the movement


I wrote a paper on W.E.B. Du Bois for an AP English class way back in high school. Our task was to write about a life worth living for a national high school essay contest of the same name. I first heard about Du Bois in Paula Giddings' When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, a historical treatise of sorts that showed up on my AP History summer reading list, though I went to a predominantly white high school with a 1.6 percent minority population.

Well, let me tell you, reading that book was like seeing for the first time, the imprint of which I will never forget. Giddings' voice and vision of the world set off a fire in my brain that burned off everything else that came before it, leaving behind a fertile soil in which new seeds of knowledge were planted.

Du Bois made a lot of sense to me, way more than Booker T. from Tuskegee. I'm not a fan of accommodationism, though I'm also not a believer in radical revolution. Du Bois seemed to be somewhere in the middle and heavy on the intellectualism, which I was in to at the time.

I read his autobiography, The Souls of Black Folk (cried when I got to "The Sorrow Songs"), the Du Bois reader, anything else I could get my hands on for the paper. Wrote an essay of lyrical prose in which I walked through Du Bois's life, his impact, and considered what it meant for me to be a budding black intellectual in the '90s. Put my heart and soul into that thing and put it in a brown envelope bound for the contest committee. I was sure that my painstaking efforts would be rewarded in some way, though that wasn't my sole motivation.

Of course, you already know how it turned out. I clearly am not an accomplished writer who cites critical high school acclaim as the impetus for her writing life.

My friend Kenny, on the other hand, received honorable mention for an essay on JFK that I cannot for the life of me believe was half as good as mine. I say this not to be boastful, but to be perfectly honest with you. And the reason why Kenny bested me didn't occur to me until my college semester at Spelman, when my professor, Jelani Cobb, noted that a book about whaling (In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick) beat out a seminal biography of Du Bois (W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century 1919-1963 by David Levering Lewis) for the 2000 National Book Award.

A book about whaling.

If Du Bois wasn't important enough for a national committee of esteemed, literate writers, I doubt he made much of an impact on the moderately respected ones convened for the purpose of my high school contest.

All of this to say. I write in spite of overwhelming evidence that the powers that be are not that interested in my story. It is a challenge -- claiming my name, country, race, gender, and potential in spite of overwhelming evidence that I might not matter at all in the grand scheme of things. But it is a challenge that makes life worth living. Makes the struggle worthwhile, pushing against this cultural indifference to me and what I represent.

Sometimes I am disillusioned, struggling to find my way in a foreign, hostile land. Educated in a system that leaves me ignorant of myself, I search for how I fit in, where and when I enter. African, American, black, female. Empowered or disempowered. Slave or free. Coveted or despised.

But I write still. A part of a larger movement of black women writing their way towards a life worth living. Making sense of incoherence so that perhaps others might find their way too.

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