The Racial Prism.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. — W.E.B. DuBois

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. — W.E.B. DuBois

I made it (Thanks to so many of you. I’m incredibly grateful).:

IMG_8674But last night, when I got here — to this previously inaccessible institution for this improbably-accessed opportunity — I made the mistake of catching up on the news. In my dorm suite, I read about the police assault on a young black girl and her black friends at a pool party. I was lying down on the spare, thin mattress when the news hit social media that Kalief Browder died, following years of trauma at the hands of of the NYC judicial and correctional systems broadly, and at the feet and fists of Rikers Island guards and inmates, specifically.

I have been elated since I arrived. There’s a frequency of bliss, a thrilling current of excitement buzzing through me every single minute I spend here. 

But in the midst of my euphoria at having barely scraped my way into this respite, hours away from the rigors of my daily life back home — the just-getting-by of it all, the constant, intimate, semi-secret worries I tend to share a bit too much of online — I’ve also felt an intense and all-too-familiar need to grieve. 

The private joy must make room for quiet mourning, the mourning for performing public joy. 

To vent the grief, I tweeted these things. Early.  Before even leaving the dorm:

This is hard, this divided attention. But it isn’t just an emotional and intellectual focus divided by half. This is no mere doubled consciousness. Race in this country, with each successive generation, with every historical echo, and for all our technological advancement, has become a prism. This new racial prism — this 24-hour access to every horrible, three-dimensional detail of black trauma, requires constant, multiplicitous division. I can anticipate occasional euphoria, but I will always do so with the understanding that injustice will disrupt my joy. That is its own kind of violence, a forced splintering of identity, intellect, and emotion.

Here, in New Haven, where I want to enjoy an undisturbed experience of enrichment and networking, I find my thoughts drifting to the black folks I’ve seen on the streets and in service jobs. It’s hard not to devote concern and curiosity to what seems an obvious and stark class distinction between Yalies (white, black, and brown) and black New Haven residents (or transients or commuting workers).

And once that rope of care has lassoed us, once we have gathered into each other, huddling against our shared and separate sorrows, it’s hard not to cast our rope further, out to Kalief Browder’s mother, who discovered him hanging outside the window of their home, out to the teenage girl in McKinney, Texas, kneed in the back, left all the more vulnerable to police-manhandling, while still wearing nothing but her sunny orange and yellow bikini, out to her friends who will feel the terror of that memory rippling through them at unexpected moments for the rest of their lives.

I almost felt weightless here. At times, I still do. To the outsider, the briefly affiliated, only partially initiated outsider, Yale seems a space devoid of regular burdens. Come here, and forget the cost. Come here, and mere proximity to those for whom money is either no object or an object that capitulates to their will, will make you feel temporarily unfettered. Even as your financial worries gather just outside the card-access gates of your dormitory, even as your awareness that your three-day visit is sifting quickly through your fingers and the pressure to make each minute, each meeting meaningful mounts as if the trajectory of your entire future depends on it, even as you know for sure that your future is not as secure as some of the baby-faced summer session undergrads strolling jauntily by, Yale beguiles you like a tropical resort surrounded by hovels might. It does not resemble the lives of those just outside its gates. It is no vacation for those who cannot leave. Yale is not your real life, either, until, for a triad of incredible days, it is.

Even here, in the space of the briefest of days, here, where praise and promise are plentiful, ironies cannot be sloughed. Grief cannot be shed. I can’t escape the maladies in McKinney. I can’t pass Yale School of Law without wondering if Kalief Browder’s name will ever be uttered in a classroom there. And I know that I wouldn’t want to.

I’ve wondered. Could this ever be a place where all my splintered pieces, all these race-bent beams of light and looming shadows, could ever be fully known?

It’s possible. But perhaps only for the middle-aged woman with the teeny weeny afro, I’ve seen sitting outside powerwashed storefronts displaying wares she and I can’t afford. Perhaps only to the security guard at Walgreens who told us when we asked for directions yesterday, “I’m not from New Haven.” Perhaps for the black student-worker who bussed our tables tonight, inside a storied old boys club on campus. 

And even for them, it may only be possible when they are looking full-on at one another, each catching the refracting light in the eyes of the other. 

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