Believing Who We Can Be
Who we are is just a matter of believing who we can be.
These were the words I heard in an episode of the cartoon Legion of Superheroes. A shape shifter from the bad side has infiltrated the Legion by assuming the identity of Superman. The subterfuge had been going on for so long that by the time the shape shifter’s cover was blown his evil ways were kicked to the curb and he wanted to work with the League to make amends for his previously evil ways. The shape shifter was experiencing a conflict of personality objectives until the leader of the super criminals showed up and fully restored the shape shifter’s original personality and any thought to be helpful to the League was forgotten with one exception.
As the leader of the criminals and the shape shifter returned to their headquarters the leader started ragging the shape shifter about his temporary desire to be helpful to the League. Suddenly, in one final act in defiance of evil, the shape shifter helped the League destroy a group of missiles that numbered into the thousands on a trajectory to destroy a planet of people unaware of the conflict between the two groups. There is no doubt that the planet would have been destroyed if the shape shifter hadn’t destroyed the key missile that triggered a domino reaction that destroyed all the missiles. The shape shifter returned to his headquarters and the League was left to ponder this final act of compassion. Why would someone who worked so hard to cause trouble would work so hard to help. I think it was Superman who said, “Who we are is just a matter of believing who we can be.”
Like most things I hear I started to apply this quote to the black community. Maybe who we are is just a matter of believing who we can be. Maybe if people in the black community simply made the choice to be the best educated people we can be then we will be the best. Maybe if we believed we deserved employment all of us will have jobs. Maybe if we believed that we have the right to walk down the street without being harassed by posses of the dominant culture we won’t be harassed by posses. That sounds so simple and too good to be true. The only problem is that the black community would be competing to be everything we wanted to be against a culture that wants to a dominator of the black community. We live in a world by the white, of the white, and for the white. This world will be and must be protected at all cost. And part of what makes many people in the white community feel better about themselves is the fact that the vast majority of the black population is in a situation similar to or worse than what they have to deal with.
Imagine what it was like for black people who believed they could learn to read and write back at the peak of institutionalized slavery on the American plantation. The common practice among white slave owners was to severely punish the African for having the audacity to learn how to read. But the African wanted to learn. Suddenly just believing who you can be is woefully inadequate when compared to someone who is committed to you being ignorant and less than your full potential. Africans who were caught trying to learn were suddenly sold away from their family and everything that was familiar to them. A black parent who caught their child trying to learn would reinforce the rule of ignorance out of fear that they could have their child sold away. The choice to be literate was a difficult one for many of our ancestors. And while some of our ancestors were able to learn, many of them paid the consequences of being able to read.
Black people who can believe themselves capable of operating outside the confining parameters defined by the dominant culture can be successful but they have to expend a great deal of fortitude to achieve their objectives. The black man that has the audacity to be the first to play major league baseball, the black woman who imagined herself being able to sit anywhere she wanted on a public bus, the first black man to be a quarterback in professional football, the first black woman to actually run for President, the first black man to earn the right to practice medicine and develop techniques for the first successful open heart surgery, black people working hard for the right to vote, black people working hard for an education or a livelihood, all these black people had to do a lot more than just believe who that wanted to be. They actually had to work against people strongly committed to keeping the status quo of black subjugation safe and in place. Some of these people struggled and were never successful. Many died working for what they believed.
A lot of white people have their own imaginings. A lot of white people imagine themselves free of black people. A lot of white people work to keep black people out of their neighborhood, out of their profession, out of their place of employment or education, out of their church, and out of their sight. The two imaginings are very incongruous. Believing in ourselves to be whatever we want ourselves to be is just the first step. Then there are all the steps necessary to make it happen. No disrespect to Superman but it is a lot more complicated than just believing who we can be. Sometimes black people have to go up against the very definition of modern society steeped in beliefs of racial prejudice. The white mindset, as practiced by people on both sides of the racial divide, will not capitulate to ideas of racial equality just because somebody believes it can happen.