Blue Like Me

About a year and a half ago, a thought struck me with unprecedented force: Life sucks. Overall. Not physically, but psychically, and in a way rather worse than the modern miasma of inner perplexity and urban wariness that we call depression.This despondency was different, and felt completely above, or beneath, any self-actualization remedy. The usual miasma was there, but surging beneath it, like oil stealthily darkening a floor where you thought only water had spilled, was a sense of brokenness that felt vast and familiar, lived in; it had the wonderful and terrible assurance of a thing that had long been alive, much longer than myself. This great anxiousness seemed to speak, much better than depression could, to all the manifestations of my lacking life: the bills that couldn’t quite get paid, the boyfriend who seemed a permanent fixture but was always passing through, and most of all a weary acceptance that this would be about as good as things would get. Everything and everyone felt ephemeral, so what I was most attached to, what gave me the most comfort, also felt the most ominous. Each day I had to invent the world and appoint its order, try on attitudes like suits of clothes, discard them in heaps, finally bolt out the door with invariably ill-chosen feelings:

Life was making me not sad so much as exasperated and pissed off. Nothing fit the occasion of my life, whatever that was. I had decent-paying work, a roomy place to live in a decent part of town, a car, no family household obligations, license to shop when I wished. What gave? How and why were my blues not like everybody else’s?

I decided, with the help of a few friends and family members, that some therapy might be in order. Quite inadvertently, this decision began unraveling the mystery of my inertia. I had always lauded therapy in theory, but discovered I scorned it in private. Therapy was for wimps and complainers, or at least for people who had sufficient leisure time and money to take up a talking cure in the first place. In other words, therapy was for white people.

When I first sat before a therapist, a very pleasant white woman of un-sparing insight, I realized there was far more to it than that. I am black, and, as such, had never been disassembled as an individual. It had never really seemed necessary, or even practical. In the course of life I had concluded that history had never taken much note of Negroes who were not iconic or tragic figures, or some combination thereof. They were symbols to admire at best and loathe at least, but not people to embrace for their vulnerability and personal explorations and resonant existential crises in the way that, say, Anaïs Nin and Albert Einstein were embraced for theirs. Our people, I had learned over and over in so many ways, are not like yours. We are not so finely calibrated, or so emotionally instructive; the world is more interested in how heavy a burden we can shoulder than in our capacity for curiosity, for observing the stars or walking a beach and collecting shells and bottle caps (which I did as a kid, alone, vaguely embarrassed by the lack of a larger point to it all). The world recognizes our capacity for resistance, and that’s the best it can say about us. That’s the best we can often say about each other; that is the best I can often say about myself. We are thus forever defined by the tension of standing opposite to something; in the absence of such tension, we are the trees that fall in a forest and nobody hears.

But the therapist was listening. I was a tree in full view and hearing range. I began talking, but after five minutes or so I felt I had said too much. Here the mystery unraveled further: I found that I didn’t want to offer myself up. I was nobody’s business. In the environment in which I was raised, character was built not on exposure–that was foolish, if not dangerous–but on a certain imperturbability. You could shore up weakness, but you could never be weak yourself. Being sympathetic and considerate was good, Christian if you looked at things that way, but the sympathy and consideration were supposed to emanate from a rock. It was especially important to be a rock in front of whites, who were all too eager to consign you to dysfunction anyway. So were black people, though for entirely different reasons: They didn’t mind your being drunk, strung out, or ranting–that was common enough–but you must never admit that you couldn’t be something else. One’s eyes must always be on a prize or a better life; hope is the cornerstone of blackness still, and to not invoke it is considered treachery and a waste of precious psychic resources. Melting down emotionally for the mere sake of release therefore never felt like an option for me, even though I longed to do it. Like voting and free speech, it’s practically an American birthright, but another one reserved for Americans of certain birth.

