To Be Black Is To Be Less Free

Not Black Enough

I don’t begrudge my sister for asking me the question. I’ve never been able to tell whether it was coming from a place of love in prepping me to be able to navigate this world or from a darker, more racist place. I experienced her as the most racist of all of my family members and given her age at the time, she was likely trying to sort out how she would treat me and our relationship. It was thus not a theoretical prompt for her, but a very practical one: “how can I love this little person, my own little brother, while still othering him.” ((Before you think “black people can’t be racist,” please read about the four levels of racism and be clear about what you mean.))

  1. I would be Baptist or Methodist
  2. I would have some athletic ability
  3. I would be able to dance (and likely sing, too)
  4. I would be heterosexual (and homophobic)
  5. I would be a Democrat
  6. I would likely have a larger-than-average penis (when I developed)
  7. I would be able to fight
  8. I would be funny and smile a lot
  9. I would eat sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving (not pumpkin pie)
  10. I wouldn’t be able to swim
  11. I would be scared of the woods
  12. I wouldn’t be good at school
  13. I would be a thief, lecher, slacker, liar, drug user, alchoholic, or a bully (I could be all, but I was at least one)
  14. I would be wholly incapable of showing up anywhere on time
  15. I would speak a certain way — in my context, a mashup of hood and country
  16. I would be deferential and respectful to white people
  17. I would always be on the edge of criminal behavior if not actively involved in criminal behavior
  18. I would be loud, especially if in the company of another black person
  19. I would be without a father or a strong, respectable black male role model in the home
  20. I would be fearful of the police and go out of my way to avoid any contact with them
  21. I would instinctively give other black people head nods or daps
  22. I would always back and support my people and remember my roots
  23. I would be able to and interested in shooting hoops as a default activity
  24. I would like hip hop, rap, R&B, or gospel music (and conversely, would not listen to rock, country, or classical music)
  25. I would dress sharply (Nike’s, FUBU, Polo, Hilfiger, so on) and have my hair on point

Not White, But (Mostly) Accepted

Fort Smith Public Schools started junior high at the seventh grade. This was a turning point for me, for it was the first time that I spent every day with kids who lived outside of the poor neighborhood I did. My elementary school was predominantly black, which meant that it had a predominantly black culture.

Being A Public Black Intellectual is Career Suicide

Of the many problems our nation has, hostility toward intellectuals is one. It’s a part of our heritage and distrust of elites (it looks like aristocracy) or people who are too European (too much influence). The McCarthy era only made it worse.

  1. a significant portion of your society will be actively hostile towards you
  2. the portion of readers who aren’t hostile require the condensation of thoughts into accessible, snack-able bits of content that are friendly to them emotionally and cognitively
  3. largely speaking, the only viable career pathway for you is as an academic

Why I’m Going Public Now

I’ve never felt qualified to speak on issues of race at the same time that I’ve been scared into silence. Throughout the years, I know many of my family members have thought that I lost my way or got too far from my roots. The truth is that I’ve spent thirty years finding my way and examining those roots.

New Worlds Require New Questions

When my sister would ask me if I was black or white, I would say that I’m neither and both. It seemed right then. It’s such a layered question that, at this point in my life, I’m unsure it’s answerable.



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Charlie Gilkey

Charlie Gilkey


Author of the best-selling Start Finishing and the forthcoming Workways — Founder of Momentum —