Survivor guilt: the angst of the black bourgeoisie

March 11, 1996|By Clarence Page

NEW CASTLE, DEL. — ONE OF THE most difficult acts for African Americans is to give themselves permission to make money. I don't mean chump change. I mean serious money. White people's money.

Instead of honoring those whose enterprise has taken them to somewhere within shouting distance of white people's money, we belittle them for even daring to think they can improve their condition, as if the imperatives of black solidarity precluded any of us from making an honest buck.

Few were torn by this conflict more than my first wife, Leanita McClain, an African-American, ghetto-to-Gold-Coast success story whose upward climb was stopped only by the torment of her inner conflicts, made worse by clinical, and ultimately fatal, depression. She eventually gave up. She killed herself on Memorial Day in 1984. Had we still been married, it would have been our 10th wedding anniversary.

A product of a South Side Chicago public-housing ghetto, she became the first black woman columnist and first black editorial-board member at the Chicago Tribune, one of the nation's oldest and largest newspapers. She won awards, made speeches and was beginning to appear as a guest on television chat shows, local and national.

Privately she was a portrait in walking woundedness. ''I was born on Wednesday,'' she would say. ''Wednesday's child is full of woe.'' She was also full of grace and fair of face. Her light, freckled complexion, her naturally strawberry-blond hair and her bright green eyes caused some people to wonder whether she was biracial. Of course, like most African Americans, she was. Somewhere in her family background, some tributaries of white and Seminole blood flowed into the stream of Africa, but not very recently.

''I have a foot in each world,'' she wrote in an anguished essay for Newsweek, which headlined it ''The Black Middle Class Burden.''

''I am a member of the black middle class,'' she wrote, ''who has had it with being patted on the head by white hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success.''

She went on to describe the personal conflicts of coping with 22TC white world that often seemed too reluctant or too ignorant to accept her as an equal, and a black world that was rapidly dividing right before her eyes between haves and have-nots, with many of her old friends and relatives slipping down the losing end.

''Jive hustlers''

A boy she had had a crush on as a child back in the projects was serving a life sentence for murder. A childhood girlfriend, once bright and lively, now resigned herself to a lifetime on the dole, a single mother on welfare back in the projects. ''Jive hustlers'' from the old neighborhood still tried to put the moves on her for money.

While boarding the bus in the morning with brigades of other mostly white briefcase-toting yuppies, after returning from a trip to Paris, she ran into an aunt who was arriving to clean the condominium of our white neighbor.

One of her sisters, ''wearing her designer everything,'' is nevertheless taken to the back door of the lakefront high-rise where she lives by a taxi driver who just assumes, because of her skin color, that she is an employee.

''I am burdened daily with showing whites that blacks are people. I am, in the old vernacular, a credit to my race, . . . my brothers' keeper and my sisters', though many of them have abandoned me because they think that I have abandoned them. . . . I assuage white guilt. I disprove black inadequacy and prove to my parents' generation that their patience was indeed a virtue.

'' . . . Some of my 'liberal' white acquaintances pat me on the head, hinting that I am a freak, that my success is less a matter of talent than of luck and affirmative action. I may live among them, but it is difficult to live with them. How can they be sincere about respecting me, yet hold my fellows in contempt? and if I am silent when they attempt to sever me from my own, how can I live with myself?''

Her loyalties to the ''hood'' tugged at her: ''As for the envy of my own people, am I to give up my career, my standard of living, to pacify them and set my conscience at ease? No. I have worked for these amenities and deserve them, though I can never enjoy them without feeling guilty.''

On some cerebral level, she had accepted the unreal and conflicting stereotypical roles into which she was cast by a needy, but misguided, public. Some wanted her to be the fiery feminist. Others wanted her to be a self-centered bourgeois toady to white power.

It must have seemed to her in her final hours that everybody wanted a piece of her and nobody wanted to accept, deliver and protect the whole her. She chose to believe these unreal characterizations were real and could not be transcended. In fact, her greatest tragedy is that she gave up the fight. ''I'll never live to see my people free anyway,'' she said in her suicide note.

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