A Certain Madness: The Mental Acrobatics of Minority Existence in America

And this is how a simple, fun, well-intentioned favorite-book exercise plunges into a minefield of complexity and stress for one person on the team.

Olenoko contributor Cheryl N. Klufio, our Cosmopolitan Griot (aka Cosmo Griot), shares an entry from 2017 that continues to resonate with many today.

When my colleague asked that each member of our group submit a list including their favorite novel for his 2017 summer reading blogpost, six out of nine of us jumped at the task with alacrity, supplying the list within mere hours of the request. I was not one of them.

Our communication platform buzzed with shout-outs for standout novels like Catcher in the RyeThe Wonderful Wizard of OzThe Handmaid's Tale and so forth. I thought about it a bit, privately scribbled a title or two in my notebook, and then put the whole thing off until the deadline one week latermy modus operandi for dealing with difficult tasks. Then I produced a longer list than requested, quipping that the very process had given me a headache: "This is a great idea, indeed...but a cruel thing to ask of a literature major. I've given myself a headache trying (and mostly failing) to choose."

I wasn't really joking, though, since the exercise literally had made my head hurt. Yet it was not just because I had designed a major in Anglophone and Francophone Postcolonial Literature as an undergraduate. Yes, a fraction of my discomfort with the exercise could be attributed to having too many beloved books from which to choose. But this reason was given chiefly for expediency, because I believed it would be the most comforting, least offensive explanation for a group in which I am the only person of color and for a wider American business environment in which I am a racial and gender minority.

Here's what really caused my headache: Feeling the need to vet my favorite books through the eyes of others, and realizing (yet again) how blackness and femaleness (or any other "minority-ness") constitute a fragmented experience for minorities in the United States and countries like it. 

An old maxim urges us not to judge a book by its cover, but can we judge a person by their books? Many think so. A somewhat more forgiving François Mauriac argues that “If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.” 

For the record, I am with Mauriac on this one: We must read something first to decide whether or not we like or approve of it enough to read it again. If you are found reading Mein Kampf more than once for leisure (as opposed to academic critique), then, yes, we know where you stand and, no, you are no longer invited to dinner. My colleague was wise to ask for our favorite novels, because we can more fairly be judged by those. And therein lay my dilemma.

While I wanted to freely share my favorites, as others had, I felt a burdensome compulsion to run my list through numerous criteria. I had to ensure my favorite novels or books:

  • Did not touch on touchy issues. (You know, the kinds of issues that make America squirm, like the slave trade or women leading things like countries.)
  • Did not seem racist. (In other words, I omitted books that would seem too antagonistic to white culture because their authors' interrogation of that culture might offend white sensibilities—not racist at all, really. Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy: or Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint, which looks critically at both European colonial practices and African adoption of them, is a case in point.)
  • Did not seem too feminist, or wait, too anti-feminist. (We sadly remain on different pages about what feminism is. As a frequently studied literary work, John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, for instance, has learned that the hard way.)
  • Did not make me seem a blissfully beguiled new product of old empire, basking in the glow of the former imperial center (as too many mentions of Western classics might have).
  • Did not miss the rare educational opportunity to introduce my group and our reading public to black and/or female African and diasporic authors whom they might otherwise go through a lifetime not encountering because those authors exist outside the dominant sphere here.

And if any of my favorite books did do the unthinkable, I had to make sure I was okay with that...in a "let the chips fall where they may" sort of way.

This, my friends, is what it means to exist as a minority—or subaltern, as we call it in postcolonial studies—within a dominant culture. And this is how a simple, fun, well-intentioned favorite-book exercise plunges into a minefield of complexity and stress for one person on the team.

The whole experience was all the more heightened for me because I am in the business of observation and perception. It is my job nowas it was when I was a Communications Officer at Harvard University, for instanceto view the personal and place brands I steward from different perspectives. 

This is the mind as a set of surveillance cameras, each monitoring a given area from a separate angle to compose a 360-degree view. This is the mind as artificially intelligent computer program, required to imagine the public relations ramifications of an infinite number of scenarios based on what those surveillance cameras see. This is the mind as problem-solver, constantly strategizing preemptive measures and doing damage control when prevention is no longer an option. But this is the job and it is deserving of pay. My fellow communications and PR practitioners will agree that the compensation seldom matches the inordinate demands of the job, but others are worse off, and in a more generalized way.

I contend that, in America and similar societies, black people, people of color more broadly, and women are doing this grueling, taxing job of constantly seeing and managing different perspectives without being paid; they are on duty 24/7 and do not receive a dime. Often subconsciously, but not necessarily less painfully, their minds are always seeing themselves at once through their own eyes and simultaneously through the eyes of the culturally dominant other. 

