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Sterling writes: "Time and again, the quest for knowing what it meant to be black in America provided unfortunate revelations, which became more evident when I was in school."

Jeffrey Sterling. (photo: AP)
Jeffrey Sterling. (photo: AP)

What Does It Mean to Be Black in America?

By Jeffrey Sterling, Reader Supported News

02 July 17


hen I am released from prison, I must see “I Am Not Your Negro,” Raoul Peck’s film about writer James Baldwin and his book that was never written. The film is the most recent entry in my “things to do when I’m free” list. The few reviews I had access to were enough to pique my interest in the film, and that interest became list-worthy after a friend sent me the book version of the film. The book moved me because it is filled with reflections of my own unwritten story. “I Am Not Your Negro” asks the question I have posed my entire life: What does it mean to be black in America?

When I was young, James Baldwin scared me. I happened upon some of his writings during my escapes to the public library; his words left me with an uncomfortable sense of who I was. He was frighteningly clear that America would see and judge me solely based on the color of my skin. I didn’t need anyone to tell me I was black. I knew it and the realization held more pride for me than angst. My challenge was to figure out what being black actually meant. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to believe what Baldwin was saying about being black in America; I didn’t want to accept it. I was reading about the same bleak meaning of being black that I was trying to escape from. I could not accept the recurrent, self-effacing sentiment I was hearing from blacks in my hometown that I, and every other black person, “... ain’t nuthin’ but a nigger and always gonna be so ‘cause the white man ain’t gonna let you be nuthin’ but a nigger.” What I saw and felt around me was that blacks were angry, fearful, and in some ways submitting to the burden of a particular understanding of being black in America. And this meaning wasn’t coming from the big cities or the Deep South that I wanted Baldwin’s America to be limited to; this was from small-town, heartland USA. That very real terror was what scared me. I resolved to turn that fear into determination. I was desperate to convince myself that I could be whatever I wanted to be and that I could find an identity that was mine and not thrust upon me because of the color of my skin. I had to forget about Baldwin and set out to find my own experience of being black in America. In Baldwin’s own defiant words, “I am not a nigger, I’m a man.”

However, time and again, the quest for knowing what it meant to be black in America provided unfortunate revelations, which became more evident when I was in school. For example, I remember feeling liberated when I reached the 7th grade because finally I was going to be able to select the classes I was interested in. I was so excited to choose more advanced English classes, hoping to delve deeper into writers like Shakespeare, Haley, and Dickens, or discover new voices. And yet, whatever outward excitement I exuded was short-lived. A few semesters were enough to put others on notice about me. I was confronted with questions, interrogations:

“Why you takin’ classes with them white folks?”

I neither had the opportunity nor experience to answer these questions before an answer was made for me: “Hmph ... that niggah ain’t nuthin’ but uh Oreo.”

Such were the questions and judgments I heard again and again during high school, college, and law school, and they weren’t limited to the suspicions of fellow classmates and observers. Even my beloved grandmother expressed wariness at who I thought I was in response to my excitement about being accepted into law school. “I thought it was okay you going off to college, but I don’t know about law school,” she told me. “I just think that’s above where colored folks ought to be.”

I was devastated and confused. While attempting to find my own identity, I was acting against the social identity expected of me. To my classmates and my grandmother, being black meant not being white, certainly not doing things viewed as typically white. There’s a still in “I Am Not Your Negro” from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” of Isabelle Sanford’s character looking at Sidney Poitier’s character with suspicion, almost rebuke, questioning what he’s doing in a place where he doesn’t belong. From the first time I saw that scene, I was haunted by the way Sanford looked at Poitier; this was the way I was being seen. Baldwin characterized the look by explaining blacks didn’t like the film and felt Poitier was “in effect, being used against them.” I felt a definite resentment, but I couldn’t understand it because from my standpoint, I was just being myself.

It didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t understand why having and pursuing my own interests was seen as a denial of my blackness. Blackness carries with it so many assumptions, so many burdens, and I wanted to refuse them all. Being black had to mean more than what I was seeing and experiencing. The angst was so debilitating, my only answer was to retreat into myself and my dreams with blinders on. I was not denying being black; I was refusing the burden of the meanings of being black that did not permit me to be what I wanted and knew myself to be.

Through the years, I revisited Baldwin. After the initial shock, I came to realize that there was something positive for me in what Baldwin was saying. I realized that he was speaking the language of race from and by those whose lives were defined and limited by it. By revealing America and its falsehoods of race, he was telling me that I was more than the obstacles that would confront me. This newfound encouragement in Baldwin would prove essential to withstand the burdens to come.

I was proud when I joined the CIA. I used to go around to the front of the building from the parking lots so I could proudly walk across the emblem in the main lobby instead of using the usual employee entrances. I had found my dream job and I was determined to succeed. I just knew that I was going to be accepted and treated equally, like any other employee. I, of course, felt that was the case until I was told it actually never was.

I was eager and excited when the time finally came for me to take a position abroad, out in the field. I completed my training as a case officer: I studied and learned a new language, and I proved my capability working on the Iran desk. I was within a few weeks of departure when I was called into my supervisor’s office.

“We’ve been thinking about your assignment.”

“Yeah? I’m just about set to go, is there more I need to be doing?”

“Well, we’re ... uh ... concerned. We’re worried that you kinda stick out as a big black guy speaking Farsi.”

