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Saturday, April 10, 2021

The cost of being Black

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I’ve been thinking about Pecola Breedlove, the emotionally tormented character from Toni Morrison’s incomparable debut novel, “The Bluest Eye.” Published the year in which I was born, “The Bluest Eye” is notable in part because it is a story of racism that is set in Morrison’s native Ohio — as opposed to some stereotypical Southern state. 

Pecola is poor. She is Black. She is female. And she is constantly belittled by others — Black and white — for being “ugly.” She tries valiantly to navigate a world that unapologetically tries to negate her very existence. She asks God to give her the quintessential mark of whiteness — blue eyes. Pecola’s ill-fated quest for validation of her humanity is excruciatingly painful (for her and for the reader). That quest is all too familiar for far too many African Americans.  

Morrison wrote this book during a period of substantial shifts in American society and politics. The Civil Rights Movement was giving way to the Black Power Movement. Also, the U.S. had recently transitioned from having a president who recognized that racism was a major problem to selecting one who fanned the flames of that very racism for his own political gain.

Morrison, who died almost a year ago at age 88, was so deliberate, so exacting, so flawless in her mastery of language. She spoke eloquently about laboring to find precisely the right concoction of words to do justice to the stories that dwelled inside her. In so doing, Morrison deftly elucidates the depths of the psycho-social trauma that attends Blackness in America. For example, she lays out how Pecola’s mere presence is an affront — even an unforgivable offense — to whiteness. This leads to Pecola losing her sanity.

While I have never desired to be white, I have long envied the multiplicity of advantages — explicit and implicit — that collectively have come to be known as “white privilege.” (It is fascinating to watch so many whites deny the existence of the last thing that most of them would ever voluntarily forego.) Arguably, the most important aspect of white privilege is not having to endure the longing to be acknowledged as fully human. Ultimately, white privilege is not about dollars; it is about dignity. 

Recently I’ve seen an increasing number of stories in the media regarding white people who didn’t “get it” until they became parents of Black children. Yet, even well-meaning white people — whom we call “allies” — cannot fathom the extraordinary energy that it takes to simply exist in the world that Black women, men, girls and boys traverse every single day. 

As a Black man I have to figure out how not to appear “threatening” to whites (especially women) when I’m shopping. I have to go through a mental checklist of “do’s and don’ts” if I’m pulled over by the police. I have to have “the talk” with my son at least quarterly so that he can avoid being harassed — or even killed — by the police. I have to be prepared for “Karen” to challenge my right to be in a certain neighborhood, restaurant, hotel, or store. This is exceedingly draining. As Fannie Lou Hamer decreed, “We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.” 

People long ago discovered that the constant dripping of water onto even the hardest surface would eventually cause an indentation. Though it probably was not invented by the Chinese, “water torture” is infamous as a method of interrogation. And it is an appropriate analogy for what it is like to be Black in America. We endure the drip-drip-dripping of racial insults (including the repeated denials that we’re actually experiencing them) until many of us eventually “crack.” If Black life had a soundtrack, it would shift back and forth between “Fight the Power” and “The Message.” 

I know that a growing number of whites argue that their race has become a hindrance in modern America. They display their laments and grievances in everyday conversations and across social media: “Why does ‘white’ automatically mean racist?” “Why don’t we have White History Month?” “I’m not racist, but …” Those expressions of frustration, while heartfelt, pale in comparison to the effects of 400 years of racial oppression — a reality in which negative consequences have compounded like interest.

Similarly, I know that “all people — including white people — have problems.” 

While there are no actual winners in the “oppression games,” as the title of the late Bebe Moore Campbell’s book testifies, “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine.”

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com. 

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