One day, while waiting for his mother to finish work at the American Embassy in Jakarta, Barack Obama was flipping through a stack of Life magazines when he came across a picture of a man in dark glasses and a raincoat, walking alone. Looking more closely, Obama noticed that the man’s skin had a “ghostly hue,” as if, he wrote in his memoir, “blood had been drawn from the flesh.” The man had gotten a chemical treatment in hopes of lightening his complexion.
Obama describes himself as seized by a novel fear—his stomach knotting, his face growing hot. He was already conscious of himself as black, but this was the first time he realized that his race could be seen as a bad thing, that maybe “something was wrong with me.” He was 9 years old—lucky, he wrote, to have had so many years “free from self-doubt,” and still certain of the love of his white mother. (Though the man’s subtlety is hinted at in the boy’s emotional caution: “By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines were back in their proper place.”)
For W. E. B. DuBois, both realizations—of his distinction and of its difference—came at once, “in the early days of rollicking boyhood,” when in a New England schoolhouse a white girl rejected a gift he had offered. “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness,” he wrote in these pages in 1897, “that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”