The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.
–W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903
The overriding experience of the black American has been grief and sorrow and no man can change that fact. His grief has been realistic and appropriate. What people have so earned a period of mourning?
–From Black Rage, 1968
Today blacks are as religious, socially conservative, and patriotic as any other ethnic group, with a deep belief in the goodness and inclusiveness of American society and, despite the popular perception that blacks blame whites for their problems, a willingness to shoulder a large amount of responsibility for the present condition of their brethren. Values supposedly matter in America, but if black people have these values and are still not fully welcomed into the mainstream, it is fair for them to finally ask whether anything they do will ever make a difference.
–From By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, 2000
I Feel Good—Not.
About a year and a half ago, a thought struck me with unprecedented force: Life sucks. Overall. I had become acutely aware that I hadn’t been feeling good in years. Not physically but psychically and in a way rather worse than the modern miasma of inner perplexity and urban wariness that we call depression, a condition we’ve grown almost fond of because we’ve grown so fond of countering it with the latest wrinkle creams and poetry workshops and such. This despondency was different and felt completely above, or beneath, any self-actualization remedy. The usual miasma was there, but surging beneath it, like oil stealthily darkening a floor where you thought only water had spilled, was a sense of brokenness that felt vast and familiar, lived in; it had the wonderful and terrible assurance of a thing that had long been alive, much longer than myself. This great anxiousness seemed to speak, much better than depression could, to all the manifestations of my lacking life: The bills that couldn’t quite get paid, the boyfriend who seemed a permanent fixture but was always passing through, and most of all a weary acceptance that this would be about as good as things would get. Everything and everyone felt ephemeral, so what I was most attached to, what gave me the most comfort, also felt the most ominous. Each day I had to invent the world and appoint its order, try on attitudes like suits of clothes, discard them in heaps, finally bolt out the door with invariably ill-chosen feelings; life was making me not sad so much as exasperated and pissed off. Nothing fit the occasion of my life, whatever that was. I had decent-paying work, a roomy place to live in a decent part of town, a car, no family-household obligations, license to shop when I wished. What gave? Why did life so often feel like a football pass thrown to the wrong player, something I had been bobbling in my hands ever since the happy mist of adolescence lifted 20 years ago and I balked because I could no longer reasonably live under the auspices of naiveté and preposterous expectation? How and why were my blues not like everybody else’s? Eventually all these questions slowed to a freeze. I spent three lost days holed up in my apartment without a telephone or any other form of quick communication, moving about as little as possible. After I thawed I decided, with the help of a few friends and family members, that some therapy might be in order. Quite inadvertently, this decision began unraveling the mystery of my inertia. I had always lauded therapy in theory but discovered I scorned it in private. Therapy was for wimps and complainers or at least for people who had sufficient leisure time and money to take up a talking cure in the first place. In other words, therapy was for white people.
When I first sat before a therapist, a very pleasant white woman of unsparing insight, I realized there was far more to it than that. I am black and, as such, had never been disassembled as an individual. It had never really seemed necessary or even practical. In the course of life I had concluded that history had never taken much note of Negroes who were not iconic or tragic figures or some combination thereof. They were symbols to admire at best and loathe at least but not people to embrace for their vulnerability and personal explorations and resonant existential crises in the way that, say, Anaïs Nin or Albert Einstein were embraced for theirs. Our people, I had learned over and over in so many ways, are not like yours. We are not so finely calibrated or so emotionally instructive; the world is more interested in how heavy a burden we can shoulder than in our capacity for curiosity, for observing the stars or walking a beach and collecting shells and bottle caps (which I did as a kid, alone, vaguely embarrassed by the lack of a larger point to it all). The world recognizes our capacity for resistance, and that’s the best it can say about us. That’s the best we can often say about each other; that is the best I can often say about myself. We are thus forever defined by the tension of standing opposite to something; in the absence of such tension, we are the trees that fall in a forest and that nobody hears.
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. 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 six. 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 (NMHA) 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 vaguely 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 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.”
Slavery should be entirely passé in 2000, but it’s not. It’s still the ultimate American denial, on both sides: Whites want to forget about it for obvious reasons of incrimination, and blacks are at the very least torn about remembering it because they would really rather reach past it, around it, forgo the happy-darkie and yassuh-boss cultural paradigm that they feel has kept them down for so long. But denial, however understandable, is denial, and it leads nowhere good. (Just ask my therapist.)
