to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply a the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people.
At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to be able to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans--lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession--either to come to terms with the necessity, or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once. The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that "the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men."
In this long battle, a battle by no means finished, the unforeseeable effects of which will be felt by many future generations, the white man's motive was protection of his identity; the black man was motivated by the need to establish an identity. And despite the terrorization which the Negro in America endured and endures sporadically until today, despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of his status in this country, the battle for his identity has long ago been won. He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him--the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the face that the challenge he represented was inescapable. He is perhaps the only black man in the world whose relationship to white men is more terrible, more subtle, and more meaningful than the relationship of bitter possessed to uncertain possessor. His survival depended, and his development depends, on his ability to turn his peculiar status in the Western world to his own advantage and, it may be, to the very great advantage of that world. It remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance and a voice.
The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally, without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, of the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one's own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one's strength.
It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.