The Black TaxPosted March 14th, 2011 by Thomas Norman DeWolf
When I was growing up, an oft repeated admonition was that black people had to run faster, jump higher and be twice as good as white people if we aspired to catch up (much less get ahead) in an overwhelmingly white world. Over time, I surmised that must be true. I cannot tell you how often I encountered obviously incompetent white people holding down good jobs while enormously over-qualified black people went jobless. My professional career underscored that lesson with alacrity.
In an ideal world, people would be people. There would be no social, economic or racial classifications. Everyone would be judged on the merit of their skills and character. People would not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin. We would all be operating from a level playing field.
But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where money, social standing, race and a lot of other variables matter.
That was true in the past and it is true today. For me (President Obama notwithstanding), the biggest cross I bear is that of race. Judging from the acrimonious and continuing aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, America has a very long way to go before the insidious fruits of caustic beliefs about race are laid to rest.
Part of the dilemma rests in the nomenclature we use to define ourselves. The history of what we black people have called ourselves and what others have called us is long and beleaguered. The US census has variously defined us as surname-less chattel, later evolving to “C,” “M,” and “B.” In our own space, we have defined ourselves as Negro, Black, Afro American, people of color and African American. In contemporary times, we have added multi-racial as a definitive.
I have lived through many permutations of these changes of nomenclature; studied the topic in great detail and lived in other countries where the predominant population was of African descent and where racial designation takes a decidedly “perverse” turn. In those places, there is no question about who people are. They are African. They are black. They are rulers of countries, commanders in chief of armies, pilots of airplanes, beloved spirits whose essence never dies.
The problem for black people in America is that “what we are,” as a result of slavery, was transformed into an entirely new dimension. We were transformed into a people who were rootless, homeless, nameless, powerless … disassociated in every way from the common denominators of identity.
Human beings have a natural inclination to rest on the cushion of history; a panorama of the past which informs today’s beliefs — and most assuredly our feelings about race and what we call ourselves. White people have had the advantage of being able to transcend whatever travails and prejudices they may have confronted upon arrival on these American shores. The generic “white” now bestows privilege and honor no matter what the Caucasian ethnicity. Today, Italian, Irish, English, Slovakian, Russian … all are “white” and automatically entitled to the benefits of America’s body social and politic. For black people, throughout and after our emergence from slavery, our essence has been codified by a “one drop” rule that has perpetually barred us from equality or equanimity.
Personally, although I am of mixed race, I define myself as a person of African ancestry and am proud to claim the label of “black.” My “one drop” is actually many drops, distilled in a crucible of American experience that has led me to choose to embrace “black” as a term invested with positive attributes, including “strong,” “powerful,” and “beautiful.”
As I undertake the challenge of writing a book about how to evolve toward a “post-racial society,” I am ever reminded of the huge challenge I face. How in the hell do two well meaning people get their arms around an infirmity that has perplexed American society for more than 400 years? Moreover, how do we, through our insights and words, engender healing?
Race is not something Americans will just get up and get over… certainly not instantaneously. Yet, it is a conundrum we MUST get on with solving. I want to do it within my lifetime, spurred on toward a profound belief that my beloved grandchildren deserve something more and better. I am determined to contribute to a resolution so that the world in which they live is informed by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Eastern Mennonite University
Harlem Book Fair
Phillis Wheatley Book Award
Post Racial Society
Summer Peacebuilding Institute
Tulsa race riot
Most recent posts
Standing in Ferguson where Michael Brown died
Pull Back the Covers
Working with Corporate America on Issues of Race
Give Gather at the Table for the Holidays, SAVE $$$ & Support a Great Cause!
Gather at the Table authors recite Gettysburg Address for PBS site
Gather at the Table Paperback coming THIS WEEK!
From a Reader: thoughts on Gather at the Table
GREAT deal on the last of the Gather at the Table hardcovers from Beacon Press
Gather at the Table called “brave and compelling” in new YES! Magazine review
Gather at the Table is #1
Most recent comments
Digging Up Dead White People (3)
melissa marraste`: coming from this same family as you its strange and comforting to...
Barack Obama, Fifty Shades of Grey, Louis C.K., and Gather at the Table (8)
isabelle: Thank you for the amazing work you have done
Lawdy Miss Scarlet! (4)
emilywotzka: Wonderful book…completely opened my eyes to the harsh realities of...
Standing in Ferguson where Michael Brown died (2)
Sandra: Thank you. I am from St. Louis County and now, almost a year after Mike...
Alexis: I've seen the documentary Traces of the Trade. I had no idea you guys had...