The enslaved were driven to work from sun up to sun down with the threat of the whip whistling overhead. Yet if their exhausted bodies showed any weariness, they were derided as lazy. It was illegal to teach them to read or write and then they were labeled stupid. They hid their intelligence and cunning to not be punished for being “uppity.” When the master’s lust overwhelmed any sense of humanity, he would bend a sweaty, buxom body over a barrel and satisfy himself in the presence of husbands and children then cast her and any progeny aside. Likewise, if the desires of the master’s mistress ran hot and seduced a well-toned young black buck, he was considered a sexual predator and have his muscles splayed bare, dismembered or lynched. The unending drip of these and many other sick stereotypes have polluted the well of this society, has shaped its culture and the laws that sustain it. And we all have drunk its waters.
This has been the unearned burden I (and every Black person admittedly or not) have carried throughout my life. Like that whistling whip, it has driven me to deny these labels any ground. The degree of my success depended on the degree of my acceptance. So, at times, I employed the old, disarming tactic of “shuckin and jivin” that fostered many of the blackface entertainers, a dehumanizing ploy that reinforced racist stereotypes. In Ribbin', Jivin', and Playin' the Dozens: The Persistent Dilemma in Our Schools, Herbert L. Foster writes: "Shuckin' and jivin' is a verbal and physical technique some Blacks use to avoid difficulty, to accommodate some authority figure, and in the extreme, to save a life or to save oneself from being beaten physically or psychologically." One day, one of my co-workers said, “Hey Charlie! Come see me when you’re free,” as he hurried past my cubicle. With a glint in my eye, I shot back, “Hey Ralph, haven’t you heard?” He stopped dead in his tracks, looked back at me, his face flushing red, and with a big smile said “You got me!” We can still laugh about it.
Once one of my managers made a comment that, unknowing to him, hurt so deeply I could not stand the pain that ached through my sense of self. Unlike so many others I had let roll off my back, for this one I had to respond. So, I took my “hat in hand” and set out to find him. I humbly pointed out the offense. A moment I am not proud of and still pains me to this day. Fortunately, he recognized the slight, the injury it had caused and apologized for it. I cannot remember what was said that cut so deep. But the cut has never healed. Because of his compassion, we have remained friends.
My mental survival depended on the measure of my assimilation, my invisibility. It required constant vigilance. I was a fly in the milk bottle but the milk had been somewhat acidic. However, at the same time, so pervasive were the stereotypes, I myself ascribed them to the ratings boosting Blacks featured in the nightly news. In his song “Modern Spiritual” Eric Yancey sings:
“They got television telling us we’re only just fools.
Still we watch the shows time after time.
Well they finally figured out they don’t need no chains.
All they have to do is lock up our minds.”
I had become so deeply immersed in the White culture that to some extent I had forgotten from where I came. Edgemont had faded over the horizon in my rear-view mirror. I did not fully appreciate the moaning of grief or the shouts of anger rising up from the red-lined ghettos. At first unknowingly then gradually revealed through the years, I came to see more clearly, regardless of my success, I was still Black and their grief, their pain, their anger was also mine.
My burden became a little lighter once my retirement plan was vested, locked in, and my post professional life more secure. I was “rich” as my mother’s friends had declared, certainly in comparison to their world. I owned a nice home in a “safe” neighborhood. I had savings accounts. I owned stock on Wall Street! The mountain top was in sight. A hidden smile lingered. Twelve years later when I did retire and had survived the thousands of cuts, my emancipation was delivered. I was out from under the thumb of those who might crush me and send me back to “picking cotton.” The grip of “The Man,” as my mom would call any White man she saw as having authority over her life, was loosened. I was free! The only enemies left were the predators scattered around like dandelions poised to bloom, poisoned by the waters of our culture’s well, the acid in the milk. Vigilance is a never-ending job.
The curtain of my “performance” has lifted to reveal a loneliness though my life is full with White friendships developed along the way. I cherish them not only for their compassion but for their ability to see me for who I am, not just what I am. But something was still missing. It wasn’t until Marcia and I with some friends attended a showing of the movie “Just Mercy,” the true story of Walter McMillian, who, with the help of a young defense attorney, Bryan Stevenson, appeals his murder conviction. My missing piece became clear in the moments afterward.
It’s an important film that was particularly painful for me as I could see parallels in my own life even never having been incarcerated. I ached. After the film, we all went to dinner to discuss what we had just experienced. Everyone was moved by the story told and the injustice it revealed, that opened eyes. As the conversation went on, I sank into a dark place from which the cause of my loneliness became clear. The conversation echoed in my mind as a revelation of dissonance emerged. There was a distance between their response to the film and mine. They had been saddened just as anyone able to see the suffering of another. But for me, it was much deeper than sadness. It was personal. In that moment, I realized they had been spectators not just of the story projected upon the screen but to the world I live in. They were among my crowd of friends cheering me on from the stands but I was the one below playing the game, taking the hits, bandaging the injuries, bearing the bruises and limping off the field day after day. There was no way they could fully appreciate what it feels like to play the game, to be a gladiator looking to the master hoping to see a thumbs up. What was missing from my life were other players with whom I could share my stories and have them understood by someone who had also felt the pains as deeply as had I. I was missing those who had shared my experience. I was missing close Black friendships beyond family to share my joys, sorrows, injuries and successes and have them understood at a deeper level.
I have been emancipated but I am not yet free.