Watley explains contradictions in African-American identity


Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
The Rev. William D. Watley delivers Monday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

Racism in America has split the African-American identity in two. Kindness and reconciliation are the keys to mending that wound.

The Rev. William D. Watley was the first speaker in Week Three’s Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “Emancipation: Where Do We Go from Here?” He spoke at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy and his lecture was titled “Balanced Schizophrenia: A View into the African-American Soul.”

Watley is Chautauqua’s chaplain in residence for the second half of Week Three — taking over for his son, the Rev. Matthew L. Watley — and replaced previously announced lecturer Harold Holzer.

He began by reading an excerpt from a speech given by abolitionist Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852, in Rochester, N.Y.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” Watley read. “I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. ”

Douglass’ speech marked the hypocrisy in Americans celebrating the Fourth of July. In 1852, slavery was still in place; while some were celebrating American independence, others — not permitted to enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution — were suffering.

The speech was full of outrage, and Watley asked the audience to keep in mind the image of the impassioned Douglass delivering it. Then he described Douglass eight years later, when he was rallying men to fight against the South in the Civil War.

“See that same Frederick Douglass — with the same passion, eloquence and articulation of speech — calling his brethren to arms in Rochester so that they can engage in war to save the soul of the nation that he had blasted a few years earlier,” Watley said.

“That is the kind of schizophrenia that exists in the African-American soul: The reality, on the one hand, of inequality, but the recognition, on the other hand, that you are tied in with a nation whose destiny impacts yours,” Watley said.

He further explained the contradictions in African-American identity by referencing the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, who argued that African-Americans have to struggle with a “double-consciousness,” a state in which they have to wrestle between two contradictory  identities.

“One ever feels this ‘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,” Watley read.

The goal of the African-American, according to Du Bois, is to completely merge these two identities, to at once be a “negro” and an American without suffering discrimination or rebuke.

Watley believes that African-Americans and non-African-Americans need to know each other better to fully resolve the struggle between these two identities. And in order to know each other better, people need to be more transparent. Thus, Watley said, being transparent was what he was going to endeavor to do for this lecture.

“I take this risk today for the sake of the future; it is a chance and an opportunity to examine what is going on and the double consciousness and the constant warfare — even in these times — that grips the souls of those that we see, work with, live with and even worship with,” he said.

Watley grew up in a stable, predominantly African-American community. His peaceful world was first disturbed when he was 8 years old and saw African-Americans for the first time on the front page of the newspaper. When he asked his mother why they were there, she explained that the people were being arrested for protesting segregation during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

“That was the beginning of the piercing of a very secure but small world,” Watley said. “And once that world is shattered, then other realities become a part of who you are.”

The next story Watley told was about being turned away from a movie theater arcade. Before he could insert a nickel to play a pinball machine, someone told him it was broken. But as he was leaving, Watley saw that that person put in a nickel and begin to play. It wasn’t broken; he just wasn’t wanted there. After that incident, Watley began to struggle with what it meant to be an American if, at the same time, he was being treated unfairly for being black.

In this context, the election of President Barack Obama was more than just a political event, Watley said.

“The election and inauguration of President Obama came as close as we could visualize to what it must have been like for the early slaves when they heard that they were free because, as many of you know, that was an event that we never thought we would see happen,” Watley said.

The inauguration of Obama, though it was a victory, is not the end of the struggle, Watley said. The question that people have to ask themselves now is, “Where do we go from here?”

While Watley encouraged elders to share their wisdom with the next generation, he also offered a warning.

“At the same time, we have to be careful that what is in our past that is painful and prejudicial is not passed on to them,” Watley said.

Though he may have some prejudices against people of other races, Watley said, it is his responsibility to not pass them on to his grandchildren. Elders should respect the next generation’s right to choose the sorts of people with whom they will associate and even marry.

People should always behave decently toward others, he said  — even if unkindness or prejudice are the norms in the relationship between any given groups.

Watley noted he would sometimes find himself angry with the white people he saw in television shows. Then he would be angry with white people in general. However, what most brings him out of his rage, he said, is remembering that there are white people who are bridge-builders and peacemakers, such as his friend Joan Brown Campbell, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion.

“I think I read this somewhere,” Watley said. “ ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ ”