When I was growing up in the racially segregated 1950s, there was a very common saying among black Americans that I heard over and over again. The saying was this: "A black person will have to work twice as hard as a white person to get half as far."
I remember that when I first heard this from family members, it struck me as being unfair. But then I thought, "Who says life has to be fair?" So I did the math. If I had to work twice as hard to get half as far as my white contemporaries, then I'd have to work four times as hard to break even with them, and six times as hard to truly excel. That meant no days off. No vacations. No partying. Those were luxuries the people of an embattled, oppressed race could not afford. (I recall my late chairman of English at UW, Robert Heilman, once saying to me, "You're always relaxed but you never really relax." I had to laugh because he was right and had figured me out.)
Being a product of the 1950s, I took this "law" of black American life during the era of segregation to heart. (I recall reading an interview with Condoleezza Rice where she said she heard the exact same words from her family members.) So it had been, I knew, for all the black people I admired like Du Bois, the Tuskegee Airmen, and all my black predecessors in this country. So why should it be any different for me? The harshness of the black reality that gave rise to that formula softened in the 1960s, especially when policies supporting affirmation action were in place, but by that time the racial "law" that applied to being black in Jim Crow America had sunk into my DNA.
I remember when Dad and I were working together on something or doing any chore---like unloading items from a truck, for example---and we'd come to the last item that required our labor and sweat. A big smile would come across my father's face when he saw this final item; he'd take his cigar out of his mouth, and he'd say, "That's the one I was looking for."