A formative experience of my growing-up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s occurred during one of those heated, earnest political rallies so typical of the period. I was about eighteen at the time. Woody, who had been my best friend since Little League, suggested that we attend. Being political neophytes, neither of us knew many of the participants at this rally, which had been called to galvanize the local black community’s response to some pending infringement by the white power structure. Although I no longer remember the offense, I can still vividly recall how very agitated about it we all were, determined to fight the good fight, even to the point of being arrested if it came to that. Judging by his demeanor, Woody was among the most zealous of those present.
Despite his zeal, it took courage for Woody to attend the meeting. Though he often proclaimed his blackness, and though he had a Negro grandparent on each side of the family, he nevertheless looked to all the world like your typical white boy. Everyone assumed as much and I had, too, when we first began playing together nearly a decade earlier, after I had moved into the middle-class neighborhood called Park Manor where Woody’s family had been living for some time.
There were a number of white families on our block when we first arrived; within a couple of years they had all been replaced by aspiring black families like our own. I often wondered why Woody’s parents never moved. Then I overheard his mother declare to one of her new neighbors, “We just wouldn’t run from our own kind.” The comment befuddled me at the time, but somewhat later, while we were watching the movie Imitation of Life on television, my mother explained to me how someone could be black even if he looked white. She told me about people like that in our own family—second cousins living in a fashionable suburb on whom one would never dare simply to drop in because they were “passing for white.” This was my earliest glimpse of the truth that racial identity in America is inherently a social and cultural, not simply a biological, construct—that it necessarily involves an irreducible element of choice.
From the moment I learned of the idea of “passing” I was intrigued (and troubled) by it. I enjoyed imagining my racial brethren surreptitiously infiltrating the citadels of white exclusivity. The fantasy allowed me to believe that, despite all appearances and despite the white man’s best efforts to the contrary, we blacks were nevertheless present, if unannounced, everywhere in American society. But I was also disturbed by the evident implication that for a black, denial of one’s genuine self was a necessary prerequisite to “making it” in American society. What “passing” seemed to say was that it was necessary to choose between racial authenticity and personal success. Also, to my adolescent mind it seemed grossly unfair that, because of my own relatively dark complexion, the option was not available to me!
It was after the conversation with my mother that it dawned on me that Woody’s parents must have been passing for white in pre-integration Park Manor. The neighborhood’s changing racial composition had confronted them with a moment of truth. Their decision—to stay and raise their children among “their own kind”—was a fateful one for Woody who, as he matured, became determined not simply to live among blacks but, perhaps in atonement for his parents’ prior sins, unambiguously to become one.
The young men in the neighborhood did not make this easy. Many delighted in picking fights with him, teasing him about being a “white boy” and refusing to credit his insistent claim: “I’m a brother, too!” For if he desperately wanted to be black, his peers in the neighborhood would not let him. Because he had the option to be white—even though it was an option he radically rejected—those without the option would not accept his claim to a shared racial experience.
I knew Woody well. We had become good friends, and I wanted to accept him on his own terms. But even I found myself doubting that he fully grasped the pain, frustration, anger, and self-doubt many of us felt upon encountering the intractability of American racism. However much he sympathized with our plight, he seemed to experience it only vicariously.
So there we were, at this boisterous, angry political rally. A critical moment came when the leaders interrupted their speechmaking to solicit ideas from “the people.” Woody had an idea, and enthusiastically raised his voice above the murmur. But before he could finish his first sentence he was cut short by one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge, who demanded to know how a “white boy” got the authority to have an opinion about what black people should be doing. That was one of our problems, the “brother” said; we were always letting white people “peep our hole card” but we were never privy to their deliberations in return.
A silence fell over the room. The indignant “brother” asked if anyone could “vouch for this white boy.” More excruciating silence ensued. Now it was my moment of truth. Woody turned plaintively toward me, but I would not meet his eyes. To my eternal disgrace, I refused to speak up for him. He was asked to leave the meeting, and did so without uttering a word in his own defense.
Subsequently, neither of us could bear to discuss the incident. I offered no apology or explanation, and he asked for none. However, though we continued to be friendly, our relationship was forever changed. I was never again to hear Woody exclaim: “I’m a brother, too.”
It seems to me that Woody’s dilemma, and mine, tell us something important about race and personal identity in American society. His situation was made so difficult by the fact that he embraced a self-definition dramatically inconsistent with the identity reflexively and stubbornly imputed to him by others. In turn, the lack of a social confirmation of his subjective sense of self left him uncertain, at a deep level, about who he really was. Ultimately there seemed to be no way for him to avoid living fraudulently—either as a black passing for white, or as a white trying (too hard) to be black.
As Woody’s close friend I had become familiar with, and occasionally shared in, the pitfalls of this situation, as when people seeing us together would assume both that he was white and that I was “the kind of Negro who hangs out with white boys.” I resented that assumption. And since then, as a black intellectual making my living in the academic establishment during a period of growing racial conflict in our society, I have often experienced a similar dissonance between my self-concept and the socially imputed definition of who I am supposed to be. I have had to balance my desire not to disappoint the expectations of others—both whites and blacks, but most especially blacks—with my conviction that one should strive to live life with integrity.
