When We Believe What People Say About Us

 by Susan K. Smith

            In his book, James Baldwin: A Biography. author David Leeming writes, “Children believe what their parents tell them, and oppressed minorities constantly face the danger of believing the myths attached to them by their oppressors.” 

            Those words lead to his observations about James Baldwin and his revelations about his stepfather, who, Baldwin said, had an “intolerable bitterness of spirit,” and added that “his need to humiliate those closest to him was, in fact, a reflection of the hatred David Baldwin felt towards himself as a Black man.” Leeming quotes Baldwin as saying, “It had something to do with his blackness, I think, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful…and he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” (pp. 6-7) 

            I find myself wondering if Black children are believing what this culture says about them. I wonder if they believe that they cannot learn that they are less intelligent than white people, that they are prone to criminal behavior, and that they should just accept their “lesser status” that this culture and this world say is theirs. 

            It is a fact that we as humans lean into what people expect or do not expect of us. When Charlie, my son, was little, he attended integrated schools and was filled with the energy of a little boy. The teachers did not like it, and one of his teachers told me he was a problem and that they did not expect much from him. But when I told his father what the teacher had told me, he said, “No. That’s wrong. You tell them to expect as much or more from Charlie as they do from all those white kids. If they do not expect anything out of him, he will not give his best to them.”  

            I took the advice, and gradually, the reports from the teachers changed. Charlie was always wiggly and mischievous, but he was also brilliant. When I sought to put him in a private school, the head of the school said he had earned the highest score on the admission test of any student in the school’s history. And though he had a bout in the public school he attended instead of that private school with a science teacher who said he didn’t need to take chemistry because he would never need to use it- because he was not college material – he got past that and graduated from high school with honors and with an “A” in chemistry. 

            My daughter had a similar experience. She was in an advanced math class in middle school, and she wasn’t catching on for a while. The teacher called me in for a conference and suggested that I take her out of the class because she was not making it and said, “She’s like a deer in the headlights.” That sentence made my skin crawl, and I sharply told the teacher to leave her be – that she would be OK. “You keep expecting excellence out of her and she will give it,” I hissed, “and don’t you ever tell her what she cannot do.” And as was the case with my son, she began to soar in that class, so much so that the teacher called me in for another conference, and apologized for her lack of belief in my daughter as she marveled at how well she did in fact understand the math. She was one of the best students in the class. 

            Had my children internalized the opinions of those teachers, their life trajectories would have been far different. I always told them that they were “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that there wasn’t anything they could not do – and I also told them to never believe people who seemed to doubt them and their abilities. 

            But unfortunately, I didn’t live that way. I lived my life believing what people said about me, from my adoptive family to teachers in school, to those who celebrated the mistakes I have made in my life. I did not believe I was and am “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and, like David Baldwin, I have to wonder if my self-doubt, built on the basis of what people said about me, soured and caused “an intolerable bitterness of spirit.”  

            I wonder if we as Black people carry that same bitterness of spirit, as we try to make our way in and through a culture that does not believe in our inherent worth as people of God, and I wonder if we have, over the years, put far too much stock in what people who resent our very presence here have said about us. In spite of the low opinions and expectations, we have pushed through, but I wonder how damaged our spirits are. I think of the pictures I have seen of the lungs of smokers, ruined by the smoke and nicotine that people have depended on for comfort and solace, and I wonder if our spirits, damaged by the toxic smoke of white supremacy, look similarly as bad. 

            I know that there were plenty of our ancestors who refused to believe what the culture said about them. All oppressed people who have made great strides have had to ignore what they were hearing, and instead incline their ears to God and to parents who assured them that they were precious and powerful. In a day and time where much of traditional family life seems to be being negatively affected by a weakening of community for various reasons, the need is larger than ever before for us to shut our ears to what we hear about ourselves, and at the same time, feed our children messages of worth in order to equip them to fight the demons that want – and have always wanted – us all to believe their hype. 

            It is not true, nor will it ever be. 

            Amen and amen.