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[Essay]

Lifting as We Climb

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My parents inculcated in me and my two siblings a particular sense of racial kinship: in our dealings with the white world, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as ambassadors of blackness. Our achievements would advance the race, and our failures would hinder it. The fulfillment of our racial obligations required that we speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners. In our household we felt tremendous pride in the attainments of blacks, and we took personally their disgrace. My father and mother loved to regale us with stories about the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph, Thurgood Marshall and Charles Drew, Paul Robeson and Mary McLeod Bethune. At the same time, when scandal ensnared a prominent black person, we all felt ashamed, diminished. We were also embarrassed when blacks with poor diction and sloppy comportment appeared on television. We were taught to look down on such people as “bad Negroes” whose antics further burdened “good Negroes” like us, and we suspected that whites in the news and entertainment industries preferred to publicize the former and ignore the latter.

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is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School. His review “Old Poison, New Battles” appeared in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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