With all the numbers about Black unemployment, and the common racist depiction of Black Americans as lazy and unwilling to work, I’ve been thinking about how useful it would be to find a statistical measure for the labor that’s involved in simply being a Black person (or any person of color) in this country.
Because in addition to whatever labor we do to make money, being Black is a fulltime job in the United States. Of course we all have the job of being human. And, no, I don’t mean holding down employment and/or taking care of your own. Spending and getting. I don’t mean “functioning.” That’s not being human.
I’m talking about, in addition to all that, developing and maintaining some human decency, some sense of compassion. I mean nurturing and acting from an awareness that we belong to a larger community, one reaching beyond sect and nationality and even humanity to encompass everything on this living, breathing ball of blue spinning in the inky ether.
Of course, some folks believe that being human means reaching to realms even beyond that, realms of accountability that we’ll have to deal with after we die. I haven’t decided about that; it’s more than I know. But the elements of being human that I’ve talked about so far are plenty even if you don’t believe in a hereafter.
Then we each have the job of carrying our gender: male or female or something more fluid that encompasses parts of both, or moves from one to the other, or hovers in some way between them. As a man, I can tell you that masculinity in general, and Black masculinity in particular, has its hazards. My experience beyond that is limited to observation, but I’m pretty sure that whatever difficulty the work of being male requires, the work of being female entails more.
Anyway, that covers the jobs that all Americans have to work, or at least ought to be working. But the work of being Black involves additional labor.
It includes the work of making up for the likely economic differences between yourself and white people, regardless of what social class you’re born into or what educational level you or your family have attained.
It includes the work, beginning in childhood, of trying to find a place for yourself in the national and cultural narratives. That is, a place that doesn’t keep you only in the confines of slavery or civil rights or deprivation or crime.
It means the work of being concerned for your children and their lives and livelihoods. And that includes trying to prepare them for the economic, social, physical, and emotional hazards of carrying all of these burdens themselves.
It involves the work of fending off white supremacist notions about your inability to function as an intellectual and moral human being on a plane level with them.
It also involves the work of hearing white privileged notions that whatever racist animus you experience and discuss is exaggerated or imagined because of your own unfounded “sensitivity.”
It definitely includes the work of dealing with white leftists of all stripes, including progressives or feminists or socialists or other intellectuals who insist that if you only subsume your struggles under their “larger” sense of the “real” issues, your problems will be over.
And if that isn’t enough, the labor of being Black includes the overtime work of dealing with useless white liberal guilt that accompanies these conversations, when what would really be helpful is a white moral outrage at all injustice that would translate into concrete actions to combat it.
As I indicated earlier, for a Black woman, you can take the level of work that I’ve talked about and at least double it. You know that cloak of invisibility that’s so coveted in the Harry Potter books? I’m guessing some wizard got it from a working class Black woman who said, “Here. You can have it for free. Been trying to get rid of this thing all my life.” Those may be hard to find for many white folks, but in the United States they hand those cloaks out to Black women at birth.
This list presents some of the extra labor, the second fulltime job, that comes with being Black in America. The work can makes us weary; it can anger and exhaust us. But speaking for myself, there are fringe benefits that make it bearable.
Here I mean things like knowing you come from a people whom hundreds of years of ongoing economic, political, physical, and cultural violence have been unable to break. Think of that. Nearly half a millennium of continued oppression, and we’re still here. Not only are we here, but we’ve remade the cultural and moral landscape of the very civilization that’s tried to destroy us. We can look around and see art, literature, music, film, dance, theater that would be unrecognizable as American without our presence and influence.
That’s what I think of as I work that fulltime job. That’s the heritage my children inherit. And despite the work of being Black, I have the happy task of reminding myself, my children, and white America of that.