Midwest as the result of a few offending people’s “bad habit.” James Baldwin remarked some 70 years later that to be black and conscious of what that meant was to be “in a constant state of rage.”
That is more intensely true now. The American cult of the individual has reached a zenith, and we assume we are a part of this movement, with its spiritual impresarios and gated communities and cell phones on every table. We are not. Take the ongoing conversation about the angst of the baby boomers. Boomers have had their long days in the sun as they‘ve protested, prospered and now, on the cusp of middle age, contend with crises of purpose and spirit. Black people, even the most resolutely middle-class amongst us, are at a very different point along the arc of social evolution; our crises are still chiefly those of deprivation, not abundance, and so our experiences are not considered germane to the boomer discourse at all, which cuts us out of yet another great American cultural moment. The book By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (2000) concludes that while blacks may be earning comfortable incomes in record numbers, they are not really considered part of the middle class, with all the affirmation that phrase confers upon its members. “The virtual absence of blacks from middle-class iconography has led a number of writers and scholars to view them as the ’invisible men‘ of the 1990s,” write the authors, Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown. They go on to say that President Clinton’s chief pollster, Stanley Greenberg, reported something even more diminishing: For whites in focus groups, “not being black is what constituted middle class; not living with blacks was what made a neighborhood a decent place to live.” Beneath our plenty runs the cold undercurrent that being black is still the least advantageous and most repugnant state of being, the thing we all so concertedly run from and measure our misfortunes against.