- By Wings
- 23 December, 2012
- 6 Comments
“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”. WEB DuBois
I grew up in a low income, predominantly black community in Germantown Philadelphia. I was encouraged by my parents and grandparents to do well in school and to pursue a college education. This, they believed, was the key to overcoming the inequitable economic and social realities that far too many people with just one of my multiple minority identities (I am a black woman with a disability) tend to confront. You see, before I was even aware that my difference made a difference, they knew it would, and they tried their hardest to prepare me for it. So at the age of 17, I followed their advice and left the only community I ever knew to pursue my higher education at a predominantly white institution.
This small move, just 4 hours away from home, changed everything. While I’ve gained a great deal from my educational experiences and newly obtained privileges and social status as a college educated American, it has also come at great personal costs that raise more questions for me everyday. One such cost is the disconnect I now feel from the low income black community that helped to instill the very values that lead to me pursuing the goals that have resulted in my academic success. I, like many other African Americans from similar communities experience a double consciousness that is related not only to race, but also to class. This ability to be aware of multiple perspectives because of the many identities that one person inhabits can be a blessing and a curse. For the African American from a poor inner city family pursuing their education at a predominantly white institution, it often means that they no longer fit in at home, but they don’t exactly fit in at school either.
To address the issue of “fitting in” many educated blacks create their own spaces where they can be affirmed and supported. These spaces include black student organizations, alumni associations and even residential communities that cater to African American professionals. The challenge that this creates is that we have now tried to solve a class problem by creating and finding comfort in another class, i.e. The black middle class. As I complete my dissertation, I know that receiving the PhD will undoubtedly grant me entry into the precious gem called the “black elite”. The problem I am wrestling with however, is that I am not sure if I like or fit in with that group either. Not if it means abandoning the people I left behind to pursue my educational and economic goals all those years ago.
In the book “When Work Disappears” William Julius Wilson argued that the exit of the black middle class from mixed income black communities was a significant contributor to the creation of the ghetto (areas of concentrated poverty, usually hyper-segregated by race). Similarly, the late Derrick Bell argued in his last book “Silent Covenants” that even during segregation, there were healthy black communities, and that in many ways racial desegregation was disadvantageous as it led to even greater class division among blacks. Because of desegregation more blacks with wealth and/or education were able to leave poorer black communities and enter white communities with similar incomes as theirs.
The challenge African Americans who were not born with but who later obtain some sort of class status face is “Am I my brother and sisters keeper?” In other words, do we have any responsibility to the communities from which we came? If you are like me, and are fortunate enough to be one of the few who were able to pursue a college education or more, then you didn’t walk, you ran out of the ghetto in search for something better! But now that I found it, I’m haunted by the stories from people back home. Family members and childhood friends struggling to find or keep a job in a black America who’s unemployment rate is over 14%, under a black President! While I was studying for college exams, many of my high school classmates were having babies too young, and all too many others have been shot and killed. Yes, I have managed to make it out, but what about the others? Nothing in all my years of higher education has taught me how to reach back and lend a hand to them.
But maybe it’s not my responsibility. After all, I worked hard! It’s time for me to “do me”! Right? I don’t owe them anything.
As more and more members of the Civil Rights generation age out of this world, at the same time that members of the hip-hop generation gain social control, I hope we remember the values that the Civil Rights generation have taught us. These values include challenging dominant cultures values of individualism and wealth at any cost, not conforming to them. They taught us to seek power with, rather than over people, including our own.
I am my brother and sisters keeper, not because I have to be, but because I choose to be. Will I move back to my old neighborhood? Probably not! I want better for myself. But, I also want better for others too. Finding collective ways to do that is the challenge we must all face together.