Frederick Douglas, in his autobiography described his fight with Mr. Covey, his owner, and the transformative impact it had on his view of himself as a man.
It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.
Yearning then was self-evident. Under the condition of slavery, black people yearned as a function of survival, as a matter of recognizing their identity as human beings. They had to develop faith in the possibility of something better in order to endure and engage in the struggle to realize it. Their yearnings rested on that faith. While freedom at that stage in our history may not have brought physical comfort, it certainly brought a tremendous psychological improvement – an improvement from one condition of existence to another, bondage to freedom. The slave experience has indisputably marked the existence of black people in America.. The continuous examination of this experience has served to help us explain and understand our identity as Americans. This persistent inquiry has also served an invaluable function in helping the nation come to terms with itself; both its capacity for viciousness as well as transformation. It has also helped deepen our national understanding – whether we choose to acknowledge it or not – of the circumstances of black men.
Black men exist in a cloud of American contradictions. When talented and successful, those talents have to be extraordinary, because of the difficulty in having them be recognized. W.E.B. DuBois noted that, “Throughout history, the powers of single black men flash here and there like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness.” It has always been difficult for black stars to shine in a constellation that collaborates to mute their light. Despite that, the yearning has continued. The drive to improve has remained a cherished component of our character. That does not mean that all of the damning statistics that describe the circumstances of black men since forever are not true. It means that life in the cloud of contradictions is contradictory. It is nothing new to note the frustrations of being looked at as a problem or as an other in your own country can turn inward. Even with that internalized violence and self-hatred, there is still a yearning for something better; a more beautiful model. According to James Baldwin:
This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.
That beauty Baldwin spoke of is being realized in increments. The individual successes of black men, however unsung they may be, contribute to this beauty; to the establishment of a more perfect model of manhood. The current prison rates among black men and the nearly 75% of black children being raised without their fathers tells us that it is still just a model. Despite that, the model is holding firm. It is propped up by our continuous yearning. When Martin Luther King said that he had looked over, he was assuring us that there was something better on the other side of our struggle. When Malcolm X explained black nationalism, he was describing the historical framework of our model for manhood.
So, it is with an enormous amount of preparation and struggle that we await this next incremental step, the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America. Never before has a black man been able to say that the President is a Brother. Never before have we been able to say declaratively what Langston Hughes said poetically, that not only do we sing America, we are America. The meaning of this reality to our model will be realized in generations to come. The inauguration will not be the magic solution, but it will certainly be a magic moment. More importantly, it will give us a moment to pause from yearning and relish in the realization of a centuries old dream – to have the black man as man in America.