The Crusader Newspaper Group

Being Black in America is a journey filled with mountains and valleys

By Vernon A. Williams

After more than 400 years, this nation seems no closer to resolving the so-called race issue than at any point in history. Conversely, efforts to erase African-American existence from school curriculums, choreographed state laws designed to suppress voting rights, and pervasive remnants of Jim Crow create mounting challenges too prominent to ignore.

“To be Black in this country is really to never be looked at. What white people see when they look at you is not visible. What they do see when they look at you is what they have invested you with.” 

That James Baldwin quote succinctly captures the disposition of the larger society that people who are misrepresented, underrepresented and not represented at all are doomed to a vicious cycle of poverty and mediocrity.

In other words, this society is aware of the disadvantages for African Americans because they are intentional, by design and systemic. There is a wicked foundation of suppression upon which pervasive strategies for oppression are constructed. 

Little in this country happens by accident. If so, the law of averages would result in the occasional inadvertent reversals of roles and power. There is a blueprint for discrimination and maintenance of practices and institutions designed to thwart social justice and equity.

Baldwin reveals a sad truth: “This country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you would perish… You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”

That formula for disaster has met unanticipated resistance since the Emancipation Proclamation, along with subsequent constitutional amendments that provided for increased mobility for Blacks along with broadly expanded educational opportunities.

At every opportunity, Black Americans soundly refuted the gross misnomer of their being a people with limited capacity, drive and civility. Throughout history, the opposite has been proven true with Blacks validating unlimited ability to excel at any level, articulating ambition and vision unsurpassed, and embracing the highest conceivable codes of ethics.

For too long, it has been inappropriately preached among both contentious whites and well-meaning men and women of color that assimilation is the most plausible route to overcoming obstacles and achieving success – getting a slice of the American pie. 

In other words, get an education, prepare thoroughly and then—given an opportunity in the workplace—function in such a way that there is no distinction between yourself and white colleagues. Get the work done without reminding anyone of, or acknowledging, your identity or culture. To some, assimilation is an innocuous approach.

But there is an African proverb that says, “The best way to fight an alien and oppressive culture is to embrace your own.” The moral quandary is the price of dignity paid for sacrificing culture and natural proclivities as part of a litmus test not required of white Americans in the workplace.

So, among myriad dynamics, being Black perpetually challenges us to fight a system of impediments and denial while maintaining our own identity and principles. It is an often deflating and frustrating conundrum that Blacks fight through with tireless resolve. The best of it is, when you have achieved goals against the odds, the victory is genuine.

Reverend Jesse Jackson put it this way, “The burden of being Black is that you have to be superior just to be equal. But the glory of it is, once [you] obtain achievements, you have achieved, indeed.” While there is a great sense of accomplishment, the joy is usually short-lived, as you are reminded on the way out the door of the awards ceremonies that you look more like the hotel valet than an honoree.

That is a level of bigotry difficult to fight since it is formed not in reality but in the mind of the oppressor. Reverend Jackson mentioned being in New York and being mistaken for a doorman at a posh Manhattan hotel. The same thing happened to former Secretary of State General Colin Powell. The most successful among us still feel the pain.

Comedy icon Chris Rock says, “I was born a suspect. I can walk down any street in America and women will clutch their purses tighter, hold onto their mace, and lock their car doors. If I look up into windows of the apartments I pass, I can see old ladies on the phone. They’re already dialing 9-1-1 and are just waiting for me to do something wrong.”

Being Black is a wonderful sense of self within, but it is a never-ending struggle against a system that hates the very thought of such self-gratification and pride. And to be aware of that attitude is to be in a constant state of swimming against the stream. James Baldwin summed it up, “To be Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

Even assimilation is not refuge. In the words of Marian Wright Edelman: “It is utterly exhausting being Black in America – physically, mentally, and emotionally. While many minority groups and women feel similar stress, there is no respite or escape from your badge of color.” So, we fight – wearily, but relentlessly. To do otherwise is surrender.

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