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Double Consciousness and Black History Month

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. One ever feels his twoness, -- 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. Du Bois

When I was younger, I was always fairly disconnected from the idea of Black history month. I did projects about various abolitionists, activists, and freedom fighters. I wrote essays and gave presentations about pioneers of the civil rights movement, but I never felt really connected to the celebration or commemoration of this specific month like I knew I was “supposed to.” I’m not gonna lie, I thought something was wrong with me, “am I not Black enough?” “what’s the big deal anyway?” It felt as if two sides of myself were at war with each other. 

As I got older I began to take interest in “intellectual pursuits,” trying to divorce myself from the visceral emotion associated with Black history and the Black experience within America. At eighteen years old I had “rid” myself of the subjective, emotional conception of Black history and had found the “objective” truth in the championing of individualism and personal responsibility. I had no answer for the events of the past (slavery, jim crow, etc…) but that was okay because I had found my solution for the future. It’s funny, and I hope I continue making these realizations about my former self, but at the time, I  had what I thought was unshakable confidence in the objective, unadulterated “truth” about the reality of the Black experience in America. A truth that was limited, inexperienced, and naive. 

Please don’t see this as a claim that today I have somehow found the “truth” or I have now become enlightened, but as I began to read more, interact with different people, and experience different things I find that my vision of the world is beginning to broaden, and with this broadening comes more questions. Black and white becomes more gray, and question marks pop up everywhere I look. The people I thought were unquestionable suddenly became very questionable and I found that oftentimes, individuals that are known for “pushing against the grain” are usually not as “objective” as they try to appear. They often exist in the very same echo chambers and glasshouses that they accuse others of residing in and when they attempt to read or critique the work of people who disagree with them, it is often through a lens tainted with bias, to a lesser extent (and perhaps this is somewhat unavoidable), and with arrogance to a greater extent. These realizations helped me understand the necessity of humility in approaching the pursuit of knowledge, as well as the importance of emotions, context, and experiences of people when trying to honestly and comprehensively examine anything. 

This brings me to the reason why I am writing this on February 16, 2021. Three years removed from my crisis of identity I am still not sure how to feel about Black history month but I think I have a slightly clearer idea of why. Is Black history something abstract or removed from American history? I would argue that it isn’t, but I also understand the desire to have a specified time to appreciate a culture and history that is inseparable from American history but still manages to be ignored. Ignored and erased. Ah yes, conflicted once again. As I mentioned earlier I don’t claim to be providing any solutions, maybe sometime in the future I will be able to but at this point in time, all I have are questions with no answers in sight. The double consciousness that Du Bois mentioned forever a part of my existence. 

Overall I think the teaching of history is undervalued, and the understanding of it even more deficient. To reconcile and make right with one’s past a person must first acknowledge their previous mistakes, missteps, and blunders. The doctrine of individualism has tainted the mind of the average American and has even infiltrated the hearts of Muslims. I sometimes ponder why there is so much detailing of history within the verses of the Quran. Is it so we can learn from it and not commit those very same mistakes? I would assume that this is at least a part of its intended purpose. For the American context, how can you learn from the past if a necessary aspect of it has been amputated from it? Slavery and the effects of it can be seen throughout American history, from the writing of the constitution until today it can be seen across many fields and multiple institutions. I understand that to some those are bold claims, but within this writing, I have no desire to parse out the super-specific details of the very general claim I just made. Don’t misunderstand me, there is room for debate about what should be done in light of specific atrocities, but this writing won’t be the place where I do it. 

I wrote this in 2021, but I never posted it. Fast forwarding two years, we bring in Black History Month 2023 on the heels of Tyre Nichols's demonic execution and I’m moved to write once again. Honestly, I’m tired, I feel almost numb. I have no specific words or perspective to give on Tyre Nichol’s death. It was tragic, saddening, I wish it never happened. But there is a nagging at the back of my mind and I  can’t help but wonder if the officers would have been fired and charged as quickly had they been of a different complexion. Of course, this is not an excuse for the officers who committed the crime. They, like many, were duped by what they had heard. They thought the badge was enough to protect them as it protected their *fellow* officers. Brothers in arms. Brothers in blue. “Brothas” in arms. “Brothas” in blue. As James Baldwin said:

"Black policemen were another matter. We used to say, "if you just must call a policeman" -- for we hardly ever did-- "for God's sake, try to make sure it's a White one." A Black policeman could completely demolish you. He knew far more about than a White policeman could and you were without defenses before this Black brother in uniform whose entire reason for breathing seemed to be his hope to offer proof that, though he was Black, he was not Black like you."

        When you are constantly told that what you observe, experience, and see in your own experiences and the experiences of your friends and family is not true or real, it creates a strange dissonance. A double consciousness as DuBois says. Some choose to rationalize their experience. This is what I did previously (probably what these officers did as well). What I mean by this is that they decide to close their eyes to the cruel reality of the Black existence. Individualism becomes the name of the game. Every success and milestone is theirs alone, and the failings of every Black person can be remedied with a can-do attitude instead of being a victim. Now, perhaps there is some merit in the words of this group, but I personally am not a fan of incomplete analyses. The reality is that there is an entire apparatus and *history* behind the suffering of Blacks in America. Individuals having hardworking attitudes is not enough by itself to remedy an issue centuries in the making. It takes careful study, consideration, and analysis to properly understand the nuance and intricacies. Intellectual honesty is the first step. Real history is the first step.


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