Social Distancing, My Old Friend (Or… Unsettling Neutral Perceptions of Isolation Through a Racialized Lens)

To walk in black skin, to embody the black experience, is to live in a kind of perpetual social isolation. I never quite understood it in all my years of striving until I began to read more of the words of my intellectual forebears like Sylvia Wynter, Simone Browne, and Eric Darnell Pritchard—and better understood why my mother and my sisters and so many in my family ultimately rejected the institutions and social affinities to which I was powerfully drawn, and in which I thought I would find footholds to liberation,  or self actualization.

Why did the brilliant minds and beautiful faces in my family choose to live such insular lives, staying close to one another over the decades, needing one another and relying on one another for love and companionship that remained sacrosanct even in the face of traumas, disappointments, betrayals, or plain dislike?

What was it that they feared and reviled so?

Why did my sister, and my mother, and her mother keep so few friends? Why did my father insist on living so communally? Why did my paternal grandmother choose to socialize with—to trust—nobody but her children, and their children?

Why were they so skeptical of the rewards to be gained from staking a claim on institutional validation or finding prominence in society?

It was not until I leapt through all of the hoops and did all of the right things that I realized that wearing the hood or holding the degree or owning the shares would never permit me the latitude to be a fully realized being without significant cost.

I would always be too much of something and not enough of something else; all my strengths would also be liabilities or threats; many of my friends and peers would be so until it came time to treat me like a fellow, equal human being with a depth of feeling that warranted material—not theoretical—consideration.

My lovers, in whom I saw or wanted to see much of my own brilliance, rarely viewed me as their equal even if on paper I was their better by miles.In this sense, we both suffered misperceptions—I saw my respected equivalent. They saw a trove of labor, patience, grace, and subordination to which they were entitled when I was appropriately docile in the face of their inconsideration. They saw a wild animal when and if I deigned to react in a manner that, in any other body, would be seen as a perfectly appropriate response to the circumstances at hand.

For years I’ve endeavored to fix what was wrong with me. I thought if I just kept tinkering, kept working to become more serene, more understanding, more credentialed, more fit, less free, and less outspoken that I might somehow make my way out of the strangely liminal place that I have always found myself occupying as I make my way through life and negotiate my space in society. I thought the problem was me.

If only I crossed to the empty side of the street when other people walked in front of me to put them at ease, and spoke more eloquently than anyone I knew, and made myself desirable and entertaining without making a fuss about how readily I could be discarded in favor of someone who was less talented, less patient, less thoughtful, less kind, less fuckable, but somehow more human—then finally I would earn the right to dignity.

I’m no mathematician, but after a while it occurred to me that this bullshit just didn’t add up.

There is no dignity to be found in letting anyone else determine whether or not you have it—and least of all those who perpetually change the goal post not only to benefit themselves, but also for their own amusement. So long as I breathe for the rest of my life, nobody will have such power over my senses again.

So… I suppose I will say that as my wisdom has ripened and as I have found peace in my lifelong social distance, I realize that the space between me and this world where I must work five times as hard to be taken three-fifths as seriously is not the result of some terrible affliction. This space that feels like marginalia—that so many people like myself occupy—is where freedom really lives.

My inability to penetrate that other world, I see now, is a kind of protection. Perhaps I am ultimately lucky that, despite my best efforts and myriad exposures, I’ve never been fully infected by the notion of my inferiority. I have always known my greatness and sought to express it. Only, now, I realize that I have too often traded gold for paper and tight, nervous smiles.

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