In my African American studies course, we did a reading from Du Bois’ ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. While it was incredibly difficult to get through, Du Bois was so intelligent it makes my head hurt, it was also very enlightening.
In this publication he introduced the world to the concept of double-consciousness. He defines it as “the sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”. When we had class discussions on this, we interpreted this as the centuries old struggle that people of color, particularly black people, have endured. Accepting our blackness while also being aware that there are those who hate it.
In an effort to get us to understand that we’d been manifesting double consciousness, our professor asked us about some misconceptions and stereotypes that black people live in the shadow of.
That we are violent, loud, angry, ghetto, dangerous, threatening. The terrible list continues and as members of American society we are all aware of this fact.
But she asked us about these misconceptions and then asked us if we did anything to combat them. Of course. Always.
When I moved to Georgia in 1st grade from my tiny town in Mississippi, I was shocked by the demographics. I spent the first couple of years in communities that were largely Hispanic, which was new for me. When I started middle school, though, I officially descended into the depths of Suburbia.
It took me a while to understand how things worked. To immerse myself into this “culture”. But I eventually became a pro, I learned to assimilate. You wore American Eagle or Hollister. You didn’t shop at Walmart, and if you did, you were quiet about it. You spoke properly and articulated clearly, just like they did. And if they made fun of the other black kids who didn’t do these things or called them “ratchet” or “ghetto” you did too. On the surface, changing the way you speak or eat or act or dress shouldn’t in essence change who you are. It was more than becoming something I wasn’t, it was about destroying who I was for the sake of being a part of something that I thought was great. It wasn’t great, it never will be great.
As my perception of society changed and I matured into high school. This double-consciousness became more prevalent. I meticulously poked and prodded my life to determine which aspects of my life were acceptable enough to be shared with my white peers. I spoke in a particular way, I kept my mouth shut on the many occasions when one of them got too comfortable and said something inappropriate, I dressed and did my hair a certain way. I folded into myself and became a miserable specimen. All because I was concerned with how my peers, their parents, my teachers and my neighbors would view me. God I hated high school.
“An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”- Du Bois
Dubois describes this phenomenon as a “twoness”. Being both Black and American struggling against society’s unconcealed distaste while still trying to maintain a sliver of our own identity. It’s war.
I big-chopped when I was a junior in high school. For people who don’t know, this means I chopped off all of my hair to get rid of the years of chemically straightened hair that I’d hid under since I was 7 years old. Embracing my natural hair was the first step into overcoming the overwhelming sense of hate that I felt for myself after years of being someone else.
That was years ago. And it took me reading an excerpt from a book written over a century ago to interpret feelings I’d had my entire life.
Being Black trapped in Suburbia is not the worst thing to ever happen to anyone but it can be identity shattering. I thank who or whatever for allowing me to escape with the knowledge that this life I had assimilated into was not my life. That the person I had become was not me. I still feel myself unconsciously monitoring what I say or do so as not to disrupt the lives of the white people surrounding me. I’m not “loud” in intimate spaces. I don’t “argue” when someone says something stupid. People know they’re idiots, they don’t need my reassurance. I don’t do these things because I’m ashamed of perception anymore, that’s just my personality. I’m quiet unless I’m completely comfortable.
But I’m grateful because in a world of distorted narratives, colonized information and forgotten history I know who I am and I can accept it. Shit it’s like I’m at peace or something.