This does not make me a heroic figure; I will not indulge the libertarian conceit of the glorious individual who, though put upon by society, blazes his own path. To me the opposition between individual and society is ambiguous: the self is inevitably shaped both by the objective world and by other selves, and what one is being faithful to when resisting the temptation to conform to others’ expectations is always a socially determined, if subjectively experienced, vision of the self. Still, I see this incident of a quarter-century ago as a kind of private metaphor, symbolizing the problem of living in good faith.
I have since lost contact with Woody: I suspect that, having tired of his struggle against society’s presumptions, he is now passing. But that moment of truth in the South Side church basement, and my failure in the face of it, have helped me understand the depth of my own need to be seen by others as “black enough.” The fact is, I willingly betrayed someone I had known for a decade, a person whom I loved and who loved me, in order to avoid the risk of being rejected by strangers. In a way, at that moment and often again later in my life, I, too, was passing—hoping to be mistaken for something I was not. To proclaim before the black radicals in the audience that this “white boy” at my side was in fact our “brother” would, I feared, have compromised my own chance of being received among them as a genuine peer. Who, after all, was there to vouch for me?
This was not an unfounded concern, for at that meeting, as at so many others of the period, people with insufficiently militant views were routinely berated as self-hating, shuffle-along, “house nigger” types, complicit with whites in the perpetuation of racial oppression.
Then, as now, blacks who befriended (or, heaven forbid, married) whites, who dressed or talked or wore their hair a certain way, who listened to certain kinds of music, read certain books, or expressed certain opinions were laughed at, ostracized, and generally demeaned as inauthentic by other, more righteous (as in “self-righteous”) blacks. The indignant “brother” who challenged Woody’s right to speak at that rally was not merely imposing a racial test (only blacks are welcome here); he was also, and mainly, applying a loyalty test (are you truly with us or against us?). And this was a test which anyone could fail if he did not conform to the collective definition of what it meant to be genuinely black. I feared that speaking up for Woody would have marked me as a disloyal “Tom” among the “blacker-than-thou” crowd. This was a fate the thought of which, in those years, I could not bear.
I now understand how this desire to be regarded as genuinely black, to be seen as a “regular brother,” has dramatically altered my life. It narrowed the range of my earliest intellectual pursuits, distorted my relationships with other people, censored my political thought and expression, informed the way I dressed and spoke, and shaped my cultural interests. Some of this was inevitable and not all of it was bad, but in my experience the need to be affirmed by one’s racial peers can take on a pathological dimension.
After many years I have come to see that until I became willing to risk the derision of the crowd, I had no chance to discover the most important truths about myself or indeed about life—to know and accept my “calling,” to perceive what I really value and what goals are most worth striving for. In a perverse extension of the lesson taught by Imitation of Life, I have learned that one does not have to live surreptitiously as a Negro among whites in order to be engaged in a denial of one’s genuine self for the sake of social acceptance. This is a denial which blacks often demand of each other as well.
I used to be struck by the irony of blacks seeking to excommunicate other blacks for crimes against the race. I would relish the seeming contradiction: to the white working-class toughs waiting to punish with their fists my trespass onto their turf I was still a “nigger,” but I could not be a “brother” to the middle-class black radicals with whom I shared history and circumstance. Just so, in the larger white society my racial identity was in no way conditional upon my espousing particular beliefs or values; whatever my political views or cultural interests, I would always be black in white America. Yet among other blacks my standing could be made conditional upon fidelity to the prevailing party line.
I would ponder this paradox, chafing at the restraint of an imposed racial uniformity, bemoaning the unfairness that I should have to face a threat of potential ostracism as punishment for the sin of being truthful to myself. In short, I would wallow in self-pity, which is always a waste of time.
Underlying my obsession with this paradox was a premise which I now believe to be mistaken: that being an authentic black person involves, in some elemental way, seeing oneself as an object of mistreatment by white people, and participating with other blacks in collective consciousness of and struggle against that mistreatment. This put me in a bind. For as my own evolving understanding of our history began to clash with the black consensus, and my definition of the struggle took a different, more conservative form than that popular among other black intellectuals, I found myself cut off from the group, my racial bona fides put into question. I was forced to choose—between my intellectual integrity on the one hand and, on the other hand, my access to that collective consciousness which I saw as essential to my black identity. Like Woody, lacking social confirmation of my subjective sense of self, I was left uncertain about who I really was.
I no longer believe that the camaraderie engendered among blacks by the collective experience of racism constitutes an adequate basis for any person’s self-definition. Only in the most superficial way am I made “black” by virtue of being the object of a white racist’s hate. The empathetic exchange of survivors’ tales among “brothers,” even the collective struggle against the clear wrong of racism, does not provide a tableau sufficiently rich to give meaning and definition to the totality of my life. I am so much more than the one who has been wronged, misunderstood, underestimated, derided, or ignored by whites. I am more than the one who has struggled against this oppression and indifference; more than a descendant of slaves now claiming freedom; more, that is, than a “colored person” (as seen by the racist) or than a “person of color” (as seen by the anti-racist).