There were smaller scale but no less weighty considerations. I wouldn’t be exposing just myself during therapy, I would be exposing my whole family, my progenitors, my race, my–and our–still unformed legacy. This thought unsettled me far more than the thought of being colossally depressed–that was just me, after all–and so my next move with the therapist was to launch into a passionate defense of my father, whom I had always admired from a distance. I explained to her that he was peerless, that he had kept the wolves from our door even as he struggled to find his place among the wolves in the larger world. He had done battle, he was as rocklike as they come. . . .

The therapist listened. She nodded sympathetically. ‘All right,’ she said when I was done. ‘Now tell me how you really feel.’

The Third I
Such schizophrenia is really a postmodern elaboration on what W.E.B. Du Bois described 100 years ago as ‘double consciousness,’ the state of being black and American but never both at once, because society had deemed it eminently undesirable. Du Bois talked about this double consciousness as the Negro people’s greatest curse, because it meant that as long as they weren’t reconciled in society’s eyes, they could never reconcile themselves in their own. At the turn of this century we struggle with reconciliation in a vastly different but no less crippling context. We are entirely free to be agitators and voting blocs and gadflies–we are reasonably certain we won’t be arrested or shipped off to Liberia–but being agitators has not humanized us, and therefore it has not meant real freedom. We are free to not agitate at all, to populate suburbs and remain conspicuously silent, but that extracts a price of self-denial and psychic compromise and isolation, and has not meant freedom either. That there is virtually no middle ground between full resistance and slack-jawed acquiescence speaks to how embryonic freedom still is for us. In the meantime, our greatest commonality is the very bipolar condition that describes our separation.

Depression struck me as being real but ridiculous. To be black is to inherit conditions that are well beyond depressing–I couldn’t imagine recalling incidents of racism and then confessing, ‘Doc, I’ve got this little self-esteem problem. Can you help?’ Even trying to describe our troubles through the model of depression is ludicrous, a bit like the famous conciliator Booker T. Washington characterizing, as he did more than a century ago, the uptick of lynchings in the South and Midwest as the result of a few offending people’s ‘bad habit.’ James Baldwin remarked some 70 years later that to be black and conscious of what that meant was to be ‘in a constant state of rage.’

That is more intensely true now. The American cult of the individual has reached a zenith, and we assume we are a part of this movement, with its spiritual impresarios and gated communities and cell phones on every table. We are not. Take the ongoing conversation about the angst of the baby boomers. Boomers have had their long days in the sun as they’ve protested, prospered, and now, on the cusp of middle age, contend with crises of purpose and spirit. Black people, even the most resolutely middle-class among us, are at a very different point along the arc of social evolution; our crises are still chiefly those of deprivation, not abundance, and so our experiences are not considered germane to the boomer discourse at all, which cuts us out of yet another great American cultural moment. The book By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (Dutton, 1999) concludes that while these blacks may be earning comfortable incomes in record numbers, they are not really considered part of the middle class, with all the affirmation that phrase confers upon its members. ‘The virtual absence of these blacks from middle-class iconography has led a number of writers and scholars to view them as the ‘invisible men’ of the 1990s,’ write the authors, Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown. They go on to say that President Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, reported something even more diminishing: For whites in focus groups, ‘not being black is what constituted middle class; not living with blacks was what made a neighborhood a decent place to live.’ Beneath our plenty runs the cold undercurrent that being black is still the least advantageous and most repugnant state of being, the thing we all so concertedly run from and measure our misfortunes against.

Equal and Opposite Reaction
I am not, therefore I am. On balance, I have always been much less concerned with what I am than with what I am not–not uneducated, not un-couth, not socially unaware. It’s why I got gold stars on my papers in grade school, not for being an original thinker but for being above the reproach meted out to black students like daily gruel. My personal triumphs never proceeded from that point of youthful narcissism the psychiatrists Price Cobbs and William Grier defined, rather wistfully and improbably, in their seminal work Black Rage (Basic Books, 1968), a collection of case histories; like so many other things, that narcissism was fundamental to the American worldview, and it was something blacks were never supposed to express, much less feel.

My earliest recollection of acting with confidence involved somebody’s backyard birthday party, where I sat in a wooden picnic chair, in a straight pink dress and ruffled ankle socks; I was 6. A portable record player was spinning Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour,’ and I was almost faint with eagerness to show everybody how I had learned to do the cha-cha. I got up and started to dance. It was my grand entry into the world. For the length of the song, at least, I stood in opposition to nothing and led everyone to my particular enlightenment. From that point on, life became less and less like that.

I Been ‘Buked
Last year I traveled to New Orleans and to ground zero of the Big Uneasy. I took a bus ride out to a plantation in steam-iron heat that fairly hissed, with a contingent of white folks armed with cameras, brochures, and carefully concealed expectations. They avoided looking at me. We were greeted by women in gay ruffled skirts offering mint juleps for sale; they took us from room to Victorian-style room declaiming about the nature of the goods, the exotic origins of the wood, the pianos, the dining room columns. I felt vaguely stupid, and vague period, like I was there but fading by the moment, like a ghost who adamantly refuses to accept death even as death is doing its fiendish business. There was no mention of blacks on the tour; the guides referred to folks who worked in the mansions as ‘servants.’ That blithe upgrade of status somehow riled me more than the epithet nigger. I finally raised a hand and inquired, too loudly against the high ceilings, about the slaves’ quarters: Where were they? ‘Oh. Those,’ the guide said with practiced patience, ‘blew away in a hurricane.’

No one asked a similar question. I was scornful but curiously uninflamed, because deep down I accepted this omission as the natural state of things. It would never matter how well my own story turned out, it would always be trumped by this plantation story, this no-story; this story was the one that had to change.

Wanna Take You Higher
I borrowed my father’s old hardback copy of Black Rage hoping only for a side comment or two about the black psyche, some incidental insight that might prove useful in writing about race and depression. The title seemed quaintly dramatic, overwrought, of another age and arc in time that had once glowed hot with color and then vanished like a rainbow. But when I started reading, it felt not quaint at all but immediate, devastatingly relevant. Here were the million points of connection among ethnic, social, and individual dynamics that I saw daily but, despite the vast array of media outlets at my disposal, never heard or recognized in words. This was analysis, epiphany, prophecy. I took many notes. I avidly followed stories of former patients like Bertha, a woman whose keen intelligence and curiosity seemed to have been neutralized by the fact that she’d also been born with dark skin and a flat nose; and John, an executive torn between corporate assimilation and ethnic identity. The book is at once logical and supremely impassioned, and it rings with truth and condemnation. It draws its subjects cleanly and objectively but does not worry about maintaining academic distance–it in fact uses academics with a vengeance. The unexamined black life gave Cobbs and Grier all the drive and indignation they needed, and all the proof I needed to know I wasn’t alone, today, with my sense of being chronically out of focus.

Rage Redux
Price Cobbs lives in San Francisco now, works primarily as a coach of business executives, has an office in a lovely part of town. He answers the door immediately. He is grayer, of course, than in his photo on the dust jacket of Black Rage, taken 33 years ago. He’s dressed in the Dockers and leather sport shoes of his active but listing-toward-retirement generation. He understands perfectly what I’m trying to write about, but doesn’t know what I want. On matters of black behavior and psychology, he is both clinically brusque and deeply feeling in the way his book is. He is kind to me, like family.

