Double Consciousness by Herb Harris

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2014: 23andMe reports that 70% of my genome is of European origin, and 30% is of African origin. My ancestors were slaves and their owners.

1993: I give the keynote address for a conference on racial identity at Yale University. I quote a passage from W.E.B. DuBois that begins, “What is it like to be a problem?”

1685: Robert Pearl, known to his contemporaries as Mulatto Robin, is born in eastern Maryland. He gains his freedom at the age of 35 and goes on to become a wealthy slave owner. Some of his descendants remain in Maryland, while others migrate west and adopt white identities.

1963: I am in preschool at the age of four. My best friend David comes up with a big smile and says, “I’m black and you’re white!” He puts his hand next to mine. “See!” I am much lighter than David. For the first time, I notice that I am much lighter than all of my classmates. I know about black people and white people. I do not want to lose David’s friendship, but I am different.

1835: My grandfather’s grandfather, an eighteen-year-old slave named Herbert Harris, is brought to the District of Columbia. His master dies, and Herbert is able to obtain his freedom through the courts. He builds a prosperous real estate business and marries a great granddaughter of Robert Pearl. Their son William becomes an educator for the Freedman’s Bureau and teaches former slaves to read.

2013: Peering over wire-rimmed glasses, the Vice President looks directly at me for the first time since my job interview began and says, “I was expecting a black guy.” We regard each other warily. Each displays the flat affect of a seasoned poker player. I decide to go all-in and say, “I am a black guy.” “Really,” he says, striking a tone halfway between “Really?” and “Really!”

1968: “Nigger,” the boy mutters. My fist lands on a pudgy arm with an unsatisfying thud. I swing again with better results. There is hitting, grabbing, kicking, ripping shirts, and popping buttons. Somebody has a bloody nose. Teachers appear out of nowhere. The Headmaster is summoned. Angry parents are called in.

1878: Former slave Charles Wilder addresses a black audience on behalf of his political patron, confederate general Wade Hampton. Hampton is elected governor of South Carolina and Wilder’s career flourishes despite the dismantling of the Reconstruction.

1887: Wilder’s daughter, Caroline, marries William Harris. The couple devotes themselves to education and philanthropy in the black community of Washington.

1965: I fidget in my seat. I can’t stand the new dress shoes and necktie my parents bought for the occasion. The ceremony goes on forever. It is the dedication of a school named after my great grandmother, Caroline Wilder Harris. I don’t understand what is happening. There are long speeches. All I know is that my parents and grandparents are very proud, and I am proud too.

1967: James Brown blares on the barbershop radio, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” I wince as the barber combs out the tangles in my hair. He finishes, pulling the drape away like a matador. “Keep it handsome my man!” I notice that they took down the posters of the light-skinned men with slick wavy hair and put up posters of dark-skinned men with big afros. Who will I be when I grow up? I am sitting between parallel mirrors mounted on opposite walls and I try to follow the receding cascade of selves to its end. Reflections reflecting reflections. Which one am I?

2013: My job interview reminds me that it has been a long time since I have been black. I easily blend into the beige background and white noise of my suburban professional life like a post-racial chameleon. Is this passing?

1993: My DuBois quote continues, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

2019: The stylist struggles with my hair. She insists on practicing her English with me, and we have the same conversation every month. My hair is a complete mystery to her, but she muddles through as the uneven clumps of gray fall like snowflakes to the floor. Stretching across the years, I return the child’s curious gaze in the mirror. Does he recognize me among the reflections of reflections? It is a peculiar sensation. I smile, he smiles.

Meet the Contributor
herb harrisHerb Harris is a native of Washington, D.C., where he attended Georgetown University. He subsequently obtained his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and did his residency training in psychiatry at Yale. He is currently in private practice in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Tommpoore

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