There is at least, in 2000, a movement afoot to accord slavery its proper place. Randall Robinson of the organization TransAfrica has been campaigning hard for the last year or so for reparations to descendants of slaves—that’s us—though he’s not fundamentally talking about money. More than cash disbursements, Robinson wants recognition from the government of the oppression slaves endured. He wants everybody to mourn. He wants an official monument, like the ones that pay homage to Washington and Lincoln and to Holocaust survivors and the Japanese who were wrongfully interned on American soil during World War II. Yet beneath the academic polish and impeccable reasoning of Robinson’s arguments and editorials is a plea that is touching and saddening and angering: Here we are, hat in hand, still seeking at-large affirmation while the rest of the world is busy issuing apologies (most recently, the president of Argentina apologized to Jews for his country’s having harbored Nazi war criminals), shifting borders, spinning deals around the globe, merging and making websites faster than you can spit. We’re weathered rocks in the middle of a fast-moving stream, and the world is flowing around us without breaking pace. We’re still steeped in what historian Orlando Patterson, in his book Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (1999), calls “natal alienation,” permanently wrought by the fact that slaves had no legally sanctioned or recognized family structure. Continuity has therefore always been tough to come by, like standing on the shoulders of someone who’s been cut off at the knees, and the only thing that persists generation to generation is the need to create a new coping mechanism for being both extant and extinct.
Wanna Take You Higher
I borrowed my father’s old hardback copy of Black Rage hoping only for a side comment or two about the black psyche, some incidental insight that might prove useful in writing about race and depression. The title seemed quaintly dramatic, overwrought, of another age and arc in time that had once glowed hot with color and then vanished like a rainbow. But when I started reading, it felt not quaint at all but immediate, devastatingly relevant. Here were the million points of connection among ethnic, social and individual dynamics that I saw daily but, despite the vast array of media outlets at my disposal, never heard or recognized in words. This was analysis, epiphany, prophecy. I took many notes. I avidly followed stories of former patients like Bertha, a woman whose keen intelligence and curiosity seemed to have been neutralized by the fact that she’d also been born with dark skin and a flat nose; John, an executive torn between corporate assimilation and ethnic identity; Booker, a doctoral candidate who struggles with the lingua franca of scholarship and clings to his Southern-patois rap like a security blanket. Like Randall Robinson’s explication of the merits of slavery recompense, the book is at once logical and supremely impassioned and rings with truth and condemnation. It draws its subjects cleanly and objectively but does not worry about maintaining academic distance—it in fact uses academics with a vengeance. The unexamined black life gave Cobbs and Grier all the drive and indignation they needed, and all the proof I needed to know I wasn’t alone, in 2000, with my sense of being chronically out of focus.
Check the Black Box
When Census 2000 proposed a new racial category, “Other,” I felt equally furious and hapless: i.e., depressed. (By virtue of being black for 38 years, wasn’t I already Other?) It was the damned ease with which the establishment assumed it could redraw boundaries of color and identity and cultural orientation, like congressional districts, in the same way it did last century when it decided who was black or white enough for polite society and who wasn’t. I know what some folks are thinking: But don’t you want to be free of those categories? Isn’t it exactly those categories that have bound you for so long? To the multiculturalists who’ve been multiplying since the early ’90s like maggots, I say no. What has bound me, and binds me, is an inchoate self that can be made whole only by affecting inclusion—retroactively, please. Eradicating race is not a postmodern version of enlightenment to me but self-annihilation, even if it’s done only on paper. (After all, the most damning and lasting edicts are just that, ink on paper.) Neither do I view myself as merely a figment of race, but I cannot and do not separate race from Me. Why would I want to, anyway—to blur the few lines of distinction that I and everybody else recognize? And if I were to cast out the “old” paradigm of black, as I am regularly encouraged to do, what new one would I embrace? Full-blooded American? Why isn’t anyone in my vicinity casting off old paradigms of white, Thai, Chinese, Latino? No one else seems to be in such a hurry to depluralize themselves. Assimilate, adapt, yes; give up a defining culture, however in flux, no. In fact, the more put upon and oppressed a people, the less likely they are to lay down traditions and the more likely they are to thrive. The problem is that we consciously fail to recognize what our traditions are, though we are certainly reminded daily what we are. As pioneering publisher Earl Graves remarked a generation ago, “You can graduate from Harvard and Yale, but you can’t graduate from blackness.” Even if I could, would I want to?
