The Subtle Act of the “Code Switch”
Joel Leon.

What a fascinating essay, Joel. Thank you!

I’m just old enough to remember when one was taught, constantly, how to behave around white people, something like “code switching,” I guess. Some of that instruction was to keep you out of trouble, especially in public places where you weren’t known. But I believe some of that was for your betterment, if that’s not an objectionable word. I’m talking about the mid- to late 1960s, when integration really got going and suddenly there were opportunities where they’d never been. The older generations hadn’t yet radicalized their ideas of negritude. It was still considered important to be a “civilized” black person, and the personal attributes that defined that weren’t held to be exclusively white people’s attributes. They marked respectable people. And now that black people had a wide-scale chance at respectable jobs and schools and neighborhoods (or thought so), we were taught that it was our duty to seize that chance by perfecting the details of respectability.

Maybe it sounds deluded now, but that drive for respectability was quite interesting in its day, and much more widespread than you might think. Again, ideas about negritude were very different; it wasn’t held to be the core of identity, I believe, and certainly not the goal (to be the most “authentically” black you could be). I think the power in one’s sense of identity was held to come from one’s dignity and bearing, the presentation of intelligent, even urbane personality, self-controlled and purposeful (think of Martin Luther King in those suits and fedoras). It was an achievement to be able to present oneself that way in the majority culture. You never “switched” entirely back to an undiluted blackness. That desire to more than hold your own in the stakes of dignity became a big part of your public self.

But then, in those days, the lines between public and private were clearer and more diligently observed.

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