Cobbs agrees with the notion that, socioculturally speaking, it’s still very hard for blacks to exist as individuals because our group sense is so fragmented. And this fragmentation is not well understood, or even regarded as a problem; the world at large, which in its most magnanimous mood paints blacks with the broadest of brush strokes, has increasingly little patience with our postmodern angst or the new nuances of black consciousness. ‘There’s a sense of ‘Damn, you got all those civil rights laws, of course the playing field is level now,’ ‘ says Cobbs. ‘We get unfavorably compared to model minorities, like Asians. The problem now is that issues are for us much broader, deeper, and more diffuse. They’re much harder to mobilize around than, say, ‘Get out the vote.’ While there’s a more visible and bigger middle class, the problems are much less tangible–problems that are economic, psychological, social.’
Has there been net progress? Cobbs says yes, but guardedly. At points he vigorously refutes his own examples of progress. ‘We’re more aware of black history,’ he muses, ‘but on some level it isn’t really substantive awareness. It’s put on, trivial, commercialized by Black History Month. . . . But I think that whatever our degree of pessimism, we’re still optimistic about how things could change.’ That optimism has also undone and undermined us, by glossing over where it should illuminate with the light of truth. ‘It’s most important now to know where we are, but we use these PR campaigns in real attempts to negate what’s going on,’ Cobbs says, animated but fuming now. ‘When we first saw black people in ads back in the ’60s, we thought, ‘Great! This is cool!’ But later we thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is bullshit.’ ‘

Speaking of which, Cobbs believes that we are deep in an age when things are not what they seem, as well as an age of comfortable, and comforting, denial. When it first found public voice, black rage seemed like a clear, straightforward, albeit taboo concept; in 2001 it is still as potent, but is expressed so differently that people are willing to assume it has percolated down to nothing. Cobbs says nothing could be further from the truth. ‘One of the reasons we wrote Black Rage was this notion we had that seemed to make sense: The angriest black person is the one most deprived,’ he says. ‘But we found out that the angriest black people were those working at a major liberal metropolitan paper, or the suburban schoolteacher. They had no way to talk about the rage, to feel it. They had no context. I’ve seen people in corporations who are there to represent blacks, but they have as many hang-ups and self-image problems as any black person out there. What to do?’ Cobbs wishes he knew–he, after all, should know. His coaching job has called for him to convince black executive types that they belong, that they have as much of a stake in their outfit as anyone else. ‘I’m supposed to help them see that they could be everything they wanted to be,’ he says, half wistfully, half caustically. ‘But I talked to them individually and realized they had risen as high as they could go, and now it was, ‘Now what?’ ‘ What to do, indeed.

Another conundrum that has worsened considerably, perhaps fatally, since the ’60s is that of authentication. In another modern-day complication of double consciousness, blacks devote so much energy to squaring themselves with an authentic black mode–especially middle-class blacks–that they find little time and space for individuality. Cobbs says that mode defines being black as ‘deprived in terms of housing, economics, jobs, money. Black is still the culture of have-nots. If someone has all these things, then they are not black, and they are lost. That’s very difficult.
‘I can’t tell you,’ he goes on, a bit mistily, ‘how wonderful it was to hear in a meeting, years ago, ‘Black is beautiful.’ You could hear a pin drop. The ledge that we stood on had been broadened. But once it was broadened, the question was, ‘Well, who’s black enough and who isn’t?’ Rather than giving us more room, it gave us less room on the ledge. The Washington Post ran a story recently that wondered aloud if the new mayor of D.C. was ‘black’ enough. The very new definition that ‘expanded’ us has actually narrowed us.’

We’ve all had a hand in the narrowing–black and white, corporate tiger and street-corner rapscallion alike. Cobbs puts aside the growing vexation for a moment and focuses on me. ‘Do you collide with the ledge?’ he asks. ‘Do you write about something non-black, like French cinema, and broaden the ledge? You’ve got to do those things. You’ve got to follow the beat of your own drummer. You’re grounded in who you are, which means you can go off on as many tributaries as you want and it augments you, it doesn’t limit you.’
I am starting to feel distinctly charged with something, a mission of renaissance. Cobbs grows more agitated, his eyes brightening behind thick glasses. ‘You’re in a process of liberation,’ he says. ‘I went through it too, as a psychiatrist. I was seen as too bourgeois, or too militant. All you need to do is be yourself.’