Maulana Karenga, executive director of the African American Cultural Center and a locally famous figure from the Black Power ’60s, waves such questions away like an annoyance, so much cigarette smoke. In his modified boom of a voice, he touts the importance of thinking in a new box, an African one. He calls it kawaida, principles similar to those of Kwanzaa (also his creation) that stress a constant connection to African culture in order to carve meaningful spaces for ourselves in the world. Karenga calls them “free spaces.” “Self-assertion in the world is dependent upon self-understanding,” he declares. His office is cozy, stacked with books, woody and inviting, like a rectory. The noise and hectoring of 54th Street seem miles away. An enormous, very handsome atlas with yellowed pages and intricate pictures sits open on a lectern. “We don’t turn to Africa for answers, because we’re Europeanized, so we’ve turned historically to Greece and to Israel,” he goes on, “but how do you reconcile being African with this acculturation?” I have no idea. I want to listen, that’s enough. “But look at all the things we’ve done,” says Karenga, sweeping out an arm. “I’m very impressed with black history. We’ve suffered a holocaust, but we’ve achieved tremendously. No one gave us that—we carved it out of the hard rock of reality. We did things the founding fathers,” (whose?) “never dreamed of. I’ve been saying this since ’65: We must fight a cultural revolution for ourselves, for the hearts and minds of our people, a revolution that will grow a collective self-conscious. Kawaida says we must constantly recover and put forth the best of what it means to be African.”
Karenga rails against the current black intelligentsia—chief among them Henry Louis Gates, de facto leader of Harvard University’s black academic “dream team”—for deconstructing black people, criticizing them into irrelevance. “They’re always looking for the stitch and stain of blacks, peeling paint instead of providing the masses with models of possibility, of human excellence,” he says emphatically. “Blacks are greatly in need of possibility. If not that, what?” What, indeed? I second Karenga’s motion, and in the pit of my stomach I am guilty. Am I needlessly unraveling thread, as he accuses Gates of doing? Should I keep my doubts to myself? But if I had, I would not have been led here. And if I were only ministering to myself, I also would not have been led here.
Karenga, too, seems to have been reviewing the puzzle-box questions of I and We, of I and Me, Me and We. He sighs. “Black indignity and indivisibility,” he says. “They’re inviolate, inseparable.” He chuckles ruefully. “When you hear a gangsta rapper denigrating the hos, that’s you. He doesn’t say, ‘Everybody’s a ho except Lakisha.’”
Mad, Mad, Mad World
I’m depressed because I can’t merely be mad, and my anger therefore wanders around aimlessly in a kind of emotional cul-de-sac. If you’re black and mad, you are never assumed to be merely black and mad: You are in the throes of Black Rage. However inalienable a right this rage is, it is viewed as fearsome, tedious, wearying, an impediment to progress. I claim black rage, but I hardly exploit it in the way people like to think it is routinely exploited by, say, Al Sharpton. That presumption is why people around me back up when I glare at a mall cashier who’s telling me my credit card’s been denied. No matter that I’m really only concerned about my checkered financial past; at bottom it must be black rage that’s turning my face into a hurricane threat. In fact, I don’t often know which parts of my anger are which—am I mad at Visa, at the humiliation of it all, at yet another instance of being denied? Sometimes I don’t even try to untangle things, from which I get a grim sort of satisfaction in being the unruly Negro the world figures we all carry around with us like an inner child, the one that makes its appearance sooner or later and trumps everything—reason, job, straightening combs, everything.
The Truth Will Set You Free, Or Kill You
Admission of depression is certainly liberating, but its consequences are proving deadly: black suicide rates are soaring, particularly among the young. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the suicide rate among blacks between 10 and 19 years old more than doubled between 1980 and 1995, and for males between 15 and 19 the rate increased an astounding 146 percent. Unlike whites and Latinos, whose suicide victims tend to be poor and disadvantaged, black victims tend to be equally distributed across the economic spectrum. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist at the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, believes this points to unique psychological pressures borne, but hardly acknowledged, by the black middle class. “Many blacks no longer accept you, and whites don’t want you either,” he said in a recent Essence interview. “As for young black men, society definitely doesn’t have any place for them—except prison.” Stephen Thomas, director of the Institute for Minority Health Research at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Public Health, says suicide among the privileged class and homicide in the ghetto may be two singular expressions of the same kind of despair. “The kid who walks out of the house with a semiautomatic gun and confronts another kid armed with a weapon—we don’t call that suicide,” he said in Essence. “But it’s self-destructive behavior that has a place in the same debate.”
