Commentary

Kesha Ram: The souls of Black folk and the roles of white folk

This commentary is by Kesha Ram of Burlington, a Democratic state senator representing Chittenden County.

Recent events have left me thinking a lot about W.E.B. DuBois and the great tragedy of Black double-consciousness in America. 

As DuBois wrote in The Atlantic in 1897, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.”

In over a hundred years, nothing has changed. Black Americans’ lives, livelihoods and well-being can still be jeopardized or taken away from them by white Americans at any time, individually and systemically, without consequence. 

So, then, what is our collective responsibility to uplift the souls of Black Americans? How do we further their ability to one day merge this double-consciousness into one whole self, to not have their very lives depend on how they are perceived and treated by white Americans and a system built to oppress them?

As a brown, multiracial woman, it sometimes feels like I am experiencing a triple-consciousness. I am aware of the privileges and freedoms that white Americans enjoy that I do not; and yet, I am also aware that I experience and enjoy a great number of privileges and freedoms compared to Black Americans. 

As I sat gripped with a complex mix of emotions waiting for the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the killing of George Floyd, many of the deep-seated images and feelings that flashed through my mind were from my own childhood fear and anger over policing and racism in America.

From the time my father moved to the United States from India, he would get pulled over by the police at least once or twice a year. That was just when his kids were in the car. He wouldn’t tell us when it happened to him otherwise. Something as small as having too much clutter in his rear window would get us pulled over. Sometimes the police would stay at the window, sometimes he was pulled out of the car, often they would run his plates to see if his car was stolen. 

After years of these interactions with law enforcement, my father began to talk back to the police. We would sit with our heads down, knowing our freedoms were in the hands of this person with a badge on their chest and a gun on their hip. In my triple-consciousness now, I can appreciate that there was privilege in my father expressing his anger to the police without resulting arrest or brutality. Such an interaction could easily be deadly for a Black family.

These experiences were dramatically juxtaposed with being in the presence of my white mother, who prides herself on never having received a ticket or moving violation in her life. She has an abstract sense of the injustice of police violence, but it was not central to her concerns over our well-being. She seemed content that, if we stayed out of trouble ourselves, we would not have interactions with the police. 

So, when LAPD officers arrested me at the age of 13 for “breaking curfew” with my friend who was Indigenous and Black, my mother was surprised. Like most white Los Angeles residents, she didn’t even know there was such a thing as curfew. My father, however, was not surprised. He was enraged.

The officers’ first two questions to me and my friend were, “Are you Mexican?” and “Are you sure you’re not Mexican?” They held us, handcuffed, late into the night, joking to other officers that our arrest was earning them overtime. I was glad that my father was picking me up that night so he could express the rage that I felt. He screamed at the officers so forcefully, I thought we were both going to spend the night in jail.

Later, with whatever racial consciousness I had as a 13-year-old child, I was glad it was my white mother who came with me to court when I had to miss school and face a judge for this charge. If you know me as an elected official, you know I don’t have a hard time speaking up. But that day, when the judge asked me my name and birthday to begin the hearing, I could barely get the words out of my mouth. The judge took one look at my white mother standing behind me and threw out the charge.

My father died almost instantaneously in 2015 of a major heart episode at 66 years old. I think of him often, especially during this past year of racial reckoning. I think of how this country took his vision of the American Dream and crushed it by the end of his life. 

I think of how many Black and brown men die premature deaths due to police and gun violence, stress, hypertension and depression. As DuBois so poignantly reflected, their future selves are lost, taken from them before they can grow wiser and more self-realized; before they can transmit their wisdom to future generations. 

With the recent murders of Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo and Ma’Khia Bryant, that work of allowing Black and brown Americans to grow old becomes all the more urgent and painful.

Three days after George Floyd was murdered, I sat in the parking lot of Costco with tears rolling down my cheeks, talking to my mother on the phone. For the first time in my 33 years of life, she told me that she finally understood that my lived experience was different from hers because of the color of my skin and the foreignness of my name. A weight I didn’t know I was carrying was made lighter. My triple-consciousness merged ever so slightly, moving me closer to being one whole person. 

As meaningful as it was for me to hear these words, we cannot have more Black men brutally killed, have their air passage closed off for over nine minutes while they die, or have their murder horrifically rebroadcast on national television for white people to have this continued awakening.

DuBois wrote that the double-consciousness of Black Americans, borne out of the mental and physical trauma of racism, produces a slow internal rage eating away at the souls of Black folk. It is time for white folk to recognize that anti-Black racism is eating away at their souls, too, and the souls of those they love. 

As the verdict came down in Derek Chauvin’s trial, guilty on all three counts, I caught a glimpse of what justice could look like if white Americans truly understood that their destiny is bound up with Black and brown Americans, and fought accordingly. But that day will only come when white Americans can do this work without the loss of Black lives to embolden them. It is only then that they will begin to heal their own souls and the soul of this nation from the deep wounds of racism.


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