More than a century before Facebook statuses, twitter tweets, and tumblr walls, intellectual W.E.B. DuBois expressed how he felt about the world around him. DuBois coined the term “double-consciousness” to describe the contrasting realities of being both black and American. He felt there to be a conspicuous inconsistency between social values and the daily challenges faced by black people.
Fast -forward over 100 years, and my double consciousness burger now comes with extra cheese. As a young writer, I may not be completely ready to join the ranks of DuBois in intellectual understanding, but I can describe, in full candor, the layers of expectations placed on me.
I started early. While other kids played kickball and ate fruit snacks on the playgrounds of West Cleveland, I was busy trying to make sense of the world around me. I quickly noticed an unpleasant trend that usually stopped me dead in my British Knights: I was different and not only did this observation frustrate me, I often had no response for the youngsters who reminded me of this constantly.
Indeed, I was never one to bully, slap unsuspecting playground girls on the butt, or steal “Now and Later’s” out the corner store--- No matter how much I tried, I simply never had that in me--no tengo cahoonas (I recall getting called to the principals office in elementary school and damn near soiling my underoos)
Conversely, I was always the one getting picked for lead roles in the school play, or asked to read aloud in front of the class. In grade school I began to notice that I was accepted by the other kids in a way that I wasn’t by the black kids. The trend followed me throughout my early education and became more and more obvious. Whether it was my view of the world, my fashion sense, or my taste in music, there was always something that separated me from the other black boys.
Truthfully, I always wanted what some of the black boys said I didn’t have. I wanted the coolness that came along with putting the perfect curse-word combination together, or the lunch table bragging rights of whopping some kids ass, or even the admired persona that accompanied those who went to smoke mary jane under the pavilion. I wanted that. I had a great childhood, and even better teenage years, but secretly I resented the fact that I wasn’t seen as the same by those who looked like me. Inside I knew I was different, and apparently they did too.
As college rolled around so too did my self-awareness. I attended a PWI ( Predominantly White Institution) but I made it a personal mission to learn more about who I was in the world, gain greater sense of community, and align myself more with issues I felt were uniquely black. I floated by. However, there were two instances in which I felt were particularly noteworthy and ultimately symbolic of what the world expected of me at that time.
I was the captain of my college basketball team, which was primarily black. Our head coach at the time was white, and he and I had an excellent rapport. One day my coach and I were talking before practice and he was telling me about a great conversation he had concerning me, with a professor (also white) at the university.
He explained to me how the professor sung my praises, stressing how well spoken and “articulate” I was. As my coach went on and on about how complimentary the professor was of me, my smile quickly turned into a smirk, for two reasons. One, I wasn’t nearly as articulate and intelligent as the professor was making me out to be. Secondly, he need not be so damn surprised--after all this was college. Perhaps I was reading too far into it, but it was made obvious my ability to put a tight sentence together was not expected of me, and he had to run and tell my coach about how impressed he was.
The second situation was much more life altering and equally as insulting. It was my sophomore year and I was new to the school. When it came to the ladies, I’d never really tried too hard-- which can be a good and a bad thing. Additionally, at the same point in time my fashion sense began to change.
Following a failed attempt to make a pass at a young lady, she hit me with five words that changed my life forever “ I thought you were gay”. Shocked at her accusation I looked back at her like something stunk. “What?” I replied. I had been called a lot of things in my life up until that point, but gay was certainly not one of them. So you mean to tell me because a brotha switches up the denim, eases up on the approach, and livens up the colors, he has to be gay? Much like the professor, her expectation of me was clear.
That experience had a lasting impact, perhaps more then I knew.
It wasn’t until after college, that I began to realize what was expected of me in a relationship context. Provide, protect, and procreate---with those of your same color. It was common knowledge that marrying a woman outside of your race, albeit for all the right reasons, chopped away at your blackness in a way that few others did.
There were brothas I knew who were dating great women of other races but were scared to death to bring them around the sistas, because he already knew what was waiting for him. The smirks, the sneers, and the side-eyes. What was expected of his choice of women was also evident.
In a conversation I had with my mother a few weeks back I was explaining to her my new found philosophy on freedom. I explained how people simply don’t want to be free. They want to be slaves to expectation. I told my mother how it was much easier to say “I can’t, because” then “I will, because”. True freedom lends no real excuses.
In a strange way I wanted to be connected to DuBois’s plight, to illustrate how polarizing this society could be, then I realized…. I’m too free for that. The irony in the polished philosophy is that it’s only achieved through the eyes of others, which when applied to the nature of DuBois’s theory, seems counter intuitive. Whether I see a single reflection, or three fragmented images when I look in the mirror, my eyes alone will be the judge—stainless, trusting, and true.
Austin is writer and also Editor-in-Chief of men’s online lifestyle magazine, The Smugger.