restricted access Introduction: Writing The Black Notebooks
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Writing The Black Notebooks*

Language is the only homeland.

—Czeslaw Milosz

I began writing this book in the middle of a severe depression. My husband and I had just moved into an all-white middle- and upper-class neighborhood ten miles from New York City. I had spent months looking at houses, over eighty, and I had decided not to take my husband with me to the real estate offices because, since he is recognizably black, when I had, we had been shown houses in entirely different neighborhoods, mostly all-black. I had soon found that houses in the “best” neighborhoods, perhaps like the produce and meat in the “best” supermarkets, are comparatively less expensive. At night, under cover of darkness, I would take him back to circle the houses that I had seen and I would describe the insides.

I am the kind of person who can cut her finger in a serious way, bruise or burn myself badly and not remember how or when it was done. I have trained myself in a very distinct way of forgetting. Living in a neighborhood in which I was inescapably weighted and bound by race, in which I was the known “black” person, felt entirely different from my previous experience in the white world, a world in which I am usually invisible. My husband says that most black people learn they can’t escape from their skin in childhood. I didn’t learn it until then.

I began to be conscious that my reaction to hearing a comment in a shoe store or seeing a young black boy on the street was a reaction of fear. My adrenaline would increase, the fight or flight response, as if a part of me wanted to jump out of my skin. A dark man who had been a Marine told me how, after six weeks of boot camp during which time he wasn’t allowed to look in a mirror, he came upon himself in an uncovered mirror and was filled with dread and sadness. He had forgotten he was black.

I wanted to get away, not only from that black person who seemed to be the catalyst of my feelings, but, more to the point, to get out of my own mind, from those thoughts and feelings I so loathed in myself. My reactions were not rational, not “thought.” They seemed to be as visceral as instinct. James Baldwin said, “The white man needs [End Page 195] the nigger because he cannot tolerate the nigger in himself.” But does the black man too need the nigger? I sensed that the structures that hold us together as a society and create devastating realities may be built around the most basic instincts for self-preservation.

These structures must originate even before conscious memory, because I truly cannot remember the first time I “learned” I am black. It is as if every experience I have had of realizing I am black, all the way back to grade school and before, when I used to wander undetected across Ryan Road to where the Polish people lived, is tainted with that fear of discovery, of being recognized as black.

So many black people spoke of hatred for “them,” for those “niggers” who were messing it up for the rest of us. It is self-hating and destructive, but racism is insane, and, surviving it, we have often had to think in desperate ways. “Forget” sounds like such a passive act, but anyone who has experienced the powerful force of repression will know the effort it takes to un-forget, to remember.

I began to be aware of that state of consciousness that so alarmed, that “remembering” of myself as a black person. I began to keep track of it, to write of it in my journals. I believed that my unconsciousness of my blackness, my “forgetting,” was symptomatic of some deep refusal of “self,” a kind of death wish, and I felt that my symptoms, however much I was alarmed by them, carried some real and essential message which, once acknowledged, I could eventually accept and understand. Of course these writings were private. I...