In “Strivings of the Negro People,” the seminal 1897 essay published in The Atlantic, the renowned writer W.E.B. DuBois succinctly captured the issue that’s haunted black America since before the ink dried on the Declaration: “How does it feel to be a problem?” These precise words were never spoken aloud, he explained. But they were implied every time a well-meaning white person praised an “excellent colored man” from his hometown, or went out of his way to mention his service in the Union Army. Addressing the hidden question, DuBois wrote:
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 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 keeps it from 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.
For black men in America, this question has changed only slightly. Though never directly posed to me, it is enunciated in the glinting smirk of approval when people learn of my academic and professional credentials. It comes through in the nod of surprise when they learn that my black father was biologically mine, married to my mother, and as present today as he was throughout my entire childhood. It’s coded in compliments like “articulate” and “well-mannered”—neither of which is truly praise for an adult. The descendant of the DuBois question now stands as this: “How does it feel to be the solution?”
If the late 19th-century problem was that black Americans—recently emancipated and fully unassimilated—were an ill fit for full citizenship in the nation they called home, the 20th-century solution was to allow the gifted among them to develop their talents and then teach the others how to properly comport themselves.