Who am I, then? Foremost, I am a child of God, created in His image, imbued with His spirit, endowed with His gifts, set free by His grace. The most important challenges and opportunities which confront me derive not from my racial condition, but rather from my human condition. I am a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a Christian, a citizen. In none of these roles is my race irrelevant, but neither can racial identity alone provide much guidance for me in discharging these responsibilities adequately. The particular features of my social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of my life, they do not provide a script. That script must be internally generated; it must be the product of a reflective deliberation about the meaning of my life for which no political or ethnic program can ever substitute.
To shift the metaphor slightly, the socially contingent features of my situation—my racial heritage and family background, the prevailing attitudes toward race and class of those with whom I share this society—are the building blocks, the raw materials, out of which I must construct the edifice of my life. The expression of my individual personality is to be found elsewhere, in the blueprint I employ to guide this project of construction. Devising such a blueprint, a plan for one’s life, is a task which confronts all people, whatever their race, class, or ethnicity. By solving this task we give meaning and substance to our lives. In my view, a personal identity wholly dependent on racial contingency falls tragically short of its potential because it embraces too parochial a conception of what is possible, and of what is desirable.
Thus, ironically, to the extent that individual blacks see themselves primarily through a racial lens, they sacrifice possibilities for the kind of personal development that would ultimately further their collective, racial interests. Blacks cannot be truly free men and women while laboring under a definition of self derived from the perceptual view of their oppressors and confined to the contingent facts of their oppression. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce says of Irish nationalism:
When a soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by these nets. . . .
It seems to me that, too often, a search for some mythic authentic blackness works similarly to hold back young black souls from flight into the open skies of American society. Of course there is the constraint of racism holding them back. But the trick, as Joyce knew, is to turn such “nets” into wings, to fly by them. One cannot do that if one refuses to see that ultimately it is neither external constraint nor expanded opportunity, but rather an in-dwelling spirit, which makes such flight possible.
Last winter, on a clear, cold Sunday afternoon, my three-year-old son and I were walking in the woods near our New England home. We happened upon a small pond which, having frozen solid, made an ideal skating rink. Dozens of men, ranging in age from late teens to early thirties, were distributed in clusters across the ice, playing or preparing to play hockey. They glided over the pond’s surface, skillfully passing and defending, stopping and turning on a dime, moving with such power, speed, and grace that we were spellbound watching them. Little Glenn occasionally squealed with delight as he marveled at one astounding feat after another, straining against my grip which alone prevented him from running out on the ice to join in the fun.
The men were white—every last one of them. Few took notice of us at the pond’s edge, and those who did were not particularly generous with their smiles. Or so, at least, it seemed to me. I sensed that we were interlopers, that we would not necessarily have been welcome even if we had come with sticks and skates. But this may be wrong; I do not really know what they thought of our presence; no words were exchanged. I do know that my son very much enjoyed the game, and I thought to myself that the day would come, too soon, when he would want a pair of skates of his own and would ask his dad to teach him how to use them.
I found myself consciously dreading that day; the thought of my son playing hockey on that frozen pond did not sit well with me. I much preferred to think of him on a basketball court. For hockey, we all know, is a white man’s game. Who was the last “brother” to play in the NHL? Of course, I immediately sensed that this thought was silly and illegitimate, and attempted to banish it from my mind. But it kept coming back. I could not avoid the feeling that something important was at stake here, and I decided to discuss it with my wife.
Linda and I had carefully considered the implications for our children of our decision to buy a house in a predominantly white suburb. We had joined and become active in a church with many black families like our own, in part so that our boys would be provided with suitable racial peers. We mean to ensure their proper education in black history and culture, including their own family history. We are vigilant about the effect on their developing psyches of racial messages that come across on television, in books, at their nursery school, and so forth. On all of this Linda and I are in full accord. But she thought my concerns about hockey were taking things a bit too far.
I now believe that she was right. My aversion to Glenn’s becoming involved in that Sunday-afternoon ritual was rooted in my own sense of identity as a black American man who grew up when and where I did, with the experiences I had. Because I would not have felt comfortable there (I reasoned), he should not want to be a part of that scene, either. I was thus inclined to impose upon my son, in the name of preserving his authentic blackness, a limitation deriving from my life but not really relevant to his. It is as if I were to insist that he study Swahili instead of French.
Given the class background of our children and the community in which we have chosen to make our lives, their racial sensibilities will inevitably be quite different from ours. Moreover, it is impossible to predict just what self-definition they will settle upon. This can be disquieting for those of our generation concerned about retaining a “genuinely black” identity in the face of the social mobility we have experienced within our lifetimes. But it is not, I think, to be feared.
Much more frightening, to me, is the alternative—stifling the development of our children’s personalities by imposing upon them an invented ethnicity. I have no doubt that my sons will be black men of the 21st century, but not because they will sing racial anthems peculiar to our time. Theirs will be a blackness constructed yet again, out of the external givens of their lives, not mine, shaped by a cultural inheritance which I am obliged to transmit but expressed in their own voices, and animated by a spirit whose basis lies deeper than the color of any man’s skin.