After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body , whose dogged strength alone being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
My ordeal, like most variations of personal hell, felt isolating, immense and unshareable. Some years later, when I reread the Gilgamesh epic, it dawned on me that what I’d experienced was written there. In this ancient Mesopotamian poem, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, expends vast energies in his city and in heroic ventures with his alterego Enkidu. When Enkidu dies, the bereft hero, overwhelmed by the realization of his own mortality, goes on an soul-purging, exhausting journey to the ends of the earth in a vain quest for eternal life.
What resonated with me was not the loss of a friend as close as a second self– though something like that had happened years before; nor the terror of death, though I’m sure that such terror could take much the same form as what I experienced. But the self-consuming energy, the vast exhausting world, the body as an engine driving toward final irremediable loss – that I understood. The epic of Gilgamesh came to represent whatever was wise and heroic in what I experienced at this great transition in my own life, as it speaks to many people about their own losses and transitions.
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I believe in barbecue As soul food and comfort food and health food, as a cuisine of both solace and celebration. When I’m feeling good, I want barbecue. And when I’m feeling bad, I just want barbecue more. I believe in barbecue in all its regional derivations, in its ethnic translations, in forms that range from white-tablecloth presentations of cunningly sauced costillas, to Chinese take-out spareribs that stain your fingers red, to the most authentic product of the tar-paper rib shacks of the Deep South. I believe that like sunshine [. . .] no day is bad that has barbecue in it.
I believe in the art of generations of pit-men working in relative obscurity to keep alive the craft of slow-smoking as it’s been practiced for as long as there’s been fire. A barbecue cook must have an intimate understanding of his work, the physics of fire and convection, the hard science of meat and heat and smoke – and then forget it all to achieve a sort of gut-level, Zen instinct for the process.
I believe that barbecue drives culture, not the other way around. Some of the first blows struck for equality and civil rights in the Deep South were made not in the courtrooms or schools or on buses, but in the barbecue shacks. There were dining rooms, back yards and roadhouse juke joints in the South that were integrated long before any other public places.
I believe that good barbecue requires no décor, and that the best barbecue exists despite its trappings. Paper plates are okay in a barbecue joint. And paper napkins. And plastic silverware. And I believe that any place with a menu longer than can fit on a single page – or better yet, just a chalkboard The dashes are being used to add almost a side thought, or an interrupter which adds tone to the writing – is coming dangerously close to putting on airs.
So I went back. And floated again. My arms came around and the groan of the water made the tight blondes smirk but I heard Good and that’s the crawl that’s it in fragments the redhead when I lifted my face. Through the earplugs I heard her skinny voice. She was happy that I was floating and moving too.
Lettie stopped the lessons and read to me things out of magazines. You have to swim a lot to lose weight. You have to stop eating too. Forget cake and ice cream. Doritos are out. I’m not doing it for that I told her but she wouldn’t believe me. She couldn’t imagine.
Looking down that shaft of water I know I won’t fall. The water shimmers and eases up and down, the heft of me doesn’t matter I float anyway.
He says it makes no difference I look the same. But I’m not the same. I can hold myself up in deep water. I can move my arms and feet and the water goes behind me, the wall comes closer. I can look down twelve feet to a cold slab of tile and not be afraid. It makes a difference I tell him. Better believe it mister.
Then this other part happens. Other men interest me. I look at them, real ones, not the ones on TV that’s something else entirely. These are real. The one with the white milkweed hair who delivers the mail. The meter man from the light company, heavy thick feet in boots. A smile. Teeth. I drop something out of the cart in the supermarket to see who will pick it up. Sometimes a man. One had yellow short hair and called me ma’am. Young. Thin legs and an accent. One was older. Looked me in the eyes. Heavy, but not like me. My eyes are nice. I color the lids. In the pool it runs off in blue tears. When I come out my face is naked.
The lessons are over, I’m certified. A little certificate signed by the redhead. She says I can swim and I can. I’d do better with her body, thin calves hard as granite.