By Sarah Eagan
This week, I planned on writing about Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking album “DAMN.,” which catalogues the black experience in America today like no other medium.
His work poignantly captures systemic injustice in the United States, and its recognition is a historic accomplishment of progress in the race conversation in America. His work, according to the Pulitzer board, captures “the complexity of modern African-American life.” Coincidentally, I’m reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” for class this week. My class discussion of the text went awry, and seriously proved to me how important Kendrick’s win truly is.
“Souls of Black Folk” details the divide and sense of separation felt by black Americans while interacting with white American society. Writing 100 years ago, Du Bois still has America pinned perfectly. His descriptions of racism are almost identical to Lamar’s honest portrayal. Lamar’s “DNA.” or “YAH.” can be considered testaments to his own experiences with the “veil” of separation, with poetic references to political, systemic and social forms of prejudice and oppression. Both beautiful in their forms and expression, it is clear that both “The Souls of Black Folk” and “DAMN.” are steps in the right direction toward recognition of black excellence as plain and simple excellence.
However, my class discussion did not really take away that point from reading Du Bois. My white professor exclaimed that: “People are too sensitive now! Far too self-conscious of race that they are afraid of other people!” In an overwhelmingly white classroom, stories of “mistaken” racism or “overreaction” ran rampant, as my professor proposed the idea that our society is hyper-racialized, too conscious of race to a point of obsession. A white student chimed in about a time when she moved her bag for comfort on a crowded subway and was accused of thinking the black man behind her was going to pickpocket her. Another spoke of feeling like an outsider when she travelled to another country and spoke English. They drifted from the text, overwriting Du Bois’ black experience with their white one, in what they believed to be a post-racial America.
But they were missing the point: The same week Kendrick Lamar won his Pulitzer, the first rap recipient ever, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks for just sitting in the establishment. Another black man in a Philadelphia Starbucks was denied a bathroom code while a white man, who had not purchased anything, was granted free access. In that classroom, the BU Bubble never felt more tangible, and Du Bois and Kendrick’s voices never more ignored.
Du Bois explicitly discusses the “veil” as a condition of African-American experience. The girl in my class who felt like an outsider because she spoke in an American accent in another predominantly white country, where she otherwise passes and would face no real consequences of simply existing, is not an equivalent experience of the ostracization described by “DAMN.” and “The Souls of Black Folk.” Having historic forces larger than themselves involuntarily shape their identities and others perceptions of their identities might be incomprehensible to me and my white peers. If they feel like they are “overcompensating” by smiling at a natural-haired black woman on the train, the problem is not of self-consciousness, but what they feel they are compensating for.
All I felt in that room was all of the voices who were not there to speak up for themselves. Without their presence, white ignorance prevailed. Listening to Kendrick’s album over and over, there is something very important that comes from listening to black artists and learning directly from the source. The fact is, my professor and I, as white Americans, will never be able to understand how systematic racism feels firsthand.
For him to devalue that experience with his opinion on race is unacceptable. What Kendrick’s win and Du Bois’ writing provide are ways to listen and hopefully understand those who are, not spaces to overwrite with one’s own experiences and musings on whether race is even an issue. For all of the claims of diversity that BU makes, the isolated conversations that occur in academic circles at this university remain impenetrable to the reality of the conversation’s context. The consequences of the BU Bubble perhaps is not lack of perspective, but those who do not listen when those perspectives are provided and attempt to discuss the issues in the absence of those they are discussing.