It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktail parties their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air: in any drawing room at such a gathering the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing.
Wherever the problem touches there is confusion, there is danger.
They were, moreover, the only people in the world who did; and not only did they know us better than we knew ourselves, but they knew us better than we knew them.
This was the piquant flavoring to the national joke, it lay behind our uneasiness as it lay behind our benevolence: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, our creations, at the last evaded us; they had a life–their own, perhaps a better life than ours–and they would never tell us what it was.
Uncle Tom, trustworthy and sexless, needed only to drop the title “Uncle” to become violent, crafty, and sullen, a menace to any white woman who passed by.
They prepared our feast tables and our burial clothes; and, if we could boast that we understood them, it was far more to the point and far more true that they understood us.As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference.The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves.He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistic, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were somehow analogous to disease–cancer, perhaps, or tuberculosis–which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured.In this arena the black man acquires quite another aspect from that which he has in life.But, paradoxically, it is we who prevent this from happening; since it is we, who, every hour that we live, reinvest the black face with our guilt; and we do this — by a further paradox, no less ferocious–helplessly, passionately, out of an unrealized need to suffer absolution.Today, to be sure, we know that the Negro is not biologically or mentally inferior; there is not truth in those rumors of his body odor or his incorrigible sexuality; or no more truth than can be easily explained or even defended by the social sciences.One must travel very far, among saints with nothing to gain or outcasts with nothing to lose, to find a place where it does not matter–and perhaps a word or a gesture or simply a silence will testify that it matters even there.For it means something to be a Negro, after all, as it means something to have been born in Ireland or in China, to live where one sees space and sky or to live where one sees nothing but rubble or nothing but high buildings, We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key–could we but find it–to all that we later become.At the point where we were driven most privately and painfully to conjecture what depths of contempt, what heights of indifference, what prodigies of resilience, what untamable superiority allowed them so vividly to endure, neither perishing nor rising up in a body to wipe us from the earth, the image perpetually shattered and the word failed.The black man in our midst carried murder in his heart, he wanted vengeance. In our image of the Negro breathes the past we deny, not dead but living yet and powerful, the beast in our jungle of statistics.