I Remember David
Self-knowledge is assumed to provide us with those moments of pure, unalloyed happiness that are rare, but, like love, terribly potent and necessary in any life. But what if the self is always at odds with its environs, if it turns and turns but finds no berth or welcoming place? Then it becomes a kind of antimatter that may spontaneously combust or collapse into itself like a black hole. I think David died like that. He died no place, on the side of a freeway, and no one was saying how he got there.
We grew up together on a generously tree-shaded block in South L.A. in the late ’60s, and David was my best friend. He wasn’t supposed to be; for one thing, he was a boy, and for another, he was an oddity among those boys in our surrounding blocks who learned fast and early the art of cool. They knew how to stick blades of grass in their teeth and look both languid and menacing, how to do a slow, foot-dragging rooster strut even if they were late for school or their mothers were standing out on porches strenuously calling them in to dinner. David didn’t play himself like that, because he didn’t seem to care and didn’t know how anyway. He liked to pretend and play make-believe, to assume various superhero identities and make up games and rules and puzzle through all these things aloud. As we grew up and parted company with childhood and its exigencies of imagination, he drifted into drug use and never quite found his way out. He had no idea where to put himself as an adult, certainly not in the scheme of black male adulthood. I think he jumped, from an overpass or a car, or he got loaded and let things take their course. Or maybe, as his family theorized, he was done in by one of the seizures that plagued him in the final years of his life. Nobody raised the specter of suicide at the funeral—few things are more anathematizing to the core black belief of hope and betterment—but we all moved about the chapel weighted with the sadness that David bore, that of a soul that knew itself early on but left life unlived, by the side of the road. Several years before he died I wrote a story about my old block and wanted to talk to David, but he refused me an interview. He didn’t want to talk about what hadn’t happened, what he was not. He sent an adamant message through my brother: I don’t want to see her. I’ve done nothing with myself, she can find a better example of what shines, of who matters… He was wrong.
I started playing piano again this year, after years of languishing, and though I read sheet music like one blind, I still gravitated toward what had vexed and enthralled me most: Scott Joplin. His ebullient ragtime described America around the turn of the century and foreshadowed other music genres that would describe it: jazz, R&B, rap. It was also the tragic beginning of the American practice of appropriating black culture and ignoring black people as personally and culturally unworthy. Joplin fought this and lost. He dreamed of completing operas, crafted rags in the spirit of classical waltzes and rondos and quadrilles, and got nods—bare nods—for writing black barrelhouse, whorehouse, cakewalk piano rolls. His syncopations were genius and exactly what exiled him: the sociopolitical metaphor of black rhythms laboring to break free of, and enhance, and conform to—all at once!—an unbending two-four beat was too much for America to bear, black or white.
At the turn of this century, we all listen to black, dress black, walk black, step to the real, etc. In fact, we’ve all rather publicly decided that rap, hip-hop, and their innumerable spin-offs are acceptable fun in a corporate sort of way, a way of getting dangerous without getting hurt, like Nintendo or a theme park ride that offers a near-death experience. The book By the Color of Our Skin elaborates on this malady of delusion in its discussion of “virtual integration”—the idea that whites (and blacks, to a degree) see far more integration in the media than they see in reality but believe the media-fied version because it makes them feel better about themselves and about racial progress in America. Virtual integration also dictates what gets integrated (Bill Cosby, Fresh Prince, The WB) and what doesn’t (gang activity, black suspects on the 5 o’clock news). Psychologically speaking, it makes perfect sense to take something feared and make it something appealing: so it is that blacks are the nation’s bogeyman and also the nation’s greatest entertainer.
I know now why Scott Joplin admonished musicians in his sheet music: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.” It was a small but persistent entreaty that we all read between the lines: Smell the roses, make distinctions. As I stumble over “Gladiolus Rag,” “Bethena Waltz,” “Solace,” I am grateful that I cannot do otherwise.
