The Oppressor Within

Excerpt from The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricote (pp. 59-60)


Reluctantly, reluctantly, I become what he is in restaurants, in hotels, reluctantly. I try to beat him to the counter so that the woman won’t give us a room in which they put the niggers. Reluctantly I become what he is, again and again, reluctantly.

Niggers and flies/I do despise/but the more I see niggers/the more I like flies.

You might think I learned that from a white man, but I didn’t. I learned it from a black man, one of my uncles, who sang it to me, laughing it up close to my face, a taunt, a joke on somebody he thought wasn’t him. Wasn’t it about him? About us? Or were we held apart, separated by some invisible skin, not exactly color — because so many who sang that song were dark — but by some kind of thinking that certainly white people couldn’t see. If we just kept singing it, then it would happen, like cream separates from milk, we children in a circle, clapping our hands, dancing the funniness of it into our bones, knitting it to the marrow, so that we might have to be killed to draw it out, split in two, eviscerated. My uncle coming up close with his “nigger” face, a horrible mirror. I see a black man walking down the street and I recoil. It is he that is more despicable, not I.

(He is a blur of color, a slight hue, a pigment that falls like a shadow on the eye. am something different.)

Didn’t my ancestors pray for something like me, wanting a way out of their nightmares? My uncle warning, “Don’t bring any of those dark boys home!”

My mother’s mother took breakfast to her daughter on a silver tray, figs and cream, down into the cellar where they slept, so that my mother would grow up thinking she was just as good as the rich white daughter.

If you white, you all right; if you brown, stick around; if you black, get back.

Somewhere the tables got turned, and the very ones who sang that song in their dark skins  realized what they were singing, the ones who loved to comb and brush my “good” hair, and they blamed us. 

Slowly I am changing, like something touched with love must change from the inside, like rot changes one, or the discovery of one’s soul.

This is an excerpt from The Black Notebooks, a compilation of journal entries and writings by Toi Derricotte, an American poet. After our class on racism, I picked the book off of my bookshelf. It’s a little worn as it traveled with me on many subway trips over the summer. But I never got through it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a brilliant piece of work (as I’ve been realizing over the past few weeks), but it was a little too hard for me at the time. It hit a little too close to home. In this collection, Derricotte focuses on her own personal journey and struggle with her skin color, highlighting her lived experience as a light-skinned woman and her inner demons or biases against those darker than her.

You can see this struggle in the excerpt I chose — a section that resonated so strongly with me this week as I read it. At the beginning, she talks about her reluctance to be seen with her husband, someone she loved, because of his darker skin. She discusses this at first within the context of losing something of value to her — privilege. I thought to myself, have I done this? And I realized I probably have. I think back to college and how I essentially refused to allow myself to get involved in the Black student groups. Sure, some of it had to do with the childhood experiences I’ve discussed before and my fear of rejection. But I think I also wanted to maintain my individuality. I think I feared deep down that if I associated with the group, that’s all people would see — that’s all I would be.

By the second paragraph, Derricotte goes even deeper. And I went with her. She talks about seeing a black man walking down the street and the first reaction she had of disgust and her tendency to separate herself from him and those who look like him. Even though she was also Black, she was different in some way. And I thought to myself, have I done this? And I realized I probably have.

This is why I put the book down over the summer. When reading works by Black authors in the past, I had only encountered two narratives. The first was the Black struggle — slavery and racism through the ages. The second was how being Black is awesome (thanks to my mother who always tried to show me that). I had never come across a Black person’s inner struggle to confront what her own Blackness means to her. I had never come across anything so vulnerable, so exposed, so raw. And as I read this summer, I realized I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that I, too, had these horrible thoughts sometimes. I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that having these thoughts maybe reflected some real negative feelings towards my own race — and myself. I ultimately wasn’t ready to confront the oppressor within me.

But now I have to be ready. I enrolled in social work school because I wanted to reflect on these issues and work with individuals who have been marginalized because of the many isms in society. I’m taking this class because I want to do the work well. But maybe I’ve been holding back because I’m afraid of starting a war within myself. I’m afraid of what will come out and not only what others will think about me or if I might offend others, but also what those things mean about what I think about myself. But maybe that’s what I need. For it all to come out. Indeed, Derricotte starts off her book with a quote from Jesus in the Gnostic Gospels, “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” I don’t want to be destroyed by the thoughts I have in my mind. Derricotte was able to process through her writing, and I’m hoping the remainder of this class and my time at CSSW will enable me to think hard about (and talk about!!) all of the isms – how I perpetuate them and how I can fight against them.

At the end of the excerpt, Derricotte wrote, “Slowly I am changing, like something touched with love must change from the inside, like rot changes one, or the discovery of one’s soul.” This line spoke to me because it captures so eloquently where I am in the processing stage. So much of how I view my work deals with love. And as I continue to learn to love myself and love others no matter where they come from, I am changing for the better.





One thought on “The Oppressor Within

  1. Brittany, thank you for this. Your perspective is so needed and valued. ❤ I can tell you are doing some intense processing right now and I appreciate that you've given us a window into that journey.


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