Notes from the First Year
This story began, as all writing must, in failure. It was February 2007. I was seated in a state office building on 125th Street, not far from the Jamaican patty joint, not far from the fried fish spot, both of which I put to so much injudicious use in those days of conspicuous failure. I was thirty-one years old. I was living in Harlem with my partner, Kenyatta, and our son, Samori, both named for African anti-colonialists, of consecutive centuries. The names reflected a household ostensibly committed to the dream of pan-Africa, to the notion that black people here and there are united with black people then and now in a grand operatic struggle. This idea was the deep subtext of our lives. It had to be. The visible text was survivalist.
I had just lost my third job in seven years and so I’d come to that state office building for a brief seminar on work, responsibility, and the need to stay off the dole. “The dole” was small, time-limited, and humiliating to access. How anyone could enjoy or accustom themselves to it was beyond me. But the ghost of welfare reform past was strong and haunted the halls of unemployment offices everywhere. There in a classroom, amid a cohort of presumed losers and layabouts, I took my lessons in the great sin of idleness. The venue at least felt appropriate; the classroom had always been the site of my most indelible failures and losses. In the classrooms of my youth, I was forever a “conduct” problem, forever in need of “improvement,” forever failing to “work up to potential.” I wondered then if something was wrong with me, if there was some sort of brain damage that compelled me to color outside the lines. I’d felt like a failure all of my life—stumbling out of middle school, kicked out of high school, dropping out of college. I had learned to tread in this always troubled water. But now I felt myself drowning, and now I knew I would not drown alone.
Kenyatta and I had been together for nine years, and during that time I had never been able to consistently contribute a significant income. I was a writer and felt myself part of a tradition stretching back to a time when reading and writing were, for black people, the marks of rebellion. I believed, somewhat absurdly, that they still were. And so I derived great meaning from the work of writing. But I could not pay rent with “great meaning.” I could not buy groceries with “great meaning.” With “great meaning” I overdrew accounts. With “great meaning” I burned through credit cards and summoned the IRS. Wild and unlikely schemes often appeared before me. Maybe I should go to culinary school. Maybe I should be a bartender. I’d considered driving a cab. Kenyatta had a more linear solution: “I think you should spend more time writing.”
At that moment, in that classroom, going through all the mandated motions, I could not see it. I could not see anything. And like almost every other lesson administered to me in a classroom, I don’t remember a single thing said that day. And as with all the other buried traumas accumulated in the classrooms, I did not allow myself to feel the ache of that failure. Instead, I fell back on the old habits and logic of the street, where it was so often necessary to deny humiliation and transmute pain into rage. So I took the agony of that era like a collection notice and hid it away in the upper dresser of the mind, resolved to return to it when I had means to pay. I think now, today, I have settled almost all of those old accounts. But the ache and aftershock of failure remain long after the drawer is bare.
I can somehow remember all that I did not allow myself to feel walking away from the unemployment office and through the Harlem streets that day, just as I remember all that I did not let myself feel in those young years trapped between the schools and the street. And I know that there are black boys and black girls out there lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America, some of them treading and some of them drowning, never feeling and never forgetting. The most precious thing I had then is the most precious thing I have now—my own curiosity. That is the thing I knew, even in the classroom, they could not take from me. That is the thing that buoyed me and eventually plucked me from the sea.
Like any myth of self-generated success, there is some truth here. But the greater truth is that the wind around me awakened and shifted to blow my small vessel back to civilization. My curiosity had long been focused on the color line, a phenomenon that, in those mid-aughts, seemed in an odd flux. National energies had shifted in the wake of 9/11. The most crucial questions of justice during the Bush years revolved around spying and torture. The old civil rights generation was aging out, and there was a general fatigue, even among black activists, with the paratrooper model of leadership represented by Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The choreography had gotten repetitive. Some outrage would be perpetrated. A march would be held. Predictable positions and platitudes exchanged. And the original offense would fade from memory. The outrage was, most often, crucial and very real—the killing of Sean Bell by the NYPD, for instance. But the lack of any substantive action, and, more, the fact that the tactics seemed to not have changed in some forty years, made many of us feel that we were not witnessing movement politics so much as a kind of cathartic performance. Outside of the activist community, a different idea was ascendant, the notion that we needed to, somehow, “get past” the “distraction” of racism. There were books lamenting the deployment of the so-called race card and articles asserting the need to “look beyond” race in understanding the perils of the black community. No matter how sincere or disingenuous its expression, there was a palpable hunger for something new.
In the same season I found myself in that Harlem unemployment office recounting failures, Barack Obama launched his bid for the presidency.
I had never seen a black man like Barack Obama. He talked to white people in a new language—as though he actually trusted them and believed in them. It was not my language. It was not even a language I was much interested in, save to understand how he had come to speak it and its effect on those who heard it. More interesting to me was that he had somehow balanced that language with the language of the South Side. He referred to himself, unambiguously, as a black man. He had married a black woman. It is easy to forget how shocking this was, given the common belief at the time that there was a direct relationship between success and assimilation. The narrative held that successful black men took white wives and crossed over into that arid no-man’s land that was not black, though it could never be white. Blackness for such men was not a thing to root yourself in but something to evade and escape. Barack Obama found a third way—a means of communicating his affection for white America without fawning over it. White people were enchanted by him—and those who worked in newsrooms seemed most enchanted of all. This fact changed my life. It was the wind shifting, without which my curiosity would’ve stayed my own.