I never caught up with William Grier, though he’s in Southern California. (His son, I discovered, is the comic actor David Alan Grier, whose career in Hollywood would be a study in the abuse and neglect of full black talent and in any case an appropriate subject for this story.) Price Cobbs lives in San Francisco now, works primarily as a coach of business executives, has an office in a lovely part of town that feels like Larchmont Village but newer and not so hip yet, twinkly and inviting in a middle-class kind of way. He answers the door immediately. He is grayer, of course, than in his photo on the dust jacket of Black Rage, taken 32 years ago. He’s dressed in the Dockers and leather sport shoes of his active but listing-toward-retirement generation. He understands perfectly what I’m trying to write about but doesn’t know what I want. On matters of black behavior and psychology, he is both clinically brusque and deeply feeling in the way his book is. He is kind to me, like family.
Cobbs agrees with the notion that, socioculturally speaking, it’s still very hard for blacks to exist as individuals because our group sense is so fragmented. And this fragmentation is not well understood, or even regarded as a problem; the world at large, which in its most magnanimous mood paints blacks with the broadest of brush strokes, has increasingly little patience with our postmodern angst or the new nuances of black consciousness. “There’s a sense of ‘Damn, you got all those civil rights laws, of course the playing field is level now,’” says Cobbs. “We get unfavorably compared to model minorities, like Asians. The problem now is that issues are for us much broader, deeper, and more diffuse. They’re much harder to mobilize around than, say, ‘Get out the vote.’ While there’s a more visible and bigger middle class, the problems are much less tangible—problems that are economic, psychological, social.”
Has there been net progress? Cobbs says yes but guardedly. At points he vigorously refutes his own examples of progress. “We’re more aware of black history,” he muses, “but on some level it isn’t really substantive awareness. It’s put on, trivial, commercialized by Black History Month… But I think that whatever our degree of pessimism, we’re still optimistic about how things could change.” That optimism has also undone and undermined us by glossing over where it should illuminate with the light of truth. “It’s most important now to know where we are, but we use these PR campaigns in real attempts to negate what’s going on,” Cobbs says, animated but fuming now. “When we first saw black people in ads back in the ’60s, we thought, ‘Great! This is cool!’ But later we thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is bullshit.’”
Speaking of which, Cobbs believes that we are deep in an age when things are not what they seem, as well as an age of comfortable, and comforting, denial. When it first found public voice, black rage seemed like a clear, straightforward, albeit taboo concept; in 2000 it is still as potent, but expressed so differently that people are willing to assume it has percolated down to nothing. Cobbs says nothing could be further from the truth. “One of the reasons we wrote Black Rage was this notion we had that seemed to make sense: The angriest black person is the one most deprived,” he says. “But we found out that the angriest black people were those working at a major liberal metropolitan paper or the suburban school teacher. They had no way to talk about the rage, to feel it. They had no context. I’ve seen people in corporations who are there to represent blacks, but they have as many hang-ups and self-image problems as any black person out there. What to do?” Cobbs wishes he knew—he, after all, should know. His coaching job has called for him to convince black executive types that they belong, that they have as much of a stake in their outfit as anyone else. “I’m supposed to help them see that they could be everything they wanted to be,” he says, half wistfully, half caustically. “But I talked to them individually and realized they had risen as high as they could go, and now it was, ‘Now what?’” What to do, indeed.
Another conundrum that has worsened considerably, perhaps fatally, since the ’60s is that of authentication. In another modern-day complication of double consciousness, blacks devote so much energy to squaring themselves with an authentic black mode—especially middle-class blacks—that they find little time and space for individuality. Cobbs says that mode defines being black as “deprived in terms of housing, economics, jobs, money. Black is still the culture of have-nots. If someone has all these things, then they are not black, and they are lost. That’s very difficult.
“I can’t tell you,” he goes on, a bit mistily, “how wonderful it was to hear in a meeting, years ago, ‘Black is beautiful.’ You could hear a pin drop. The ledge that we stood on had been broadened. But once it was broadened, the question was, ‘Well, who’s black enough and who isn’t?’ Rather than giving us more room, it gave us less room on the ledge. The Washington Post ran a story recently that wondered aloud if the new mayor of D.C. was ‘black’ enough. The very new definition that ‘expanded’ us has actually narrowed us.”
We’ve all had a hand in the narrowing—black and white, corporate tiger and street-corner rapscallion alike. Cobbs puts aside the growing vexation for a moment and focuses on me. “Do you collide with the ledge?” he asks. “Do you write about something nonblack, like French cinema, and broaden the ledge? You’ve got to do those things. You’ve got to follow the beat of your own drummer. You’re grounded in who you are, which means you can go off on as many tributaries as you want and it augments you, it doesn’t limit you.”
