My whole life, white America has told me that reaching the American dream comes from individual merit. My interpersonal relationship with my family and my environment's conflicts determines my success and how I see myself and others see me. Pulling oneself by bootstraps is uniquely an American creation, and has been hammered into the psyche of Black Americans and dangled as the reward for a solid work ethic. Individual merit has not worked for Black people or me in America. African Americans have historically struggled to achieve the American dream, even though they have sought assimilation into American culture for hundreds of years.
While they rarely admit as much, white Americans often take African-American patriotism for granted when defending and dying for American democracy has only led to lynchings, racism, discrimination, and segregation. In my trajectory and journey, I have faced personal and institutional challenges.
When I was twenty, I enrolled in college. At age twenty-five, I began my professional career. Turning fifty, I rebounded from a twenty-year addiction to drugs. At age seventy, I look back at my experiences in America as a lifelong struggle against racism and discrimination. My ancestors' enslavement by Europeans and white Americans has determined all I am by white people. Achieving success in a country with over four hundred years of denying African-Americans their right to exist has been a challenging, monumental task requiring faith, determination, and resilience.
Slavery became an institution in America when white southerners linked their fortunes to slave labor. That was in 1607. The colonies first tried enslaving Native Americans, then decided that Africans were physically stronger and better able to work from sun up to sun down. Slave owners systematically stripped slaves of their cultural identities, languages, and practices, enslaving their offspring, and denying them rights to own property, marry, or integrate. Stripping slaves of cultural identities was how white people controlled them. Without a cultural reference or context, enslaved people were taught the superiority of white people, and God dictated dominance over them.
Similarly, in Jamaica, England used the same tactics to colonize the indigenous people of this small Caribbean island, fathering children who would be known as mulattoes. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about European enslavers:
"When a European arrives in the West Indies and gets settled or set down for any length of time, he finds it necessary to provide himself with a housekeeper or mistress," one eighteenth-century observer wrote. "He can chose from a black, a tawney, a mulatto, or a mestee, one of which can be purchased for 100 or 150 sterling.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, makes the observation, "Mulattoes rarely worked in the fields. They lived the much easier life of working in the house,"—which is strikingly similar to the social distinctions on southern American cotton plantations. Southern slave owners fathered children by slaves, creating light-skinned, or "colored" children who enjoyed privileges denied to darker-skin children. The difference in the social distinctions between the Jamaican and American mulatto is that the former had some civil rights, and the latter had no rights.
My dark complexion places me in a lower social status within my family and social circles. The light-skinned, curly hair people in my family are favored among themselves and their parents and siblings, ironically assuming some of the prejudicial tendencies of southern plantation owners who allowed their mulatto children to have privileges denied to darker-skin slaves. In other words, African-Americans perpetuate racial stereotypes against themselves within their families.
Thus, how society sees me is shaped by racism and prejudices in American culture. Stereotypes define me; I am shiftless and lazy, incapable of being responsible and accountable, incapable of holding down a job, and I lack the moral ability to raise a family. I am the Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's novel Native Son, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the Mister in Alice Walker's Color Purple, and the tortured soul in James Balwin’s, The Fire The Next Time. I am the W.E.B Du Bois of my generation who, despite being Harvard-educated, was denied the status of a human being because of his black skin.
I fell victim to what educator, Xian Franzinger Barrett, describes in Why the Myth of
Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color as “believing in the America is fair” syndrome. Barrett, an elementary teacher in a rough school on Chicago's southside, believes accepting America’s fairness causes minorities to crash and fail. “Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them,” he says. And “they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control. The Melinda D Anderson article believes when minorities discover that fairness is a myth, ”disillusionment leads to a “decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors.”
I, like generations before me, have brought into the American dream, trusting that the hard work ethic would allow me to prosper. My best efforts to become successful in a country that routinely discriminates against Black people and minorities have largely been ineffective and personally disappointing. The idea that opportunities in America are open to all people is sheer nonsense, a travesty, and factually a lie. The American dream was a slave’s nightmare, which is my my nightmare today.
My failures have everything to do with how white Americans see me because the United States Constitution never intended for me to prosper based on hard work. I am challenged by over four hundred years of discrimination and segregation. Colonists like Benjamin Franklin have used grand language to create a hostile environment erected upon systematically excluding Africans from achieving the American dream.
So far, I have focused on how American society sees me. I have established that my environment is conflicted by racism, discrimination, and segregation. We have learned that light-complexioned African-Americans are favored within their families and were preferred on sugar cane plantations in Jamaica and on the cotton plantations of the American south. How I see myself is more complicated to explain.
I am African and American. My ancestors' heritage dates back to before institutional slavery came to the shores of colonial America. Recent DNA testing reveals I am 35% Nigerian; 18% from Cameroon, Congo, Bantu; 12% from England/northern Europe; 10% from Benin/Togo; 9% from Ivory Coast/Ghana; 8% from Mali; 2% from Senegal; 2% from Scotland; 1% from Bantu; 1% from Germanic Europe/Wales. Europe targeted all of the African regions in my DNA for enslavement.
Slavery is ingrained into American culture. I see myself as an unwilling African American. My ancestors were kidnapped and forced into slavery. My African ancestors explain why I am dark-complexioned. I see myself grudgingly participating in racism, discrimination, and a system rigged and designed to suppress and oppress me.
Growing up in a segregated neighborhood of Philadelphia in the 1950s, no
amount of hard work will lead me to success; my school teachers were white, well-intentioned but culturally insensitive, and advocates of the American dream. My teachers told me hard work, good behavior, and grades naturally lead to success. I was told, “the system is fair and that everyone could get ahead if they just tried hard enough.” Experiences in my environment give me a different message; society will never accept me. I am not just black, I am a dark-skinned black; I am not just stupid, I am thoughtless; I am not just irresponsible, I am a danger in society.
Forthcoming personal essay in Bullet Proof Soul. Order your copy today: buyrondsbook.com