If you have been one of a handful of women in a business or computer science class and hesitant to raise your hand even when you knew the answer, you know what I mean. If you are the only Chinese or Indian teacher at your school, you probably do as well. If you are the only woman on a corporate board, well, congratulations and nobody needs to tell you a darn thing. By contrast, if you are a black male engineer in West Africa or a white and/or Middle Eastern businessman in the EMEA region, for example, feel free to join us for a fireside chat about all of this.

So, what happens if you are both a woman and a person of color? Errr...Error. Cannot compute.

But let us try. Let us assume you are a black female teacher working in suburbia. Before you step out into the world each day, you proudly see yourself as an educator, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister; but you also see yourself the way white others may see you. You acrobatically inhabit not only your mind, but also that, for instance: of the proverbial old lady on the bus clutching her purse and pursing her lips, for fear her money might go missing; or of your boss, who has failed to promote you for the third year running because of allegations of "aggressiveness". Just how—being so psychologically burdened—do you find time to get anything done? Where do you find the mental space to invent things, create things, improve things? Many a white male would marvel, or should. 

Now, some might argue that this is paranoia at its finest and that the fact that one person imagines another is thinking something about them does not necessarily mean that they are. That is sometimes true. But that's not really the point. Generally speaking, everyone at some stage has had what turned out to be an irrational fear of something. However, I and many others can share countless instances specifically related to minority status where our suspicions were correct. 

In 2011, I taught business English to professionals and executives in Madrid, Spain. As my year drew to a close, one of my dear students, a senior architect at his firm, made a confession. Tearing up, he said, "Honestly, you are the best English teacher I have ever had. But..." Uh-oh! I took a deep breath and smiled sweetly. "But what?" "But I have to tell you, when I first opened the office door for you, I thought, 'Ohhh my goodness, a black woman from America!' and I was scared." I cracked up—What? You would have too!—and quickly led a productive discussion about stereotypes. But that is not what I am discussing with you today.

The point here is that these particular systems of multilayered thinking by women and people of color, often subconsciously undertaken, are the express, inevitable result of subaltern existence within a dominant white, male culture. The fact that we often do not even realize we are actually thinking, mulling over and debating these different perspectives all the time, is evidence of the degree to which our sense of "otherness" has been internalized. It culminates in a fragmented existence which is at once normalized within and frowned upon by the dominant culture.

"Are you saying we're broken? Why are people always saying that we're broken?" whined a drunken white woman at my favorite St. Pete wine bar, only minutes before she accused me of being "racist against black men." (Don't even askthat's a story for another day.) No, I am not saying America is broken, though all evidence these days seems to suggest that. But I am saying there are problems that need solving, as there are in every country in this world. There is work to be done, so let's jump to that with alacrity.

Ironically, my earlier metaphor of racial and gender minorities working without pay is partially literal, too: Among myriad inequalities, we are still plagued with gender and racial deficiencies in pay and other forms of recompense (promotion to the C-suite, appointment to boards, etc.) for doing equal or better work. Perhaps we can begin by fixing that.

Funnily enough, submitting my list of favorite books didn't make the headache go away. My exacting mind surveilled the scene and found typos with which to accost me. But, again, that is the job. And agonizing over typos is less discomfiting than agonizing over oneself as seen through a multiplicity of lenses. 

Where is my list? I thought you'd never ask. Let’s get back to those glorious books, shall we?


My Summer Reading List: 2017 Edition

(Find the 2020 Edition here.)

1. Currently reading:

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey. (Trethewey partly composed this Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection as a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.)

2. Favorite novel:

It's impossible to say, as I have several: Fragments by Ayi Kwei Armah, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (now being made into a movie starring Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo, and produced by Brad Pitt), Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Harmattan Rain by my friend Ayesha Harruna Attah, L'Enfant de Sable by Tahar Ben Jelloun, The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles and Cambridge by Caryl Phillips, to name a few. (Impossible, I say.) 

These days, short stories are more my speed: Ama Ata Aidoo's collection No Sweetness Here is among my favorites.

3. Favorite work of non-fiction:

Again, I have several. My most recent favorite, highly recommended by my sister (and now by me), is Essentialism by Greg McKeown. It will change your life.

4. Favorite children's book:

Growing up, I adored The Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson BurnettI literally read them to bits. I loved Roald Dahl's books as well. [If oral tales are allowed here, I reveled in the Kweku Ananse stories my cousin told.]

5. FAVORITE author? 

I can't seem to think of one without feeling I am betraying another!


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Olenoko delivers fresh vistas on Africa, the Diaspora, and the World. Each week we serve up angles that have been missed and stories that have been lost. In the Ga language of Ghana, "Olenoko?" means "You know something?" We make sure you do. Olenoko: So you knOw. Care to share your story? Drop us a line at olenoko.know@gmail.com.
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