I am starting to feel distinctly charged with something, a mission of renaissance. Cobbs grows more agitated, his eyes brightening behind thick glasses. “You’re in a process of liberation,” he says. “I went through it too, as a psychiatrist. I was seen as too bourgeois or too militant. All you need to do is be yourself.” I feel in the middle of a mildly fantastic journey. I’ve come up north seeking the great and powerful Oz and found instead the man behind the curtain, in a nice cubbyhole of an office, with an air of fatigue and no answers but perhaps with something better, more empowering. He is seeking something in me; I’ve got the deliverance all wrong, and that’s good. Maybe. Cobbs walks me out into the blinding sun, down the street to a deli, where we sit with coffee, soup, sandwiches. He’s eager to know what’s going on in L.A., the town where he grew up: Who’s up and coming in leadership? What’s promise look like?
What can I tell him? What can I give him back? I search my mind, knowing I don’t have to, shrug elaborately. “There’s nobody,” I say. “Nobody I know of.”
Back to the Couch
I stopped going to the therapist eventually because I couldn’t afford it. I had grown rather used to the confessions, the onion peeling, even liked the process, my induction into the whole wonderful gestalt of being listened to—for no reason! It was 180 degrees from not and all the tensions of opposition and authenticity; at the therapist’s, I floated on a current that carried me wherever I wished. I could talk about why I overspent on shoes, why I liked solitude so intensely, why I had stuck with a lousy relationship for so long. I found I could very neatly separate these issues from those of race, and I tacitly decided to talk about the former and not the latter. I was hardly aware of this decision, it seemed so natural: Race would upset the balance of this new relationship that was forming comfortably. It was forming, I reasoned somewhere deep within myself, precisely because I wasn’t leading with experiences tied to color. If I invoked blackness I would become something less vulnerable and more belligerent: She wouldn’t like me anymore, she would regard me less as a person and more as a political malcontent. I was enjoying the luxury of being listened to too much to risk any less listening on her part.
But that became the problem: Here was a mother confessor, finally, to whom I couldn’t tell all for fear of retribution. And I was withholding perhaps the most important information of all about myself. I might as well have been a serial killer with a great secret of having buried five bodies in four counties. Yet discussing myself as a black person navigating the world—which is fundamentally what I was, what I am—felt somehow more foreboding than discussing myself as a failed pianist. My feelings about shoes felt more appropriate for these chaise-longue discussions than my feelings about race and my conflicts between loyalty and displacement, between family and a larger collective. Certainly all these things were making me more subtly crazy than the shoes or the boyfriend, and I felt increasingly guilty that I was holding back with a woman who seemed to want to know everything and would seemingly wait forever to know it. But there it was. I couldn’t quite integrate myself in her presence and didn’t want her to know, yet worried she would never get to the bottom of me, that she would never surmount what I couldn’t surmount myself. Therapists are of course there to do what you cannot do yourself, but believe me, she needed my help on this one. And then the situation suspended itself rather abruptly when I ran out of money. I yearned to go back—depression lurked always, and partial disclosure turned out to be vastly better than none—and when my finances and insurance limits improved several months later, I did. But I went back resolved to tell all; my fiancé, to whom I had confessed this racial reticence, declared that I must make exactly the same confession to the therapist if I was going to make real breakthroughs. That’s how the stuff worked. Her reaction, my fiancé said, would be critical: “Then you’ll know if she’s really any good or not.” Really? I was distraught about putting the therapist in professional jeopardy, because I really did like her and didn’t want to make her responsible for setting right what I essentially felt nobody could set right, not now. Not after New Orleans and David and realizing over and over how enormous this thing was. What could she do about it?
I did tell her. After a deep breath and a preface that I’m sure sounded like I was going to announce I had terminal cancer. She listened, as always. She nodded gravely, as always. She put an index finger to her lips. Then, for the first time in the year or so since we’d met, she spoke about herself—to let me know that, all along, she recognized the whole of my self, at its most certain and most chimerical, even if I couldn’t. “Did I ever tell you,” she said, “that I’m married to a black man?”
But maybe, after all, the Negro doesn’t really exist. What we think is a race is detached moods and phases of other people walking around. What we have been talking about might not exist at all. Could be the shade patterns of something else thrown on the ground—other folks, seen in shadow. God made everybody else’s color. We took ours by mistake.
–Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942