For most black people, this short rhyme is as much a part of our individual psyches as it is a part of our collective imaginations. W.E.B. DuBois termed it "double consciousness," Ralph Ellison wrote "I am an invisible man," Langston Hughes called it "the darker brother." What it is, in past and present terms, is the continuing obsession--whether voluntary or imposed--of African Americans to constantly view themselves through the eyes of another.
For instance, when a crime is committed, our first thought is, "I hope he's not black." Take the D.C. sniper case. Whether spoken aloud, or behind closed doors, there was a general sigh of relief when the crimes were identified as sniper incidents. Black people don't traditionally fit the sniper profile, so it was easy to assume that the criminals were not black, and thus, black America was off the hook. Later, a strong gasp replaced the short sigh, when it was revealed that the suspects were black, and, in fact, black men. Blacks nationwide cringed at this offense that would put yet another mark on the "collective race." In cases such as this, it seems we'd much rather choose invisibility instead.
We are taught at a young age not to air our dirty laundry. Not to "act black" around white folks, not to "show our ass." For years, the black press published stories that advised its readers how to act so that white society would not look upon us badly. And when we do act badly, as in the cases of Jayson Blair or Jesse Jackson, it is up to us--the collective race--to defend, protect and, ultimately, save ourselves.
This month's Black History issue is the first in a series, in fact. We've decided to run black history stories throughout January and February that will deal with some of the points we've covered here, namely denial, invisibility and amnesia as related to black history.
This week's story by Bob Geary maintains that U.S. constitutional law is primarily concerned with protecting property rights, especially slaveholders', and not individual rights--the rights of slaves. In upcoming weeks we'll hear from the Rev. Carl Kinney, who will address his own personal experiences as a preacher and how a certain sense of denial is pervasive in black churches. Damien Jackson will examine the history of black contributions to educational curriculum, and how current changes and laws may further erase (make invisible) the study of this history, these contributions. In February, look for an essay from Vermont transplant Kevin Dann, who'll take us on a walking tour that points out the amnesia of historical events involving blacks in the Triangle. Dann contends this amnesia has damaging effects on the psyche of the state and nation.
Look for all of these stories, and more. They'll be identified with logos using this week's powerful cover drawing of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by local artist Shelton Bryant.
It's been almost 100 years since Carter G. Woodson's idea of Negro History Week was expanded into Black History Month. It's been more than 100 years since W.E.B. DuBois declared the problem of the 20th century as the problem of the color line. In this generation, in our generation, as cultures are shifting and evolving and merging, it need not take our lifetimes to address and remember how important acknowledging our own--and each other's --histories are to our collective growth and survival.