Between blacks, whites and grays

November 10, 1997|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I'VE BEEN black for many years. I've been too black for about six.

That's how long I've been a newspaper columnist. Six years in which a succession of editors, a handful of race-phobic white readers and a smattering of fire-breathing black ones have sought to adjust the black content in my writing the way you would the picture on an old television.

''Too black,'' they complain, followed moments later by, ''Not black enough.'' And that's just the editors.

A Louis Farrakhan

The readers are worse. It seems I'm either Louis Farrakhan or Uncle Tom incarnate, depending upon who's lodging the complaint.

Will it surprise you to hear that this gnawed at me in the early days? That it made me self-conscious, self-doubting and second-guessing? Finally, I contacted a more experienced black writer at another newspaper. Is this normal? I asked. He assured me that it was. What can I do? I implored. Nothing, he said. Just hang tough and give it your best.

It was profoundly unsatisfying advice.

Last week, I had the bizarre experience of having that conversation again -- from the other side this time. A newly appointed black columnist at another paper told me her bosses have warned that her work has been too black. This, because three of her first 12 essays dealt with racial issues. She confided in a white colleague who proposed the following solution: If she came upon a racial matter she thought was worth covering, she was to alert a white columnist and let that person write about it. The colleague explained that because she's black, she has no credibility writing about race.

Much the same way, one presumes, George Will has no credibility writing about conservatives.

No wonder the woman was hurting and confused by the time we spoke.

The issue is larger than newspapers or columnists. The issue is black people and the American mainstream. It's how much of yourself you have to change or deny in order to be accepted. It's the black men who shave off their beards to lessen the perception of threat. It's the black women who won't say ''black'' in the executive suite for fear of being branded troublesome. And it's the way ambitious black people routinely contort and alter themselves to put white people at ease.

Granted, every ethnic has to give up something on the way into the mainstream -- one seldom hears an Irish brogue giving the evening news.

Watching 'Seinfeld'

But I'm persuaded that no one gives up more than black people nor receives as meager a reward for the sacrifice. You can shave your beard, ban the ''b'' word, even watch ''Seinfeld'' if you want, but you cannot neutralize blackness.

Because when you make it into the mainstream, you find that it doesn't quite trust you. It keeps you on probation, forever proving your right to be there.

Once, back when I was an arts critic, I wrote that rock 'n' roll is an outgrowth of black music. Now, this is an elemental truth that's been repeatedly attested to without controversy by white musicologists, critics and even rock pooh-bahs like Carl Perkins and Keith Richards.

But because this time the observation came from me, a white colleague found it suspect. He accused me of ''cultural chauvinism.''

The moral of the story: The truth doesn't always set you free. Sometimes, it only takes you back where you began.

Too black.

Or not black enough.

It can be easy to lose yourself in that dichotomy, to drown in the fuzz and static of competing agendas and dueling fears. Difficult to remember what once seemed simple and self-evident:

I am me. Only me.

There comes a certain freedom when you reclaim that knowledge, when you choose to stop bearing the weight of other people's fallacies. Which is ultimately the point of that unsatisfying advice.

Am I too black? Not black enough? It's still a problem, I suppose.

It's just not one of mine.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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