Back to the Couch
I stopped going to the therapist eventually because I couldn’t afford it. I had grown rather used to the confessions, the onion-peeling, even liked the process, my induction into the whole wonderful gestalt of being listened to–for no reason! It was 180 degrees from not and all the tensions of opposition and authenticity–at the therapist’s I floated on a current that carried me wherever I wished. I could talk about why I overspent on shoes, why I liked solitude so intensely, why I had stuck with a lousy relationship for so long. I found I could very nearly separate these issues from those of race, and I tacitly decided to talk about the former and not the latter. I was hardly aware of this decision, it seemed so natural: Race would upset the balance of this new relationship that was forming comfortably. It was forming, I reasoned somewhere deep within myself, precisely because I wasn’t leading with experiences tied to color. If I invoked blackness I would become something less vulnerable and more belligerent: She wouldn’t like me anymore, she would regard me less as a person and more as a political malcontent. I was enjoying the luxury of being listened to too much to risk any less listening on her part.

But that became the problem: Here finally was a mother confessor, to whom I couldn’t tell all for fear of retribution. And I was withholding perhaps the most important information of all about myself. Yet discussing myself as a black person navigating the world–which is fundamentally what I was, what I am–felt somehow more foreboding than discussing myself as a failed pianist. My feelings about shoes felt more appropriate for these chaise-lounge discussions than my feelings about race and my conflicts between loyalty and displacement, between family and a larger collective. Certainly all these things were making me more subtly crazy than the shoes or the boyfriend, and I felt increasingly guilty that I was holding back with a woman who seemed to want to know everything and would seemingly wait forever to know it. But there it was. I couldn’t quite integrate myself in her presence and didn’t want her to know, yet worried she would never get to the bottom of me, that she would never surmount what I couldn’t surmount myself.

I yearned to go back–depression lurked always, and partial disclosure turned out to be vastly better than none–and when my finances and in-surance limits improved several months later, I did. But I went back resolved to tell all. The former boyfriend was long gone. My fiancé, to whom I had confessed this racial reticence, declared that I must make exactly the same confession to the therapist if I was going to make real breakthroughs. That’s how the stuff worked. Her reaction, my fiancé said, would be critical: ‘Then you’ll know if she’s really any good or not.’ Really? I was distraught about putting the therapist in professional jeopardy, because I really did like her and didn’t want to make her responsible for setting right what I essentially felt nobody could set right, not now. Not after realizing over and over how enormous this thing was. What could she do about it?

I did tell her. After a deep breath and a preface that I’m sure sounded like I was going to announce I had terminal cancer. She listened, as always. She nodded gravely, as always. She put an index finger to her lips. Then, for the first time in the year or so since we’d met, she spoke about herself–to let me know that, all along, she recognized the whole of my self, at its most certain and most chimerical, even if I couldn’t. ‘Did I ever tell you,’ she said, ‘that I’m married to a black man?’

Adapted from a longer essay in L.A. Weekly (Aug. 25, 2000). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from Box 4315, Los Angeles, CA 90078.

How do race and ethnicity affect psychological well-being? Discuss in the Society forum at Cafe Utne:cafe.utne.com

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Erin Aubry Kaplan followed the same career path as a lot of young Angelinos. She became an actor. But after a few years navigating LA’s thespian jungle, Kaplan, who has an MFA in theater from UCLA, set her sights on being a writer instead. ‘I’ve always had conflicted impulses about being a writer and being a performer,’ Kaplan says, ‘but I recently realized that as a writer I perform on the page.’

A staff writer for LA Weekly, Kaplan has published her personal essays in a number of nonfiction collections, including Body Outlaws and Mothers Who Think. She’s currently at work on a book based on the themes raised in ‘Blue Like Me.’

Kaplan married last October, and she says the move was a smart one. ‘A certain level of sadness will always be with me. But falling in love and getting married went a long way toward alleviating the depression. Life is looking up.’

–Andy Steiner

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