In 1964, in West Virginia a fourteen-year-old Henry Louis Gates Jr. broke his hip and went to a doctor who x-rayed his knee, which was also in pain. The doctor saw nothing wrong with his knee and deemed his pain psychosomatic. "He said that I had a nervous breakdown because I was an overachiever," Gates said. "He said colored people weren't supposed to do as well as I had done. I had been stressed out and there was nothing wrong with my knee. White guy thought I was imagining things. And that's why I walk with a cane and I've had a dozen operations since I was fourteen." Gates remains bitter about the whole thing. "I hope that motherfucker's burning in hell."
Duke Professor Wahneema Lubiano, who was introduced to me by a brilliant college professor as "one of the smartest people in America," internalized a racist comment and it shifted the course of her life. In the early seventies, in Pennsylvania, in high school, she took the National Merit Scholar's test and placed as a semifinalist. But when she went to the guidance counselor, he suggested she go to secretarial school. "And I believed it," she said. "I went home crying but I believed it." Lubiano ended up going to the University of Pittsburgh but she left after freshman year. "I dropped out, thinking, 'You're too stupid to do this,'" she said. "The damage had been done." She didn't return to college for ten years.
When she went back she went to Howard University and it changed her life. "I was surrounded by really smart black people who were pretty casual about it," she said. "It's not like you walked into a class and sat down and said, 'This is a miracle there are so many smart black people here.' No, you normalized it, it was routine. And in that way it was really nurturing because being smart was routine." For someone with tremendous mental capability and a self-esteem so fragile that it could be broken by a slight comment from a white man she respected, Howard was a life-saver. "By the time I finished with Howard I could go to grad school at Stanford because I was ready."
In the fall of 1960, in Greenville, South Carolina, an eighteen-year-old Jesse Jackson tried to use the public library. He was home from college and needed a certain book for a speech he had to give. "I went to the colored library," he told me. "Librarian said, 'I don't have that book but my friend at the Central Library does. I'll write you a note and I'll call her. She's my friend.' I ran about two and a half miles. I was so anxious to go because I had to read the book, write the speech, and memorize it. When I got there I went in the back of the library and two policemen were standing there talking with her. No doubt she told 'em I was coming.
"So I give her the note. Said, 'May I get the books?' She said, 'I'll have 'em in about six days.' I said, 'I need 'em so bad.' I knew not to ask to sit down. I said, 'Can I go down in the stacks to get them?' She said, 'Six days.' Policeman said, 'You heard what she said.' I went out the back of the library and I saw the sign said public library. I cried."