W.E.B. DuBois on: "How it Feels to be a Problem."
W.E.B. DuBois, "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," in Eric and Mary Josephson, eds., Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society (New York: Dell, 1962), p. 339.
Derrick Bell, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Cornel West, The Cornel West Reader (New York: Basic Books, 1999), p. 91.
I am eight years-old. I am in second grade, sitting in the first row, by the window. I am dressed funny. Everybody else looks really nice. They have clean clothes, pretty new things, especially the girls. Some of them are blond, others have light brown or reddish hair. This is something I have not seen before. So many blond persons. I do not understand what people are saying. I know they are laughing at me, sometimes, but I can't say anything in response.
I don't know how to say that I want to go to the bathroom. I will hold it in until I leave school. "Discipline is important," Zorro said this in my favorite t.v. show, before I came to America. Zorro is my favorite hero because he was a defender of "little people."
I am the first person in the clasroom who speaks Spanish. Another student speaks Portuguese and is supposed to translate for me, even though I only speak Spanish. I guess the teacher figured that Portuguese is close enough to my language. Maybe he speaks a few words of Spanish. He clearly does not want to be associated with me.
I am separated from my mother and father. My sister is also in this school somewhere. If we have to run out of here, if there is a bomb or something, I don't think that I'll "duck and cover." I think about having to find her first. I will scream out her name in the hallways and look for her, if there is an attack by some hostile power. You never know.
My uncle said that I must protect her.
Another boy looks at me and laughs. I will punch him in the face when we get outside. My uncle explained to me that I must not allow boys to laugh at me or touch me. I am not sure what I must do about girls because they are very puzzling creatures. As a matter of fact, I still feel this way. This is because they are indeed very puzzling creatures.
I am "different." That is the lesson that I am learning today. My food, clothes, way of being is different. The actual school work here is easy, even though I don't speak the language. I was way ahead of these lessons in my math class in Cuba.
There is one other student who is different too. Her name is "Tracy." Her skin is dark. She looks like my friends in Cuba. My skin is white. I am supposed to feel special because of this, but I don't. It wasn't like this where I had lived before. She is nice and smiles at me. She is sitting at the opposite side of the room. She is looking at everyone the way I look at them, warily and defensively. She has long "pig tails," a bow in her hair, and wears a nice dress. She is nice to me. Other children in class do not speak to her. I do not understand this. This is a strange place.
I am visiting a strange planet.
How does it feel to be a problem? they say I know an excellent colored man in my town; or I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
Du Bois explains what it feels like to discover that one is "different," that one is fascinated by and attracted to what greets us with ambiguity or even hostility. We are charmed and repelled by a society in which we find ourselves judged and categorized, as children, when we cannot yet understand why this is happening. He explains the child's discovery of difference at the moment when the mirror is broken and the self is split in two: there is suddenly a person who observes and judges -- because he (or she) is aware of being observed and judged; and there is a person whom others see, who is reduced to what can be observed, from the outside. R.D. Laing has understood this phenomenon better than any other psychiatrist or psychologist whose works I know, having developed the concept of "ontological" division and insecurity.
"... Laing's first book, The Divided Self, published in 1960, thematized the problem of ontological insecurity experienced by people whose needs, feelings and experiences are consistently invalidated in early childhood."
Daniel Burston, The Crucible of Experience: R.D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 3. (Every African-American person, without exception, will have to contend with this issue to some degree in American society.)
Some people identify with those doing the judging, want to have power and become that other person (most people); others, a few, prefer the company of those who are judged and dismissed, who do not wish to have power or to be identified with it. It sometimes takes a while to figure out in which group we belong. Sadly, "errors" will continue to be inserted in this text in an effort at disconfirmation of identity and infliction of emotional distress that is now several decades old. ("What is it like to be tortured?")
I believe that Tracy, who was nice enough to take me to the playground after school, also discovered this division in herself at about the same time that I did. Maybe, on the same day, in the same classroom. W.E.B. DuBois experienced something similar, many years earlier:
In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting cards -- ten cents a package -- and exchange. The exchange was merry till one girl, a newcomer, refused my card -- refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.
I remember looking at my clothes. They were from the Salvation Army. The pants were too short. The shirt was too small. I guess that I looked even funnier than I felt. No wonder people were laughing.
There was a sadness about Tracy that lingers in my memory. She was not laughed at, as I was, but it was like she was not there. The other children played and talked around her, but not with or to her. Yet she had the loveliest smile and gentlest eyes that I had ever seen. Wherever she is now, I hope she's running a big corporation or doing something important, because she was a good and responsible person, even then.
I had a tiny Bible, given to me when I arrived in America. I looked at it to figure out English words. She had a Bible too. The pictures were great. DuBois explains what happens to children who experience such things:
One feels his twoness -- an American, a Negro, two souls, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. ...
... He wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.
I remember newsreels about the civil rights struggle, riots nearby, and Dr. King's speeches. I remember people saying that Dr. King was a Communist and a bad man. I knew that was a lie because I already recognized goodness. I saw it on t.v. when he spoke. I wanted to be with him. I kept silent because, if I argued, I might get hit (especially if I won the argument).
Many adults do not like it if you have opinions that differ from theirs, especially if you have good reasons for those opinions. I notice that many adults still feel this way. Some are judges or politicians. Others are psychologists who explain that your opinions must be changed "for your own good," so you can "adjust."
I will never discourage children from holding and expressing opinions. I will never hit a child, nor a woman. I will struggle to avoid all violence. I have kept these promises to myself all of these years. I also learned then to come to my own conclusions and never to allow anyone to alter my thinking, either with violence or threats, but only to reflect on the reasons for what I believe and to try to be open to persuasion. If everybody else believes something, then I am even more suspicious of that belief. The things that everyone believes are usually much too convenient and much too good to be true.
I wanted then, what I want now -- what we all want -- freedom. I refused and will always refuse to accept any and all imprisoning categories. I am not what they see and laugh at; I am not what my uncle is; I am not what I was before I came here. I am what exists between "I am not" and "I will be." For this reason the insertion of "errors" in my writings will not bring about the desired collapse. I will not be made into a slave.
Freedom, too, the long sought, we still seek -- the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire. Work, culture, liberty -- all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving towards that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the ideal of fostering the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large comformity to the larger ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack.
The place between "I am not" and "I will be" is where you will find W.E.B. DuBois and Dr. King. It is the spiritual homeland of all African-Americans, because it is the truth about America's promise and it is hope, always hope, for a people who have experienced evil at first hand, who are, in a sense, journeying home from exile.
Both Dr. King and W.E.B. DuBois, but also James Baldwin, Maya Angelou (look at their smiles and at their eyes when they smile), Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison and so many others can help you get there. They want you to join them on this journey. They (and we) are still struggling.
And still we are not saved ...