Published by Crown Publishing Group on November 13th, 2018
Failure is a feeling long before it is an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.
I didn’t, in fact, have many white friends at all. In retrospect, I realize it was my fault as much as anyone’s. I was cautious. I stuck to what I knew. It’s hard to put into words what sometimes you pick up in the ether, the quiet, cruel nuances of not belonging—the subtle cues that tell you to not risk anything, to find your people and just stay put.
I was more accustomed now to being one of a few students of color in a packed lecture hall. I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.
This is what a control freak learns inside the compressed other world of college, maybe above all else: There are simply other ways of being.
Many of the people I knew in Chicago knew something similar, though it was not explicitly discussed. Kids simply went ‘down south’ every summer—shipped out sometimes for the whole season to run around with their second cousins back in Georgia, or Louisiana, or Mississippi. It seems likely that they’d had grandparents or other relatives who’d joined the Great Migration north. Somewhere in the background was another more-than-decent likelihood—that they, like me, were descended from slaves.
Listening to Barack, I began to understand that his version of hope reached far beyond mine: It was one thing to get yourself out of a stuck place, I realized. It was another thing entirely to try to get the place itself unstuck.
When there’s a baby in the house, time stretches and contracts, abiding by none of the regular rules. A single day can feel endless, and then suddenly six months have blown right past.
It’s a sensation I’ve come to love as I’ve traveled more, the way a new place signals itself instantly and without pretense. The air has a different weight from what you’re used to; it carries smells you can’t quite identify, a faint whiff of wood smoke or diesel fuel, maybe, or the sweetness of something blooming in the trees. The same sun comes up, but looking slightly different from what you know.
In general, I felt as if I couldn’t win, that no amount of faith or hard work would push me past my detractors and their attempts to invalidate me. I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.
As I told my staff, I’d rather go deep than broad when it came to taking on issues. I felt sometimes like a swan on a lake, knowing that my job was in part to glide and appear serene, while underwater I never stopped pedaling my legs.
Friendships between women, as any women will tell you, are built of a thousand small kindnesses, swapped back and forth and over again.
America is not a simple place. It’s contradictions set me spinning. I’d find myself at Democratic fund-raisers held in vast Manhattan penthouses, sipping wine with wealthy women who would claim to be passionate about education and children’s issues and then lean in conspiratorially to tell me that their Wall Street husbands would never vote for anyone who even thought about raising their taxes.
For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self.
Kids wake up each day believing in the goodness of things, in the magic of what might be. They’re uncynical, believers at their core. We owe it to them to stay strong and keep working to create a more fair and humane world. For them, we need to remain both tough and hopeful, to acknowledge that there’s more growing to be done.