I was dumbfounded: they were taking my assignment from me solely because I was black. The CIA, in no uncertain terms, was telling me what being black in America meant to them. Once again, I was “beyond where colored folks ought to be.” They were calling me a “nigger” just as, if not more than, those who didn’t feel I fit who I was supposed to be in their America. ‘‘No!” rang through my mind as I calmly asked, “When did you realize I was black?” “The decision’s already been made.” They gave my assignment to a white officer who did not have the operational experience, training, or qualifications that I had.

That experience was not the only instance of my being subjected to the CIA definition of black in America. My determination to succeed and not fall prey to racial prejudice carried me through years of subjugation, culminating in my suing the CIA for discrimination. Much to my dismay, a court ruled to dismiss my suit — not because the discrimination didn’t happen, but because such a trial posed a threat to the national security of the country. In dismissing my action against the CIA and denying me a fundamental right, in its decision, the court stated, “We recognize that our decision places, on behalf of the entire country, a burden on Sterling that he alone must bear.” The court was confirming, under the auspices of the law, the very real burden of what it means to be black in America not only for me, but for all black Americans.

I further understood the meaning of being black when I learned that fighting the CIA made me a persona non grata to the black leaders and civil rights organizations to whom I pleaded for assistance. Instead of receiving help, I was encouraged to leave the country. And then there was being a defendant in a trial that would have made Jim Crow proud. Now I sit in prison, which is to many the ultimate meaning of being black in America. And it is here that I have been reacquainted with James Baldwin. His words in “I Am Not Your Negro” embody my story all along. As much as I wanted to deny him, I have lived every bit of his pondering, “when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.” I have dared to ask the question, what does it mean to be black in America? I have learned that it is a question no one wants you to ask if the answer does not fit within the boundaries set by the myth of whiteness that taints the viewpoints of both black and white America. I have had to wonder whether choosing to ask the question is an answer unto itself. As Baldwin would say, it has been more of a journey: “I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.” Finding what it means to be black in America has been a wonderful and tortuous journey, but it was one I was always going to take.

Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA case officer, is currently serving a 3 1/2-year prison sentence for leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter. His forthcoming book will be published by Nation Books.

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+14 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2017-07-02 09:52
Thanks. This is a nice article. I'm white but I'm a great admirer of James Baldwin. His work scares me too, but also it inculcates a deep sympathy and identification with his characters. They are deeply human.

I look forward to the role Jeffrey takes up when he is out of prison. He's another hero of these times. Seems like so many of them have to spend time in prison for the stands they take.
+11 # chrisconnolly 2017-07-02 09:57
We whites are such cruel imbeciles to deny ourselves the full benefits of inclusion. So much talent, intelligence and decency are lost because so much ego is based on petty differences. I am embarrassed of my white heritage that so brutally discriminates against so many. Life is challenging enough without contrived barriers. I am heart broken at not being able to change what is horrid and ashamed everyday when I read how we belong to this culture that pulls the justice card out of the deck whenever the one in power feels not quite powerful enough. Hopefully someday soon we will recognize that humanity's diversity is our advantage.
+6 # John S. Browne 2017-07-02 10:53

No, though I don't at all agree with Jeffrey Sterling's desire to, and that he actually did, work for "al CIAduh(!)", he is NOT "currently serving a 3 1/2-year prison sentence for leaking classified information to a New York Times reporter"; he is ALLEGEDLY doing so for that which he only ALLEGEDLY did, and he is innocent of it. He is a patsy, a fall-guy, a convenient guy to take down for it, and the entire incident was also used as a very convenient way to "put the nigga in his place", his ALLEGED place, and "show him what happens when not only a nigga steps out of line, but what happens to anyone who 'steps out of line' and blows the whistle against the U.S. tyrannical and totalitarian government and "al CIAduh(!), and outs its extreme racism.

It amazes me that Sterling is still proud to have worked for "al CIAduh(!)", one of the most evil agencies on the face of the planet. It is a totally-FALSE pride, and it is due to brainwashing. But at least he appears to finally be waking up, at least to the federal government and "al CIAduh(!)'s racism; yet he needs to wake up ALL THE WAY and realize that working for evil of any kind(s) is NOT the way to go, AT ALL. He needs to realize that he was "blessed" to have been prevented from advancing in that evil, before he became more immersed in and brainwashed by it, and needs to come out of his brainwashing ENTIRELY, and completely face and accept that there is absolutely no glory in working for evil. Fully wake up, Man!

+7 # REDPILLED 2017-07-02 11:45
Also see 13th, another excellent film which complements "I Am Not Your Negro".
+6 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2017-07-02 14:35
RED -- thanks. I did not know about 13th. I watched the trailer and will see the film soon. It seems devastating. I did not know about the loophole in the 13 amendment that makes criminals slaves. So slavery is alive, well, and growing. Is this Amerikkka. Yes, it is.
+6 # wilding 2017-07-02 15:58
One of the saddest articles I have ever read. Richard Wright come back to life in a sense.
+9 # GDW 2017-07-02 16:02
It's shameful that race is a problem today. I was born in 1950 and lived through the Civil Rights movement. I am white and thought we had solved the problem of racism. It's more then sad that it still is a problem today in the 2000's. It's unAmerican
0 # elizabethblock 2017-07-02 21:45
“I just think that’s above where colored folks ought to be.”
It has occurred to me that Barack Obama, unlike most black Americans (including Jeffrey Sterling), is not a descendant of slaves, and that this is part of what made it possible for him to run for president and win.
As for GDW's comment - wishful thinking!
+2 # GDW 2017-07-03 11:03
I understand your comment elizabeth but wishful thinking is where change begins.

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