Let me tell you about a certain dark brown boy of my acquaintance. When he was nine or ten, his elementary school carried out one of those regular vision screenings and discovered his nearsightedness, which led to his getting the glasses he needed. Over the years, they tested his hearing to make sure it functioned properly. Each fall, they reviewed his immunizations, and in his physical education classes, they monitored and tested his physical fitness.
What no one ever tested or inquired about was the sadness and trauma of his home life—his parents’ continual screaming arguments, sometimes turning violent; the family’s life at times on the border of poverty. Because this boy was a Good Student. He listened attentively in class; he earned good grades; he had a quick mind; he was unfailingly polite and respectful to his teachers. In other words, both he and his family had the decency to keep the difficulties of his life to themselves. And because he behaved and because he learned, no one really cared. Unlike his eyes and his hearing and his shots, his emotional life, in the eyes of his school, was none of their business.
Only much later, when the boy had reached the middle age of his manhood, did he understand how much the turmoil and pathology at home contributed to his being a Good Student. It taught him obedience; it taught him deference to authority, even when he knew that authority to be irrational; it taught him when to be silent and when to speak; it taught him how to adjust his speech so that authority would find it acceptable.
The boy saw, too, what happened to those who failed to perform the role of Good Student that he had mastered. He saw the kids who wore their hunger and their anger and their sadness on their sleeves. He saw the kids who carried in their eyes the question of why the world seemed to despise them, who demanded to know what crime they had committed to be relegated to life’s lower tier. He sympathized with them, and in his mind he asked the same questions, but unlike them, he had the good sense to keep those questions to himself.
And he climbed. Oh, how he climbed. Not that he didn’t trip at times. As an undergraduate, in the midst of success, he fell into episodes of despondency, of depression and inexplicable inaction. He even dropped out of school eventually. But after a few years, he returned with renewed focus and finished his degree, earned a graduate degree as well, became a college teacher himself, and then, by his late 30s, earned a Ph.D.
And then, something strange happened. He backed slowly away. And bit by bit he discovered something about himself. In retrospect, it felt to him like those narratives where a seemingly normal human being discovers that he has a secret super power, perhaps has even had that power all along. But in his case, the discovery didn’t take place all at once. It accumulated like rain that falls quietly but incessantly, that seeps into the ground, soaks down to the water table, and slowly rises until it steadily inundates everything, until its power becomes unmistakable.
He thought of all the times during his climb that he had felt outside—all the time really. And he remembered that this position on the edge had let him see some things that his student colleagues didn’t. He remembered his depressive episodes and how, even in their difficulty, they had humbled him and forced him to maintain a perspective about the limits of academic learning that so many of his peers lacked. And one day it dawned on him that it wasn’t his obedience or compliance or even intelligence that had sustained him. All the while that he had worked and read and studied and learned and sought to impress, something else had kept him going.
It was his skin. It was the blackness he’d worn all his life that had shielded him and prevented him from easy acceptance of all the “supposed-to’s” around which he often felt such pressure to arrange his life. The skin that had always tied him to others and to a different sense life’s significance. His blackness has taught him to question and challenge, had showed him how to turn a thing upside down, had revealed the ugliness that clung to the underside of every gleaming trinket respectable life dangled in front of him.
He realized then that he had chosen to remain outside, on the edge, watching, and his blackness had prepared him to do so. Every time he had watched, as a boy, the absence of black characters in the television shows and films, or seen them presented in cartoonish and stereotypical ways. Every time, as a child in school, he’d read endless books by white authors of characters with white lives and people of color on the periphery or immolating themselves for the greater good. In undergraduate and graduate school, he hadn’t needed to learn critique and analysis; a lifetime of living in his skin and having to translate society’s platitudes into the prejudices that lay beneath had taught him for more than any course in any theory. His blackness had taught him that you can make discoveries through emotion and art and music and language that you can’t make any other way, whether anyone else wants to hear it or not.
And so this acquaintance of mine, like anyone who discovers her or his secret super power, faces new challenges. What to do with this secret strength? Whether to keep it secret. Or whether, and how, to take off at long last the costume of How Things Are, reveal that burnished blackness underneath, and fly, whatever falls might await him.