The weight of white supremacy, then and now

When I set out to research something (like baseball for Melly Mockingbird), it always feels important to me to get the latest material. Fiction can be a kind of bluffing, and you want to know your stuff. So when I started to educate myself about racism in America, I wanted very up-to-date books. For instance, I remember reading Living with Racism by Joe Feagin and Melvin Sykes, which was published in 1995, and wondering if things were really still like that. It was a turning point for me to realize that the racism is just as much of a force in American society today as it was not only in 1995, but in 1965.

The other day Kyle, who’s on a cataloguing tear, handed me a paperback called Ten Times Black, edited by Julian Mayfield. The book came out in 1972 and includes a 1965 story by Rosa Guy, called “Wade,” about a black soldier in France during World War II. Here’s a passage about Wade’s experiences that struck me as an eloquent description of the effects of white supremacy—now as well as then.

Being in France was just about the best of it. Sure, they had been the liberators and so everyone looked up to them, but it was so much more than that. It was as though a weight had dropped off your shoulders, this being away from home. You got aboard the metro and sat down and the feeling of intruding didn’t dig into you, making you tense and belligerent. You walked on the streets jostling people or being jostled by them without your hair standing up at the back of your neck. Being able to argue with a cabdriver over a sou and get cussed out with you returning the compliment, and it was only that sou you argued about. It was slow getting used to—that you were a man and not a special kind of man.

It was funny as hell, the light feeling that came over you when you fully realized that at home a whole country had been standing solidly on your shoulders, looking at you upside down, and you had been trying to move and get around, acting like a normal man, with that weight on your shoulders. You went around pretending, and telling yourself and shouting out loud to anyone who would listen that you were like all other men. But it wasn’t true! How could it be true with all that weight upon you? You had to be different. Wade started thinking of the reasons studs back home talked so loud especially in White areas. It was to try to convince the White man that he wasn’t really on your shoulder, even when he knew it was a lie. The reason why, when he came out of the subway in Harlem, he could push out his chest and make his back a little straighter, wishing he could hide forever in the glowing tide of pure people.

Being away from the scene made you feel as a bird must feel when he could just spread his wings and soar.

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