A Foot in Each of Two Worlds, His Heart in One

By Mario D. Parker
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 9, 2006

Isat at the stoplight on 17th Avenue, alternating glances between my rearview and side-view mirrors. It was well after dark and I had just dropped a friend off at his mother's home. The yellow gas-pump icon on my dashboard signaled that I was near empty.

I looked over at the Phillips 66, at the young guy in the black sweat suit lurking on the dark side of the gas station, and considered crossing the bridge over Chicago's Eisenhower Expressway into neighboring Broadview, where I felt safer, to buy gas.

Before I left for college -- situated in its cozy, comfortable suburban confines -- I would have had no problem stopping at the Phillips 66. Before I left my old neighborhood in predominantly black Maywood, Ill., I would put on a "mean mug" -- 'hood vernacular for a tough, frowning face -- and weave through the crowd of young men talking loudly outside one of the local stores. Or I would stare straight through the panhandling drug addicts. I wouldn't hesitate to buy some chicken at Uncle Remus down on Chicago's Madison Street -- unfazed by potential dangers, which included being robbed. I walked into Uncle Remus time after time, sometimes even wearing dress slacks and a shirt, with no worries, no fear.

But something happened while I was gone. The neighborhood changed. Or maybe I did.

When I was in college, I came across the work of some of the best thinkers. I read Kierkegaard, Sartre and Darwin. The writings of W.E.B. Du Bois on what he called "double consciousness" resonated with me the most. I became more enlightened, and my taste for the Source magazine was replaced with an appetite for more scholarly works.

Before, I had wanted to read what the latest rapper had to say because I often could relate to the perils of urban living and to the first law of nature in the 'hood: Do whatever it takes to get by. But now, as a college-educated black man trying desperately to hold on to my roots while reaching for a higher rung in America's class ladder, I relate more to Du Bois and his reflections on the duality of African Americans in the 20th century, on how we walk in both white America and the black America we are born into.

"The one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die, and the other is too often found a traitor to right and a coward before force," Du Bois writes.

I began to experience this dual consciousness while working in corporate America, and particularly after I had left work or another internship had ended and I returned home. Even at the university, the more I learned, the more I felt alienated in both worlds.

During summer breaks I began to notice that my speech differed from that of my friends. Once, a girl remarked to me that I spoke "proper." One of my friends quickly corrected her.

"Ghetto proper," he said, smiling.

I noticed other changes: that battles between 50 Cent and other rappers became pointless to me. That I am now more interested in debating the state of black America, the flaws that Hurricane Katrina exposed, the Bush administration's threats toward Iran.

When I'm channel-surfing, the dial lands on C-SPAN more than MTV these days.

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