That’s the thing. It’s not that they can’t express themselves well, but it’s that the thing they’ve been told is self expression is a mistake. So to me, particularly, someone like Levi, this kind of, young black kid in the book, who feels himself to be in some way inauthentic, or not as black as he should be; those kind of arguments. Sometimes they’re serious to the black community. You hear them discussing them and arguing about them. When I was a child, I was constantly being told that various habits of mine — I suppose, including reading — made me less black than I should be.
The idea that you can be less authentic than you are, is nonsense. There’s no such thing. And to struggle under that idea, to concern yourself constantly about your identity, seems to me a kind of prison. And it’s one that white people, don’t have to anything like the same degree. They have a kind of existential freedom, that they don’t even notice. Because, of course, it is one that every human being should have and deserves to have and it’s natural. But if you don’t have it, if you’re constantly wondering instead, not what it is “to be” but what it is “to be black,” then you’re completely cornered.
So, I suppose, all my characters, to some extent, are looking for identities, and — constantly, when I’m in interviews, I’m being told that “You’re books are all about the search for identity!” I always think that my books are about that search being entirely pointless!
This quote has me really wanting to get some of my thoughts on paper… so here goes:
15 years after having left the highly segregated, and highly unequal city I grew up in, I’ve only recently started to come to reconcile some of the above issues on a philosophical level… beyond my own search for identity.
Like many places in the U.S., my hometown has a failing public education system, high unemployment, and a constant physical, social, and economic violence aimed at the black community. Blackness was equated with poverty, and a systematic exclusion of black folks from the middle class, from the American dream, from the ideas defined what made an individual a citizen, was and remains pervasive.
When I was growing up in the 90s, the high school graduating classes in the majority black public schools in my hometown, would be a fifth of the size of the incoming freshman class. Instead of staying in-state to try and fight it out at predominantly white colleges and universities, many black high school graduates choose to go down south, or to one of the coasts to pursue higher education. I went to a majority white, well resourced suburban school, and the majority of my black classmates chose this route. The proportion of those who left seemed even higher for those who ended up staying at the local universities. Ironically, the seemingly all-american midwestern city I grew up in, would come to face the same human resource drain of my father’s home country, Sierra Leone.
In recent years, I’ve come to think that “staying black” – a social phenomenon that can be quite stressful for the individual, and is intimately familiar to black people of any shade in the U.S. – is actually a form of survival for communities facing complete social marginalization. It sucks people in from any class or educational background, and thus becomes a means for a community to foment solidarity in the face of such phenomena as described above.
Blackness in this situation is also a remnant from an era in which community self-empowerment was a tangible notion (my home city is one of the few U.S. cities in which a program initiated by the Black Panthers remains in effect today), and the resulting sense of solidarity was also empowering for the individual (an image of Jesse Jackson in an afro pops into my head.) Today, those that have a pathway out and choose to stay are revolutionary individuals, at least in my mind. However, today with the lack of opportunity for social mobility in my prototypical midwestern hometown, a precarious balancing act is necessary to not loose hope or loose one’s self… especially for young people, and especially when the rest of the world doesn’t even know you exist.