By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
If you do happen to be a Negro, the best solution is to look determinedly over your shoulder in another direction. Ignore the feet and keep your head straight and fixed; the heart that sits equidistant between the two will have to get along on its own.
Equal and Opposite Reaction
I am not, therefore I am. On balance, I have always been much less concerned with what I am than what I am not -- not uneducated, not uncouth, not socially unaware, etc. It‘s why I got gold stars on my papers in grade school, not for being an original thinker but for being above the reproach meted out to black students like daily gruel. My personal triumphs never proceeded from that point of youthful narcissism the psychiatrists Price Cobbs and William Grier defined, rather wistfully and improbably, in their seminal work Black Rage (1968), a collection of case histories; like so many other things, that narcissism was something fundamental to the American world-view and something blacks were never supposed to express, much less feel.
My earliest recollection of acting with confidence involved somebody’s backyard birthday party, where I sat in a wooden picnic chair, in a straight pink dress and ruffled ankle socks; I was 6. A portable record player was spinning Stevie Wonder‘s “My Cherie Amour,” and I was almost faint with eagerness to show everybody how I had learned to do the cha-cha. I got up and started to dance. It was my grand entry into the world. For the length of the song, at least, I stood in opposition to nothing and led everyone to my particular enlightenment. From that point on, life became less and less like that.
Slipping Into Darkness
Depression as it’s been clinically defined has been on the rise among blacks, though what might look like an overnight phenomenon is more likely an admission of what‘s been true for a long, long time. The National Mental Health Association says in an online fact sheet that there’s been a historical “underdiagnosis” of black depression (though, interestingly enough, an overdiagnosis of schizophrenia, suggesting that our madness is easier to fathom than our middle ground). Surveys conducted by the NMHA show that blacks more than any other group view depression as personal weakness, that they are most likely to believe they can “handle it” by turning to prayer, family or community. Yet the rate of depression among black women is now estimated to be nearly 50 percent higher than the rate among white women. As they are so often, blacks are behind the self-help curve in that they are only now beginning to feel that depression is fit for public discourse: The Magic Johnson Foundation, which has addressed a host of health concerns, affirmed that last fall by teaming up with the National Medical Association and Pfizer Inc. to start a public-awareness program on depression in the African-American community.
I Been ‘Buked
One component of depression is a fatalistic acceptance of a circumstance you know is harmful, but you are convinced you cannot change. What if you know in your bones that you can’t change it, that it will take oh so much more than you to change it, and so in the meantime you ignore the brittleness of your teeth and smile? Is that courage, confusion, battle fatigue, all of the above?
Last year I traveled to New Orleans and to ground zero of the Big Uneasy. I took a bus ride out to a plantation in steam-iron heat that fairly hissed, with a contingent of white folks armed with cameras, brochures and carefully concealed expectations. They avoided looking at me. We were greeted by women in gay ruffled skirts offering mint juleps for sale; they took us from room to Victorian-style room declaiming about the nature of the goods, the exotic origins of the wood, the pianos, the dining-room columns. I felt vaguely stupid, and vague period, like I was there but fading by the moment, like a ghost who adamantly refuses to accept death even as death is doing its fiendish business. There was no mention of blacks on the tour; the guides referred to folks who worked in the mansions as “servants.” That blithe upgrade of status somehow riled me more than the epithet nigger. I finally raised a hand and inquired, too loudly against the high ceilings, about the slaves‘ quarters: Where were they? “Oh. Those,” the guide said with practiced patience, “blew away in a hurricane.”
No one asked a similar question. I was scornful but curiously uninflamed, because deep down I accepted this omission as the natural state of things. It would never matter how well my own story turned out, it would a always be trumped by this plantation story, this no-story; this story was the one that had to change.
From Slavery to Eternity
The book Black Rage argues with scientific eloquence that blacks have been shut out of the American culture of individualism and self-determinism just as they were shut out of the founding American culture of democracy. It implies that they will not, cannot be shut out forever, but it also acknowledges the killing effects of slavery and how those effects were still reverberating loud and clear in the late ’60s. It hardly needs to be said -- well, perhaps it does -- that they resonate now. We still wait in the wide gray gulf between annihilation and actualization, where we have been waiting for several hundred years; Cobbs and Grier say that it was really after slavery ended that our psychic troubles began in earnest, for it was then that white America had no more use for us, laborwise or any otherwise, and so, they write, “Negroes drifted into a nonexistence which they still occupy.”
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