The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978)

When my family moved from Maywood to River Forest my junior year of high school, putting us within the boundaries of District 200, I made the tortured decision to transfer from Proviso East High School to Oak Park and River Forest High School.

The experience opened a crack in my soul that would eventually let in a truth I would not discover until years later: For a long time, I lived with an inferiority complex.

“Oak Park and River Forest High School is too hard,” a relative told me as I was processing the decision.

Proviso East, with all of its obvious problems, simply doesn’t have the resources and challenges and opportunities that OPRF can offer, my father told me.

During my senior year at OPRF, I was accepted into Morehouse, one of the most prestigious Historically Black College and Universities in America. 

I considered the offer. Do I join the congregation of great Black leaders like Martin Luther King and Spike Lee and become a “Morehouse Man” or should I take my talents to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign?

My high school counselor, who helped me get into Morehouse, echoed the advice I’d heard on every HBCU college tour there is — at HBCUs, Black students get the support and the nurturing that white institutions simply cannot provide them.

At the time, I thought this was bunk, yet another example of this idea, perpetuated by Blacks and whites alike, that Black people always need a crutch. I wanted to be wherever the best resources were. Period. And if the school happened to be white (which was virtually always the case), then so be it. Sorry, Morehouse.

That decision is one of my biggest regrets. Only years later, after leaving college indebted and with this lingering sense of rootlessness, did I realize that my experience at U of I mirrored my experience at OPRF.

At both schools, I felt suspended in an environment that was purely transactional, culturally vapid, unmoored, careerist, alienating — white-washed. I was only ever at either of these institutions in order to achieve the elusive mission of marketability, even if it came at the expense of losing the sense of identity and community I had cultivated my whole life in Maywood and that I’m sure Morehouse would have deepened.

Black novelist Richard Wright wrote in his 1937 essay, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” that “generally speaking, Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America.

“They entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that a Negro was not inferior, that he was human, and that he had a life comparable to that of other people,” Wright wrote. “For the most part these artistic ambassadors were received as though they were French poodles who do clever tricks.”

Decades after Wright, this “French poodle” dynamic is still in general effect among Blacks in all kinds of white spaces — not just the literary arts. I know I felt it at OPRF and U of I: this constant sense of always being on display, ever-ready to demonstrate my worth in white institutions that, unbeknownst to my teenage self, were still not ready to accept my humanity at face value.

In the eyes of the white world, I would never be good enough. White institutions demonstrate this every day in ways subtle and unsubtle. I will not relay how this truth has played out in my own experiences because what’s the point? Half of you won’t believe me anyway (or will find something in my testimony to dispute).

In his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois tried to explain why interracial solidarity among Black workers and white workers in the post-Civil War South never materialized.

“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools.

“The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them.

“White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.”

Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about anti-racism, which centers the “public or psychological wage” of whiteness. There’s relatively little discussion, however, about the flip side of that coin — the psychological tax of perceived notions of Black inferiority, which many Black people, myself included, have internalized.

In his 1933 essay, “On Being Ashamed of Oneself: An Essay on Race Pride,” Du Bois writes about the promise of that glorious moment “between emancipation and 1900,” when the “theory of escape” from this country’s racial caste system “was dominant. We were, by birth, law and training, American citizens.

“We were going to escape into the mass of Americans in the same way that the Irish and Scandinavians and even the Italians were beginning to disappear,” Du Bois writes. “The process was going to be slower on account of the badge of color; but then, after all, it was not so much the matter of physical assimilation as of spiritual and psychic amalgamation with the American people.”

The order of the day among most Blacks at the time was a rigorous show of patriotism and a commitment to racially integrated struggles to realize their American rights.

But one of the most “practical difficulties connected with this program” is the “fact that we are still ashamed of ourselves and are thus [stopped] from valid objection when white folks are ashamed to call us human.”

In his 1935 essay “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” Du Bois presciently illustrates my teenage self at OPRF while considering which college to attend; my family members talking resignedly about East’s relative impoverishment to OPRF; my relative’s desire to box me into her self-imposed limitations.

“As long as the Negro student wishes to graduate from Columbia, not because Columbia is an institution of learning, but because it is attended by white students; as long as a Negro student is ashamed to attend Fisk or Howard because these institutions are largely run by Black folk, just so long the main problem of Negro education will not be segregation but self-knowledge and self-respect,” Du Bois wrote.

I’m done expecting white institutions to “let us in” and I’m now hip to the hard reality that integration in America has always, without exception, come at the cost of our physical, psychological and social-emotional well-being. I’m currently of the faith that, as it stands, Black people cannot penetrate white spaces without sacrificing our “self-knowledge and self-respect.”

What’s also troubling is that when it comes to our historic efforts to integrate schools in America, Black children have routinely been offered up as sacrificial lambs.

Now, whenever I see the iconic image of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges flanked by large U.S. Marshals on her mission to desegregate William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960, I don’t just see heroism, I see child abuse.

Du Bois lambasted Black parents who “almost universally disparage their own schools” and look “down upon them” while forcing their “little children into schools where the white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and resented the dark child, made mock of [her], neglected or bullied [her], and literally rendered [her] life a living hell.

“Such parents want their child to ‘fight’ this thing out, — but, dear God, at what a cost! Sometimes, to be sure, the child triumphs and teaches the school community a lesson; but even in such cases, the cost may be high and the child’s whole life turned into an effort to win cheap applause at the expense of healthy individuality,” he adds. “In other cases, the result of the experiment may be complete ruin of character, gift, and ability. …”

How many Black children’s lives were ruined so that successive generations of Black children can freely attend white schools only to still be despised (and at OPRF, with such subtlety and complexity that some children, usually the “good ones,” barely notice what’s happening until well after we’ve matriculated).

I know I may run the risk of sounding like an ingrate, but I have no interest in treating our Black heroes like Ruby Bridges as if they’re museum pieces over whom we should simply ooh and aah. Ruby Bridges was a human being before she became a hero. I’m genuinely interested in her life and how it can inform my own, not in genuflecting before the altar of badly taught history. 

“If the American Negro really believed in himself; if he believed that Negro teachers can educate children according to the best standards of modern training; if he believed that Negro colleges transmit and add to science, as well as or better than other colleges,” Du Bois wrote, “then he would bend his energies, not to escaping inescapable association with his own group, but to seeing that his group had every opportunity for its best and highest development.

“He would insist that his teachers be decently paid; that his schools were properly housed and equipped; that his colleges be supplied with scholarship and research funds; and he would be far more interested in the efficiency of these institutions of learning, than in forcing himself into other institutions where he is not wanted.”

Sometimes I wonder what kind of country we would be currently inhabiting if, instead of fetishizing integration, Black people took Du Bois’ advice and insisted on a much more collective, more expansive vision of freedom — one that encompasses all Blacks, not just the ones who are “good enough” to escape from Black spaces by heroically enduring the psychic hazing so often required to enter and remain in white ones.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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