My contention is that Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms. These writers were talented—but talent is nothing without a field on which to display its gifts. Obama’s presence opened a new field for writers, and what began as curiosity about the man himself eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he’d awakened about American identity. I was one of those writers. And though I could not see it then, making that doleful trek home from the unemployment office, back from the classroom, back across 125th Street, the wind was waking all around me.
I had, in my last job, taken an interest in Bill Cosby, who also, it seemed, felt the call for something new. He was then touring the country’s inner cities, intent on convincing his people to stop “blaming the white man.” The barnstorming began seemingly on impulse, initiated by the response to Cosby’s infamous Pound Cake speech. In 2004, Cosby rose to the podium to speak, ostensibly to mark the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation, at an event sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The NAACP LDF made its name by appealing to the courts to hold the country accountable for the myriad ways Jim Crow plundered black life. But when Cosby took the stage, he was set on holding not the plunderer but the plundered accountable. He inveighed against “the lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people” for not holding up their end of the civil rights bargain. He attacked black youth for obsessing over “$500 sneakers.” He mocked black parents for giving their children names like “Shaniqua and Mohammed.” He fumed at black women for loose morality.
I objected to this characterization and wrote about it in The Village Voice—another job I’d lose—shortly after he made the speech. But as it happened, some portion of “the lower-economic and lower-middle-economic people” actually agreed with Cosby. I know this because I saw Cosby take the message to them directly. He dubbed these sessions “call-outs.” Typically, Cosby would assemble local officials—school principals, judges, parole officers, heads of community colleges—and put them onstage. He’d invite various “at-risk youth” to the event. The officials would then do their own version of the Pound Cake speech. The audience would cheer wildly. The spirit was one part Uncle Ruckus and one part Les Brown. It was flagellation. It was revival. But most of all it was nostalgia—a hunger for the uncomplicated time when all black men worked hard, all black women were virtuous, and all black parents, collectively, whipped each other’s kids. I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past, that as sure as the black nationalist dreams of a sublime Africa before the white man’s corruption, so did Thomas Jefferson dream of an idyllic Britain before the Normans, so do all of us dream of some other time when things were so simple. I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.
Cosby’s call-outs also engendered much cheering from white pundits. This was not surprising or interesting—the call-outs made no demands on the white conscience, so there was nothing shocking about white people cheering him on. But the hunger for a noble past, the current of black nostalgia, fascinated me because the black past was, to my mind, not even a useful mine for nostalgia; it was segregation and slavery. And my fascination extended to Cosby himself. He was not a conservative in our binary sense of electoral politics. If Cosby was mostly conflated with the affable “Dr. Huxtable” he played on The Cosby Show, the bourgeois façade of his most famous role obscured Cosby’s sense of himself as a race man. He had supported the anti-apartheid struggle, donated to HBCUs, backed black leaders like Jesse Jackson and organizations like TransAfrica. He seemed to be reviving a race-based black conservatism that had no real home in America’s left-right politics but deep roots in the black community.
I thought I had a story to tell about all of this—a big one. I saw Cosby as emblematic of a strain of black thought that I disagreed with but wanted to understand. I wanted to draw this out with a mix of portraiture, opinion, and memoir. The essay that came from that—“This Is How We Lost to the White Man”—is an attempt to achieve that mix, if an ultimately unsuccessful one. But the attention it garnered and the relationship it began with The Atlantic marked the first period in my life where I was stable enough to make more attempts and thus fulfill my own dream of walking the same path as my heroes, of Baldwin, or Hurston. And like them, I sought with “This Is How We Lost” to find my own way to imagine black people as more than cartoons, as more than photo negatives or shadows.
The tradition of black writing is necessarily dyspeptic, necessarily resistant. That tradition was the house in which I wanted to live, and if my residency must be fixed to a certain point in time, I suppose fixing it here, with the publication of this piece, is as good as anywhere. I characterize this as an “attempt” because I felt myself trying to write a feeling, something dreamlike and intangible that lived in my head, and in my head is where at least half of it remained. And there were other challenges, more tangible, that were not met.
I don’t know if Cosby’s call-outs were a cover for the torrent of rape allegations that swirled around him even then. I knew about the allegations. They’d been written about by other journalists. I also know they deserved more than the one line they ultimately occupied in this piece. I had never actually written a story like “This Is How We Lost to the White Man.” I had never written for such a prestigious national publication. I had my own fears of failure lingering. Better to tell a neater story, I reasoned, than attempt the messier one and have to contend with editors I did not then know. But the messier one was truer—indeed, the messier one might well have lent explanatory power to the simple story I chose to tell. And so it happened that in an attempt to analyze, in Cosby’s movement, the lure of the simplistic, I myself fell prey to it.
And there was more to be said than even this that I did not say. There always is when you report and research, when you sit down to write and try to fit all the manifold sentiments you see, hear, and feel into some coherent arrangement of words. That was always the challenge in these years writing for The Atlantic, years that took me, ultimately, out of the unemployment office and into the Oval Office to bear witness to history. For all of that, in every piece in this book there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better and worse. In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure. And that was how this story began.