Ossie Davis (1917-2005) remembered a Southern sheriff pouring syrup on his head as a child. Davis regarded this incident as pivotal, instilling what he called the “ni***r” effect in his mind: a form, function and reaction of cowardice as a self-protective device. “In the presence of [threat],” he wrote, “you do what you have to do in order to survive.”
In Davis’ judgment, this egregious lack of self-esteem instilled in Black men is the remnant of slavery and racism, damaging to the Black man’s image of himself. “The [African American community] shares the burden of racism,” John Edgar Wideman wrote, and “understands how it hurts, scars, and deforms.”
A young Black American man recently spoke of similarly systemic racism when he lived in an African country dominated by European imperialism. Only European history was in the books. “All knowledge was of Europe as being superior.” Being “seen as more European” than African was “acceptable.”
“I would sit in the courtroom and I would see Black men coming in that I knew were decent men,” Judge Julius Waties Waring, U.S. Court of Eastern District, South Carolina, is quoted by Septima Clark as saying, “and they were considered bums and trash because they were black.” The young man, “Leon,” from Africa said that Blacks were seen as “less than” and deficient, that indoctrination provided “very little pride,” and that non-Europeans were defaced, dehumanized, and “made to feel inferior.”
The psychological message was that you are “nothing… You will never be a human being.”
“Fears [of failure] were part of the price that my generation of blacks paid for moving out from behind the wall of segregation,” Justice Clarence Thomas has said. “We had always believed that we could do as well as whites if we were only given a fair shake — but what if it turned out that we weren’t good enough after all?”
Leon said in his country Blacks could be domestics, gardeners, drivers, welders, laundry workers or servants. “Opportunity, education and even mobility were limited. People do the work of the oppressors.”
Blacks arriving in Minnesota 150 years ago could work at the Union Depot, a thriving, busy epicenter then as the airport is today. Even in our day, a St. Paul pastor told his Sunday congregation, “Many of us are oppressed” and “Being on-guard brings exhaustion.”
“‘The man ain’t goin’ let you do nothing,’ my Savannah friends had warned me long ago,” Thomas wrote. “‘The man ain’t goin let you do nothing,’ they had said over and over. ‘Why you even tryin’?” Leon called it social control when the power, resources and land belong to the privileged.
That Sunday pastor told his congregation, “Issues of class, marriage, money and status separate us.” In Leon’s country, “We wanted Arrow shirts or Florsheim shoes,” symbols of privilege and prestige.
Peter Goldman, in The Death and Life of Malcolm X, quoted a Black Harlem case worker in the social services community as saying, “’It isn’t hard to convince a negro that the white man is his enemy.’”
The late Willie Mays [1931-2007], whom former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says was a student of her mother, said, “I didn’t picket in the streets of Birmingham. I’m not mad at the people who do. Maybe they shouldn’t be mad at the people who don’t.”
Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to [email protected].